Sustainability is one of those words that seems to have appeared overnight and is suddenly everywhere in our popular conscience, from car commercials to advertisements for laundry soap to political promises and mantras for personal wellness. How can so many different people use the same word to describe all sorts of things? What does sustainability mean anyway?

Scientific American has just published a really great list of their Top 10 Myths About Sustainability to help us all sort these questions out. Here, for Science Buzz readers, is a quick summary:

Myth 1: Nobody knows what sustainability really means

Scientific American points out that the 1987 Brundtland commission report gave a definition for sustainable development that still works today. It amounts to what every second grade teacher already told you, "Don't take more than your share." Despite lots of different specific uses for the term "sustainability," most people mean pretty much this same thing.

Myth 2: Sustainability is all about the environment

Actually, the conversation about sustainability really began with an effort to find ways to raise the standard of living in poor nations to something comparable to what we experience in most parts of the US and other wealthier countries. Because that standard of living is tied directly to the environment, it makes sense that the sustainability movement would grow out of these interwoven conversations.

Myth 3: “Sustainable” is a synonym for “green.”

When people use the term "green" they often mean it as the opposite of "artificial" - a position that has served environmental activists well in the past. But sustainability as a concept requires that we consider technologies that may fall outside of the traditional dichotomies of natural / artificial, for example, nuclear energy or electric cars.

Myth 4: It’s all about recycling

The article reminds us that while recycling is important, it is just one piece of the puzzle.

Myth 5: Sustainability is too expensive

This myth is the one I've heard the most, and according to Scientific American, it contains at least a grain of truth. It costs money up front to retrofit existing buildings and systems, but in the long run, sustainability will save money.

Myth 6: Sustainability means lowering our standard of living

We will need to learn to do more with less, but in terms of resources, not innovation.

Myth 7: Consumer choices and grassroots activism, not government intervention, offer the fastest, most efficient routes to sustainability

The most efficient route to sustainability will most likely involve a mix of these different strategies. Scientific American points to some recent developments in the auto industry as evidence of what happens when we get this wrong.

Myth 8: New technology is always the answer

During his political campaign, President Obama mentioned the energy savings that could be gained by properly inflating car tires. For this he was ridiculed by his opponents in the Republican Party. But he was actually right. There are solutions that do not require fancy new technologies. Conservation and more efficient use of existing technologies can go a long way toward sustainability goals.

Myth 9: Sustainability is ultimately a population problem

While all environmental problems are in some way a "population problem" the solution is more complex than this myth suggests. According to the article, it makes the most sense to focus on using resources wisely.

Myth 10: Once you understand the concept, living sustainably is a breeze to figure out

Even if we know what it means, sustainable practices require a complete analysis of costs and benefits over time. The article points to the example of corn-based ethanol, which at first might seem like the answer to our oil addiction, but upon closer examination has plenty of environmental and social impacts of its own.

The lesson here seems to be that while sustainability is simple in concept ("don't take more than your share") it isn't easy to enact the changes needed to be sustainable, as individuals or as a collective society. BUT, I would add one last myth to the list,

Myth 11: Sustainability is too difficult to understand, and will be even harder to realize

Nothing is too difficult to understand, but lots of things are hard to realize, especially if you sit around complaining about how hard and difficult it is instead of trying to understand and act. History shows us that we can meet HUGE challenges if we put our individual and collective efforts behind making changes. There was a time when something as far-fetched as flying to the moon may have seemed too difficult and hard (so why bother?). But people put their heads together and eventually figured it out.

Now it's our turn.

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