What Is Sustainability?

“Sustainable” is a term applied to everything from toilet paper to buildings to community development plans. It’s a buzz word that’s used, and often overused, by industry, media and even the environmental community to oversimplify complex problems. Polls have shown that people aren’t sure whether it means healthy or natural or something entirely different. But no matter what the sustainability conversation is about one thing is almost always missing: impacts on other species.

Whether people are talking about “sustainable agriculture” or “sustainable development,” the discussion is typically limited to whether there are enough resources for human beings — enough food to feed ourselves or enough space for the lifestyles we want. The Center for Biological Diversity believes that sustainability has to be about more than just what we can take from the environment and from other species. It has to be about sharing the planet and creating a livable future for all of us inhabiting the Earth.


The Lange's metalmark butterfly is just one species that unsustainable development and human population growth is driving extinct (video by Amy Harwood).


That’s why in 2013 the Center expanded our population program to encompass overconsumption and sustainability. These issues are intricately tied to the impact of human population growth on endangered species and the health of our planet. With more than 7.5 billion people living here — and another 227,000 added every day — our demands for land, water, food and fossil fuels, paired with our immense amounts of waste and pollution, are driving climate changes and pushing other species to extinction.

The Center is bringing animals, plants and the health of our planet back into the sustainability conversation. We’re taking on the systems in the United States (primarily the livestock and energy industries) that cause the most environmental damage and asking people to “choose wild” — to live in a way that allows wildlife and wild lands to thrive. Together we can stop the rampant overconsumption that threatens the future of other species as well as our own.

Population vs. Sustainability — What’s to Blame?

The U.S. is the third-most populated country in the world, and our population grows by another person every 15 seconds. That’s why, in 2009, the Center started a campaign to curb runaway population growth as part of our mission to save imperiled species. But compounding the problem is the fact that the United States is responsible for a disproportionate amount of greenhouse gas emissions, pollution, consumption and waste. If everyone in the world lived the way Americans do today, it would take more than four Earths to sustain the planet.

Population and sustainability are part of the same equation, adding up to the single-largest threat to biodiversity: human impact. If we all reduce our environmental footprint without addressing human population growth, our sheer numbers will continue to push other species out. If we slow population growth without getting rampant overconsumption under control, the planet will continue to be stripped of the resources needed by other species — and us — to thrive.

Rather than continuing to debate whether population growth or overconsumption is more to blame for today’s environmental challenges, we need to address both. Polar bears, panthers, sea turtles and thousands of other species being pushed to the brink of extinction every day depend on it.

consumption around the globe

Check out this infographic to learn more about consumption around the globe.


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How Can We Live More Sustainably? Choose Wild.

Every day, we make choices in our lives that affect the environment, the climate and wildlife. From what we eat to how many children we decide to have, there’s a lot we can do to “choose wild” and reduce our environmental footprint to leave more room for wild animals and plants. Here are a few ideas to get you started:

  • Drive less, drive green. Changing your driving habits can dramatically reduce your carbon footprint. Walk, bike, carpool or use public transportation whenever possible. Combine errands to make fewer trips. Participate in, or start, car-free days in your community. It’s also important to keep your car in shape with regular tune-ups and tire inflations. Tune-ups can increase your fuel efficiency by 4 percent to 40 percent, and if every American kept her or his tires inflated, gas use nationwide would decrease by 2 percent.
  • Ditch the plastic. Plastic never goes away. Today billions of pounds of plastic can be found in swirling convergences making up about 40 percent of the world’s ocean surfaces. Every year thousands of seabirds, sea turtles, seals and other marine mammals are killed after ingesting plastic or getting tangled up in it. You can start cutting down on your plastic waste in a few simple steps: always bring reusable bags when you shop, ditch one-time-use water bottles, and avoid products made from or packaged in plastic whenever possible (e.g. select unwrapped produce at the grocery store, shop local, cut down on online shopping).
  • Choose renewable energy. Kicking the fossil fuel habit is critical to saving wildlife, slowing climate change and protecting our lands and waters. If your state allows you to pick your electricity supplier, use a Green-e certified company that generates at least half its power from wind, solar and other clean sources. Also explore the options — and tax credits — for installing rooftop solar panels or solar water heating in your home. Depending on your productivity, you can even add clean power to the grid, further offsetting your carbon footprint.
  • Take extinction off your plate. Meat production is one of the most environmentally destructive industries on the planet, responsible for massive amounts of water use, pollution, greenhouse gas emissions and habitat destruction. You have three chances a day to improve the health of the planet — by reducing your meat consumption you can reduce your environmental footprint. Eating locally sourced fruits and vegetables also lowers the amount of fossil fuel used to transport food over long distances.

Find more ways to choose wild with our list of 12 Ways to Live More Sustainably (click here to download a printable version of our sustainable living tips factsheet).

To submit your own tips, contact us on Facebook or send us a tweet @ChooseWild.

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Contact: Stephanie Feldstein

Photo Credits: Banner photo courtesy Anja Jonsson/Flickr; Rearview mirror courtesy Alaskan Dude/Flickr; Local tomatoes courtesy Le Grande Farmer's Market/Flickr.