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Sustainability is not just about the environment

From social sustainability to environmental sustainability in 10 minutes

We hear about sustainability and sustainable lifestyle every day, at the grocery store, in advertisements, on the news, in the metro, and even while walking the dog, but do we really know what it means or involves? Most of the time it is associated with the idea of being greener, and with the word eco, as eco-sustainable. However, sustainability doesn’t refer only to the environment, and being sustainable doesn’t only mean wasting less and recycling more -even though they are part of the solution to be more sustainable!-. Let’s see together what sustainability means and what it refers to. 

What we will cover

Nitemus - 4 type of sustainability icon (Social sustainability, Human sustainability, Economic sustainability, Environmental sustainability)

Sustainability meaning:  

Sustainability seems to be something innovative, however, it was used for the first time in literacy in the first decade of 1700 by the German Hans Carl Von Carlowitz, who used the word Nachhaltende Nutzung (sustainable use) in his work Sylvicultura Oeconomica. However, even though the concept is old, the English word “sustainability” per sé was first introduced in the Oxford dictionary only in the late second half of the 20th century. Now, that the roots of the word are broadly explained, let’s see what sustainability means.  
Following the definition given by Ehrenfeld in 2009, sustainability is defined as “The possibility that humans and other forms of life will flourish on earth forever”.   

Therefore, being sustainable gives the possibility for humans and other living forms to develop and keep living on Earth. The keywords here are (1) development, (2) human, (3) environment; when talking about “development” the first thing that comes into mind is the economic aspect, meanwhile, when we think about the word “human” it is possible to subdivide it in “human” and “social”, as they are interconnected. Last but not least, “Environment” which is frequently used and most of the time is also the first -and only- concept that people usually connect with the idea of being sustainable.  
These word concepts are going to form the four pillars of sustainability, which are  

  1. social sustainability,  
  2. human sustainability,  
  3. economic sustainability, and  
  4. environmental sustainability. 
Nitemus - Sustainability 4 pillars (Social sustainability, Human sustainability, Economic sustainability, Environmental sustainability)

Sustainability is not just about the environment: 

As introduced above, sustainability covers a wide range of areas, therefore, talking only about eco-sustainability is really reductive. Let’s check together the four aspects and pillars of sustainability. 

Social sustainability:   

The main point here is to preserve the social capital, which covers the community, the culture, and the social quality of a place. Social capital is investments and services that create the basic framework for society. It also covers the bigger concepts of equality and human rights.   

Human sustainability:   

Even though the name can trick you to think that human and social sustainability are the same, they are not. Human sustainability refers to the ability to maintain and improve the human capital in society. Human capital is a private good of individuals instead of between individuals or societies, and human capital needs are covered by investments in nutrition, health, and education, being human sustainable in business means giving importance to anyone that is directly or indirectly connected to the production chain.  

Economic sustainability:   

It is about maintaining the economic capital intact. Economic capital usually refers to companies and the capital they need in order to survive the risk taken during the business and to keep the business up. When this concept is applied globally the economic capital can be seen as the capital that each one of us needs to survive and live. Maintaining the economic capital intact means that the money used during one month is not coming from it and as a consequence, it would improve the standards of living because economic sustainability would consume the value-added (interests) and not the actual capital.  

Environments sustainability:   

For sure this pillar is the most known, this, in fact, is what people call or refer to as eco-sustainable. But what does it really mean? It refers to the ability to maintain the natural capital which consists of water, land, air, minerals, ecosystem services, and source of raw materials. Broadly, environmental sustainability is attained when the population’s needs are met without risking the need of future generations and without causing any harm in the present or in the future.   

Because of their nature, the four pillars are mutually dependent and cannot exist without each other.   

After understanding the four different kinds of sustainability it is possible to introduce the idea of a sustainable city and sustainable development, which are a direct consequence of being or working towards sustainability.   

Sustainable cities and smart cities:  

If I had to ask you how you think sustainability might have a direct impact on your daily life, would you ever think of connected cities? Or does it still feel so futuristic or too near a novel? It isn’t, it is modern and of the moment, and a lot of cities are developing in order to be more sustainable and they are doing it using technology. A city is considered sustainable when it implements all four pillars in its structure, it can be possible by architectural changes, the use of IoT (Internet of Things), the creation of new infrastructures, or by remodeling the already existing one, increasing a living wage the minimum wage, investing in schools, universities, and hospitals. 

Great steps toward sustainable cities are given by the introduction of IoT systems, which, thanks to technology and internet development, are becoming more and more common. The importance of IoTs systems is given by its capacity to provide an enormous amount of data (Big Data) that can be used to improve the life of people, in fact using IoTs systems saves time, effort, cost, and energy. Those systems are created in order to make life easier and healthier, by being mostly wireless they can be used widely in many areas, among the various use there is the possibility to:  

  • have the air pollution continuously checked,    
  • crop the fields only when the soil is too dry,   
  • manage traffic,  
  • keep citizens safe through the facial recognition system,  
  • manage electricity and water,  
  • manage trash collection. 

While IoTs systems are a good step forward for a more sustainable city, there are also many aspects of it that are considered not safe in regard to private and public security and safety. 

