What does sustainability mean? Is it composting your vegetable scraps and yard waste, and capturing rain water? Is it community-based action on policies dealing with land and water use? Is it educating our children about ecology and the connectedness of all flora and fauna in our biosphere? Is it bringing together religious leaders, scientists, nonprofit organizations, business leaders, educators, students and the public on a discussion of sustainability? On April 23 and 24, the 8th Annual International BioEthics Forum on Sustainability did just that, hosting a diverse group of people from many different perspectives to answer the question “what does sustainability mean?”
The answer I gleaned from the sessions I attended was sustainability encompassed our individual behavior, our society’s behavior, our instruction of our children and our conversations with individuals, communities and business about the limits inherent in our ecosystem. Dr. Calvin DeWitt, a physiological ecologist at University of Wisconsin-Madison, talked about the biosphere. He described how each component satisfies not only its own needs but those of the larger system of which it is part. For example, a frog catches insects to feed itself but as a consequence is also controlling the insect population, decreasing damage to leaves of nearby plants. What the frog excretes also adds to the fertility of the surrounding area, improving plant vitality.
For the discussion panel “What difference can an individual make? Ecology from the heart…”, the panelists discussed how their individual experiences affected their view of the world and they in turn influenced others. Marilyn Sigman talked about her special trips to nature as a child and her passion for the natural world and now shows children the wonders of Alaskan wildlife. Michael Strigel, who deals with Wisconsin land trusts as the Executive Director of Gathering Waters, talked about accepting where you are in your journey to sustainability, reaching toward where you want to be and charting the course to get there. Jaimie Cloud, who brings sustainable education to schools and inspires students to think about their relationship to the world, discussed how one high school student in Vermont took her passion for reducing dependence on heating oil by starting the Vermont Sustainable Heating Initiative to convert home heating to pellet stoves using local renewable fuels.
When discussing “The sustainable case for business”, Jim Armstrong spoke about how the number of products labeled “green” is growing exponentially and that the sales of green products are increasing despite a higher price and a poorer economy. Through his work with his marketing communications company, he helps businesses find their cause, to answer the question “why do we exist?” By understanding its cause, a company may see itself on a course for good, improving people and the planet. Peter Tan, an architectural designer, talked about sustainability as a journey and learning that we are not consumers but rather stewards. He showed examples of new and repurposed buildings that he and his company have designed, discussing how it was not about having the most energy-efficient building that could be made but rather doing the best for that structure in that neighborhood and talking with all the stakeholders to address everyone’s needs.
The BioEthics Forum on Sustainability showcased a multitude of perspectives on what sustainability means. The topics were engaging, and both presenters and attendees were deeply involved in defining sustainability. Work continues for individuals, communities, organizations and businesses to take that next sustainable step forward so we all can enjoy the beautiful biosphere of which we are an integral part.