More than 20 years after the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, several myths remain around the concept of sustainability, says Texas A&M Transportation Institute environment and air quality division head Dr Joe Zietsman.
The first is that sustainability is a “fuzzy concept” that cannot be defined.
Zietsman says it is indeed difficult to find one common definition for sustainability relevant to all situations and contexts, but that it can be defined for a specific context or situation.
“The first thing to do is to ask yourself what sustainability means to you in your context, and to then set a number of goals you would need to achieve in order to reach that level of sustainability.”
The second myth is that sustainability is focused on the environment only.
Zietsman says environmentalists form a “very vocal lobby”, but emphasises that sustainability centres around economic and social development, as well as environmental issues.
Myth three is that “we have always been doing it [sustainable practices] anyway” – a popular argument in the business world especially.
However, believes Zietsman, cities, people or corporates have most likely, in saying that, been focusing on certain elements of sustainability, such as the environment, but probably not on all of them.
Myth four is that sustainability is the preserve of rich countries and people. However, sustainability programmes can be found in countries such as India and Ethiopia, which are certainly not wealthy nations.
Myth five is that chasing sustainability as a business principle is a money-losing endeavour.
Zietsman says this is simply not true, as sustainability is, for one, a sound business principle that can generate positive PR, and which should secure new business for most companies.
Sound sustainability practices could also save companies money, such as on their fuel bill, as they seek to reduce their carbon footprint, for example.
The new green economy is also a powerful institution, adds Zietsman. The US renewable-energy sector has, for example, created many new jobs.
The sixth myth around sustainability is that it is merely the “flavour of the month”, that will one day fade into obscurity.
“It is not going to go away,” warns Zietsman. “In fact, it is continuing to grow.”
When summarising the current situation, he adds that there is today, in 2013, “still more talk than do”, globally and in South Africa, as people tend to believe “things around sustainability that are not true”.
“If we think differently, then maybe we can move forward faster. Sustainability is here to stay. We can do things in a much smarter way. We need a new appreciation for sustainability,” says Zietsman.
He says the easiest gains in the field of sustainability lie in spending the same existing budget, but in a manner that takes communities, the environment and the economy into account.
“The most difficult thing, however, it to change people’s behaviour. To get people out of their cars and into public transport, for example.”
*Joe Zietsman spoke at the Southern African Transport Conference, held Pretoria, earlier in July.