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December 17, 2015 | A Critical Look at Sustainability

When I walked into the Climate Generations Area at COP21, I was in awe. Water bottles refill stations were widely accessible, power outlets were charged by bicycles, and much of the building was constructed out of renewable materials. The building truly felt like I was peering into the future — one that I would be extremely proud to live in.

So, I’ll pose this question to you: What do you think of when you hear the word “sustainability?” If you’re anything like me, maybe you will think of recycling, composting, or forks and spoons made entirely from recycled materials. Maybe you’ll even think of my favorite sustainable practice: bringing a reusable mug to Starbucks. While we should be proud of all these things, the truth is sustainability is not that simple. While sustainability may mean one thing at COP21 in Paris or your college campus, it may mean something entirely different elsewhere. Is acting in a sustainable manner simply a first world luxury?

Then, what does sustainability mean in places where people are tied more closely to their land? What does sustainability mean for indigenous people around the world? How is sustainability practiced in poor communities where the closest Starbucks or recycling center is tens of miles away? Let’s explore a little bit of what sustainability means outside of this conference.

During COP21, I attended a panel that explored two cases of impoverished communities where engaging in sustainable practices were simply seen as a first world luxury. In Haiti, a country that the international community is undoubtedly familiar with due to the 2010 earthquake, deforestation is a major issue threatening the nation’s natural environment. Let’s look at an aerial photo of the Haitian forests:


Photo Credit | NASA

In Haiti’s rural communities, fuel and firewood remain the number one resource utilized for cooking and warming homes. As such, communities are often required to enter the forests and harvest both timber and charcoal to sell in order to support their families. The problem here is impoverished, rural Haitian communities are depleting the forests for lumber at a rate that is beyond regeneration.

So why is poverty such a huge issue when it comes to sustainability around the world?

Although it is easy to talk about composting or sustainable forest management, poor communities do not always have the luxury to bring these conservations into practice. Poor communities around the world simply need to address their immediate survival needs, now.

Let’s put this back into a first world context: If you didn’t have the money to buy a reusable Starbucks mug or buy LEED-certified lighting in your home, then how would you take the first step to lead a sustainable lifestyle?

Okay — so forests, mangroves, and other natural environments are disappearing at a rapid rate throughout the world. Possibly, the best solution to this issue is more complex than the issues we face in first world societies. So, when you think about the key issues of the COP21 agreements to be an agreement on 1.5 or 2 degrees, lower levels of carbon emissions, or wildlife conservation, think of the rest of the world. While these are key issues that were being discussed, the issue of environmental sustainability is much more complex than we may think.

 

Eric Beeler is one of Conergy's Future Solar Leaders. Eric is a sophomore studying International Affairs and Chinese at the George Washington University in Washington, D.C.