What does it mean to be sustainable? When applied to the environment, sustainability refers to a state in which the strain put on the environment can be met without reducing its capacity to allow all people to live well into a future state. The economic definition is similar, referring to the ability to support a long-term steady level of continuous economic. In both models, the key takeaway is in an ongoing steady state. Both the environmental and economic definitions are impacted by the fact that resources are not infinite. In the United States, we often attend more to usage than to the resources that support that usage. If the whole world adopted the consumption levels of the United States, we would need four additional planets to keep up with the resource demand. However, if we all subsisted at India’s level, we would not even use half of the available resources.
In a recent interview, UN Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs Wu Hongbo stated, “The way it is currently, with consumption and production, and with the ever-increasing population, the planet’s resources will not sustain unless something is done to change the way we treat our planet.” One often shared example of overconsumption is the Brazilian Amazon.
In the 1980s, the Brazilian government started a colonization program to send its citizens into the rainforest to stake land claims and ranch or farm. This was done in part to boost production and overall wealth, but also as a means to keep its citizens happy in a time of turmoil in South America. As a result, huge portions of the Amazon’s bounty were burned away in the name of cattle grazing and settling. The rate at which the Amazon was being depleted skyrocketed, and an economic system based in rapid deforestation was created. This system, however, is not Today, because of this colonization program, the Brazilian government still has many question marks on property rights, making widespread preservation and afforestation efforts difficult.
Most people who receive a loan from a micro-finance institution do so because they have little to no access to other forms of capital. They have few assets, little credit history, and sometimes little work history because of the depressed nature of their communities. Without micro-finance options, these industrious men and women may only have access to capital through loan sharks who can charge up to 20% per day. Micro-finance institutions aim not just to provide a “stop-gap” but a step up to a more reliable source of income that expands the individual’s ability to create ongoing change for themselves, their family, and their community. That’s why the local representatives of the micro-finance institutions are vitally important in ensuring that the recipients of funds have a plan, are industrious and motivated to create that change in the short- and long-term. When those industrious individuals are supported, there is a move towards sustainability, again, not just for the individual assisted, but for their entire inner circle.
On all fronts, sustainability is the key to prosperity, whether economically or environmentally. As outlined by the UN Sustainable Development goals, sustainability focuses on long term projects like the eradication of hunger and poverty, reduced inequalities, and climate action. These targets, although gigantic undertakings, are not out of reach if foundations to combat these issues are laid early and added to often. Progress is always gradual, and change has to be created little by little, brick by brick, micro-loan by micro-loan.