How to Know If You Are Living Sustainably



Sustainability is a powerful concept, one developed over the past thirty or more years.  In the 1980s, sustainable agriculture was the term adopted for an alternative to the industrial agriculture of the post-World War II era.  UMaine’s excellent Sustainable Agriculture program was born in this time out of the vision of Frank Eggert and the leadership of Wally Dunham.  Sustainable development was a broader concept for dealing with the twin problems of global poverty and environmental stress.  Sustainable development was the intellectual core of the United Nation’s World Commission on Environment and Development, the so-called Bundtland Commission.

The 21st Century saw the evolution of these ideas into an emerging discipline called sustainability science.  The Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS) now has a section dedicated to Sustainability Science and another academic journal, Sustainability Science, is focused on the subject.  Here too with sustainability science, UMaine is a leader with its George J. Mitchell Center for Sustainability Solutions.

Powerful ideas can also cause problems (for example, see my blog post on “renewable” energy), and sustainability is no exception.  Arguing for sustainability is easy; determining exactly what that might mean is challenging.  It has become fashionable for organizations – governments, businesses, charities, etc.—to assert their commitment to sustainability.  It is in vogue to appoint a chief sustainability officer in large corporations.  And most significantly, we are all urged in various ways to live more sustainably.

How do we know if an organization’s policy on sustainability is meaningful or just greenwashing, the claim of environmental commitment without any real change in behavior?  This same question applies to us in our personal lives as well.  If we put out a recycling bin once a week or drive an electric car, are we doing our bit for sustainability?  Or are we just fooling ourselves (and trying to fool our neighbors) that we really care about all this sustainability stuff?  As my good friend and sustainability researcher Tim Waring says, we need a theory of sustainability to judge what behaviors are sustainable.  The best place to start figuring out such a theory is in our personal lives.

How do we know if we are living sustainably?

There is broad agreement in the vast academic literature on this subject that achieving sustainability for humanity and our planet entails at least three things:

  • Taking care of the needs of those people alive in the present
  • While leaving the planet so that people in the future can take care of their needs
  • And preserving the natural systems on the planet that we and the future rely upon

If we accept this as a starting place, there is a simple way to answer the question about the sustainability of our lives.  We are living sustainably if the other 7 billion people on the planet could live in the manner we do, if then there would be enough left over for the 8-9 billion people who will be living on the planet in the future to live the same way, and if the effect of all these lives would not do irreparable damage to nature.  The way to think about this is to ask yourself a simple question:  What would happen if over seven billion humans were do live as you and I do in Maine?

To make this concrete, put this question into the context of climate change and personal carbon dioxide emissions.  The average American emits more than 20 tons of carbon dioxide each year from their food, shelter, transportation, and other consumption.  Is this sustainable?  A group of scientists at Princeton University tackled this question by calculating the most carbon dioxide that could be emitted and not irreparably damage the global climate system.  They made several key assumptions that are consistent with the definition of sustainability:

  • We should reduce global emissions so that the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is reduced to 350 parts per million
  • This reduction in emissions would stabilize the global climate
  • Each of the 7 billion humans on the planet would get some access to fossil fuels, including the over 1 billion humans living on less than $2 per day and now have virtually no fossil fuel consumption

Using these assumptions and some very careful research, they concluded that the most any one person should emit is nine tons of carbon dioxide a year, about half of what the average American currently emits.  Any more than that and we are not living sustainably.

The first step in sustainable living is knowing our individual impacts.  This is particularly easy to do with global climate change because we know the primary cause is carbon dioxide emissions.  Those emissions all come back to lifestyle choices that each and every one of us makes.  If you are curious whether you are closer to the U.S. average or the sustainable level of carbon dioxide emissions, I have a tool you can use to estimate your household’s emission levels.

Sustainability beyond greenwashing is living in such a way that the rest of humanity could enjoy the same quality of life we do, now and into the future.  The challenge is figuring out what that way of living means for us.


Mark W. Anderson

About Mark W. Anderson

I am proud to be a Mainer, born in Caribou and schooled at Brewer High School, Bowdoin College, and the University of Maine. I am grateful for a 35 year career at UMaine, the last decade in the School of Economics.