large windfarm on a hill

What is good sustainability?

Sustainability…. good luck with that one. The ‘cake and eat it’ formal definition is near impossible given a planet full of humans. We have a slightly different take — solve FED and sustainability is possible…

Sustainability is in the FED logo so we see it as important for feeding everyone well. 

Actually, we don’t like the word that much. At least not in its greenwash, ‘cake and eat it’ context that we so often see bandied around.

Sustainability is supposed to be about ‘meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs’ typically under the three pillars of profit, planet and people.

But this definition of sustainability is impossible for humans. As a highly successful species, we use resources both natural and man-made all the time.

Currently, overshoot day is sometime in August meaning we need to go for nearly half a year overconsuming renewable resources. Our success is made on the back of ancient energy (fossil fuels) and technologies to harness ever more natural resources.

Then again…

Food production and diet delivered as they must be through ecology and nature’s services will need to persist at the equivalent of 22 trillion kilocalories per day for at least another 100 years. 

Feeding everyone sounds very much like a sustainability challenge. A huge need that must be met.

A quick google search on ‘sustainability’ reveals the most commonly associated contexts are 

  • What sustainability means
  • Why is sustainability important
  • Can sustainability be profitable
  • Where to start with sustainability

At Sustainably FED we think of sustainability as an ideal, a virtuous if unlikely goal. But even if it may not be possible it is the best paradigm humanity has to feed everyone for another 100 years. 

Multiple land use can help sustainability. Photo by Mark König on Unsplash

What is good sustainability? 

Any single action might, on its own, be sustainable. Always take a reusable mug to the coffee shop. But this does not mean that the supply of expertly roasted coffee beans, milk or the power to run the espresso machine is sustainable.

Good sustainability needs to be more inclusive than the personal feel-good factor of taking a reusable mug to the coffee shop.

It has to include the resource base, the production system, and the human choices that allow the coffee shop to exist.

When it comes to feeding everyone ‘good sustainably’ for FED is… moving towards food, ecology and diet where humanity lives off the interest of natural capital rather than disrupting nature’s services that are eroded by our success.

sustainably FED

This is a process of continuous improvement rather than a goal or a target set from the comfort of air-conditioned offices. 

It may not even be possible for humanity to become truly sustainable, but trying hard to achieve sustainability is essential for a healthy and safe future.

The sustainability challenge…

…for the individual

The first steps as individuals might be to change light bulbs, consider diet choices, install solar panels and take a reusable mug to the coffee shop. Maybe even have a chat about sustainability with fellow caffeine connoisseurs.

It will also make a difference if personal investments are made with sustainability in mind, along with big purchases and life choices. Individuals can push up into societal systems to create pressure for change. 

Equally important for individuals is to move beyond the rhetoric of sustainability to reality and not get bogged down in the bad news cycle that seems to be everywhere. Of course, there are bad things happening that are destroying resources rather than using them wisely but every small step away from such actions is a win.

Learn to consume evidence on what is truly sustainable to make better-informed choices about consumption and lifestyle.

…for society

The first step is a collective will, a need to all be on the same page that sustainability is not just for PR machines but is actually a desired state for whole economies. This is not easy and cannot happen overnight but every move matters.

Practically this will mean alternative energy sources, more efficient agriculture including water use, and less pressure on food supply chains to deliver profit over nutrition.

A critical part of the collective challenge is to ensure there is a reliable and robust evidence base that delivers general agreement as to what sustainable actions must happen. 

Evidence is especially important in the small steps forward that are needed — the more efficient jet fuel aircraft as a transition to a solar or hydrogen-powered airliner — and the goal-setting that can take everyone on the journey.

What sustainably FED suggests…

Meeting the needs of the present without compromising future generations” is about the food that we eat because we have to eat and there are now so many of us. This requires much smarter use of natural resources than the current conversion of natural capital into food commodities for profit.

One of the smarts will be to think of resources together rather than in isolation. A wheat crop might be profitable and be water efficient but if the production system mines the soil carbon it is not sustainable. 

We need to use the available science and evidence even as we add to the mountain of human knowledge. In short, get much better at evaluation of natural capital.

Healthy food for everyone, when there are already 7.7 billion souls and their companion animals, will need amazing ideas from everyone. This is a prod for adult discussion on sustainability that must be had everywhere.

We put sustainability at the front of FED to remind us that living within means is the only way to feed everyone and keep them safe.

Sustainably FED newsletter and posts provide a start and pointers to many ideas.

If this concept of sustainability grabs you, browse around the sustainable FED site for more information and ideas on food production, ecology and diet.

sustainably FED

Hero image modified from photo by Kai Gradert on Unsplash


Charlie keeps quiet about his extensive economics, modelling and IT skills but can’t help sharing his knowledge of applied ecology and agriculture. He can be the quiet one but watch out when he lobs another truth bomb into the discussion to stop us all wandering off into the weeds. There is always surfing if the audience is cantankerous.

Add comment

Subscribe to our explainer series

* indicates required

Most discussed