There is a lot of talk about ‘sustainability’ in these uncertain times. But what do we actually mean when that term is thrown around? For some it is a lofty but attainable goal but for many it has been over used to the point of being ‘mindless green wash.’ For others it is a valuable marketing rally cry. As with all things a term like this can mean different things to different people, with different purposes.
There is no agreement on a single definition of sustainability. The Oxford dictionary states that sustainability is “the ability to be maintained at a certain rate or level. And the avoidance of the depletion of natural resources in order to maintain an ecological balance.”
These statements embody what comes to mind for most of us when we hear this word, but this is only part of the story. One aspect of this term that is recognized is that there are three dimensions of sustainability – environmental, economic and social. These ideas do conjure images of lofty ideals. The singular thought that environment and economic concerns could ever be in harmony on a global scale mystifies and dumbfounds me given the current state of denial and obvious signs of pressure we are putting on our planet. However, there are also signs that we as a species are beginning to wake up, realise our power and push for action.
So, in our world of healing, gardens, clinics, plants and people what does this word mean?
There is much concern for certain plants that are unable to be cultivated and are disappearing in the wild due to over harvest. The ecological impact of losing plant species is a significant problem for our medicine, health and the ecosystems that depend on these plants.
The widespread use of pesticides and other harmful chemicals in farming and in the home garden is another huge issue relevant to many of us. Other often-overlooked areas are who makes and supplies our soils, potting mixes, mulches and fertilisers? Are seeds treated or irradiated? The plants we buy from nurseries may have started their young lives bathed in chemicals to prevent pests, fungus and mites as well as being force fed fertilizer to speed their growth as most are grown on an industrial scale.
Being aware of all of these issues means that we can make conscious choices around who and where we buy from and how we raise and use our plants. Educating ourselves and in turn our clients, families and friends can have a meaningful effect. There are even benefits for our businesses in knowing that we are not perpetuating these cycles. It is here that the environmental, economic and social aspects of sustainability really come to the fore.
In all of this, it is also still important to remember the small, simple acts of switching off lights, using less paper, being electricity conscious and water wise in our daily lives. These small gestures all add up and our collective impact can be great.
As I begin my journey into making and growing medicines, sustainability is all these things and so much more. Foremost, sustainability is thinking. Being switched on and in the moment, consciously aware that decisions you make can help, even a tiny bit. It is researching local plant species, finding out about weeds and endangered plants, following best practice in irrigation, fertilising and pest management, using medicines that were created with these same standards in mind. Making decisions and doing things mindfully, not because these are the easy and common responses, but because you know that while using safer methods, practices and products is harder work the payoff is far reaching for your local environment.
Being sustainable and a caretaker of my local area means walking around the soccer field with my green waste bin and filling it with fireweed before it flowers, going for a walk on the beach with a bag to collect rubbish and volunteering in our local community garden so that sustainability messages can be passed on to those who are like-minded in our community.
In the context of healing and natural earth medicine sustainability means working to make our gardens full and productive ecosystems, remembering that when any plant is harvested or collected to take only a small amount and share some of the abundance with local wildlife in a respectful and mindful manner. Aligning ourselves with suppliers who make and supply medicines following these principles, and supplying these medicines and products to clients in a way that upholds these ideas. Encouraging them to think about reuse and recycling at the products end user stage.
So while these definitions of sustainability seem prescriptive and somewhat focused it is possible to apply sustainability to all areas of our lives in creative and innovative ways.
Remember foremost, sustainability is thinking.
It is all too easy to become depressed and negative and feel that one person can’t possibly have an impact. In those moments we need to step back and consider the bigger picture, the wider angle. Just like in water, it is not the splash that carries the motion but the ripples that go out after the fact, that create momentum, movement and change. Inventing some personal and creative ways to express sustainability in your life, work, hobbies, practices and families is a powerful tool to make an impact, heal our planet and reconnect with a heritage of closeness to the earth. Remember the three dimensions of sustainability - environment, economic and social. They don’t quite seem so at odds when looking at things from a wider perspective. Perhaps all three can be managed and held in balance?