Define sustainability and sustainable development. What is a sustainable society?
A sustainable society is one in which the basic needs - land, food, housing, and energy - of the community are met and the environment is maintained and husbanded to preserve resources for future generations. Although, strictly speaking, education is not usually considered as part of sustainability, I am inclined to include that in the mix, too, since today, an uneducated populace is not going to manage to do this very well. This a complex endeavor, made more complex in many ways by today's global economy, which, for instance, encourages the destruction of rain forests, so people can buy nice furniture. We should all be concerned, not only about sustainability for ourselves, but also for the sustainability of all communities. Ideally, there would continue to be planning at an international level to create sustainable communities everywhere as there has been with the U.N. Millenium Project and the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). It has been difficult, in today's political climate, to have a national vision and national policy with means for national implementation.
Planning for sustainable community is to some degree possible at a local level. This requires a serious effort on the part of that community and political impact to make progress. In my neighborhood, we have an organization that concerns itself with sustainability, lobbying the city on a number of issues. They support the exclusion of large chain retailers and see to it that trees are preserved and more are planted, promote the purchase of local produce and encourage home gardening, act as a powerful force to maintain the quality of neighborhood schools, and organize cleanup efforts in the community.
Zoning is probably one of the most important means of creating sustainability in a community. A municipality that allows unregulated growth is going to create an unsustainable environment because the demands on infrastructure and resources will be difficult to meet. I have noticed that municipalities of many of the barrier islands off the coast of the United States have, over the years, awakened to this means of ensuring that growth is carefully controlled. Many have also begun to address environmental concerns, such as the preservation of dunes. You cannot practice sustainability after your island erodes to nothing.
On a state level, there is some control over natural resources. For example, in Pennsylvania, the extraction of natural gas from the Marcellus shale formation is the subject of controversy right now because of the tension between using our natural resources and not contaminating the environment. How strictly this industry is regulated has great implications for sustainability, not only in terms of the natural environment, but also in terms of growth in the areas that are being exploited. More people mean more demands on infrastructure and natural resources in addition to environmental harm that might result.
If we had a more extensive national policy on sustainability that were implemented, the federal government could regulate, from a central perspective, in a way that would foster controlled growth, a more rational consumption of energy, a less politicized regulation of the environment, and a reasonable allocation of resources for infrastructure. Such a policy might also encourage better family planning, since this is an area that is also of consideration for sustainability.