While a fully sustainable city has not yet been formed there are many cities that implemented some IoTs systems in order to step toward a more sustainable planet and an easier life, among them, there are Madrid, Dubai, and Singapore. Cities that use IoTs systems in order to control city operations and optimize the usage of limited resources are called smart cities. 

Nitemus - Singapore's Garden by Annie Spratt
Singapore’s Gardens by the Bay – solar pannel, recycle of rainwater, biomass plant uses horticultural waste to produce heat and energy, temperature regulation system

Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs):  

When talking about sustainable development, there is a great definition given by the Brundtland Report from 1987 which writes “Sustainable development is a development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. In order to achieve sustainable development, in 2015, the United Nations adopted the “2030 Agenda for sustainable development”, which is “a plan of action for people, planet and prosperity. It also seeks to strengthen universal peace in larger freedom” ( In order to do so, 17 goals and 169 targets were established, this set of goals is known as SDGs.

Nitemus - Sustainable Development Goals - SDGs chart

The SDGs goals can be subdivided into 5 key areas, which are: 

  1. People  
  2. Planet  
  3. Peace  
  4. Prosperity  
  5. Partnership  

In order to reach sustainable development, it is necessary that all goals are reached, and in order to reach those goals 169 targets have been determined. Those targets are all linked to each other and each has an indicator to determine when the target is reached.

This wind of change is also highlighted by the fact that the United Nations joined together to create a more sustainable future, thus demonstrating the great importance of understanding why sustainability matters.

Why sustainability matters:  

Sustainability is important because it is about our planet and the existence of us humans. As the Earth has been here longer not being sustainable will not make the Earth in sé disappear, however, humans and other living creatures are at huge risk. Two of the biggest changes we are going through in this period are climate change and the extinction of animals.  

Climate change has been proclaimed for many years by scientists, however, only in the last few years, it has become widely known as an imminent problem, even though many still don’t believe in it -how is it possible?-. Global temperature has been rising enormously, in fact,  from 1850-1900 to 2020 the temperature average increase is 1.07 C° which has drastic consequences on the sea levels, Arctic ice, weather, and on us humans through droughts, floods, and other weather events. The prospect idealized for the maximum increase of global temperature, before being catastrophic, should not be over 1.5°C, however, it has been predicted that it might reach even an increase of 2°C in the next few decades. Two years ago was published the AR6 Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis (can be downloaded here), reported all the changes in climate that happened until 2020. The report is very important in order to actually understand the climate situation we are living in now, which is considered risky and without the possibility of going back. The main problem is that the increasing warmth of the planet is much faster than before and at much higher rates than before. As a consequence of increased temperature, there is an increase in ocean temperature, melting of Arctic ice, extreme heatwaves, heavy precipitation, droughts, and tropical cyclones, which are obviously disrupting the ecosystem of the planet. 

Nitemus - Mountain on fire by Matt Palmer

While animal extinction has been going on forever -remember the dinosaurs?-, it is important to consider that in 2020 the extinction rate has considerably accelerated bringing an unprecedented decline as reported by the report Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). For the first time, more than 145 experts, have determined the main five drivers for change, which are:  

  • changes in land and sea usage
  • direct exploitation of organisms  
  • climate change  
  • pollution  
  • invasive alien species  

In the report, it was also suggested that in the next future over 1.000.000 animal and plant species are possibly going to be extinct, which has never happened before. Displaying once again, the drastic changes which are happening to the planet because of us humans. 
This is why, sustainability is becoming essential for assuring a future for humanity.  

Nitemus - Graphic from Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (2019), chapter 2.2 status and trends - nature, pg. 228
Graphic from Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (2019), chapter 2.2 status and trends - nature, pg. 228

 Why sustainability is the future:  

If you are wondering if sustainability can be achieved that’s a big question mark. Ideally, the answer is yes, however – and is a big however- there are many aspects that should be taken into consideration. As said above, there are four pillars to follow for being sustainable and 17 goals to reach with 169 targets to solve in order to be able to say that we are living sustainably and that we are going through sustainable development. It is hard. And actions must be taken now in order to have the hope of having more time to reach the goals and to be sustainable. It has to be remembered that, even though we had a degression on problems that might seem more environment-related (climate change and animal extinction), they are directly connected also with society and the economy. And as humans are living in societies through the economy and thanks to the environment it would be foolish to think that nothing would have an impact on us. This is why it is always necessary to consider the social value, the economic values, and the environmental repercussion of our actions.  

What sustainability means overall:  

To conclude I would like to remember that while being sustainable should be our target, sustainability is a journey, not a destination. We should always try to be as sustainable as possible in all our actions, sometimes we don’t know how to do, what to do, or what we should not be doing, and sometimes we feel we are powerless, but we should remember that we are living in the best historical moment to either make a difference or ask for a difference. Having the possibilities that we have nowadays, not working or demanding for a future, is being selfish for future generations.  

Welcome to Nitemus Blog, I will always try to give you the most important and updated information that you should know. In the next few blog post, more detailed information will be given, for now, let me know what sustainability means to you personally.   

Thank you!

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