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What is Environmental Sustainability? Goals with Examples 

Students working in the field on environmental sustainability practices

Every year across the world, on April 22, Earth Day is a time to bring people together to focus on a common goal: sustainability. According to the Earth Day site, 2022’s theme is “Invest in Our Planet.” The nonprofit’s hope is to shine awareness on environmental sustainability and to unite businesses, governments and citizens to create “a partnership for the planet,” according to the official site.

Some organizations put environmental sustainability at the forefront every day – not just Earth Day. For instance, institutions like Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) have created an Office of Sustainability to help empower their students, staff and faculty to create a sustainable organization and culture.

What is the Meaning of Environmental Sustainability?

The United Nations (UN) defines sustainability simply as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

“I like this definition,” said Mike Weinstein, director of sustainability at SNHU. “It asks us to consider two things; first, what are ‘needs?’ And secondly, what is life beyond ourselves?”.

Weinstein describes “needs” as clean water, healthy food and stable housing and points out that billions of people still lack access to some combination of those needs. According to Water, a global nonprofit organization, about one in 10 people, or 771 million people, do not have access to safe water (Water PDF Source).

When looking at life beyond the present, it becomes clear that environmental sustainability involves a level of selflessness to ensure that the people of the future are also being considered.

Why is Environmental Sustainability Important?

Environmental sustainability is important to preserve resources like clean air, water and wildlife for future generations.

Another important sustainability definition that Weinstein likes is: “Ensuring that human society operates with ecological borders.” This definition is known as the planetary boundary (PB) concept. It was introduced in 2009 to define where humans can operate safely within the environment's constraints, according to Science, an online research organization. It’s important to understand that humans do have boundaries, and it’s important to understand where those are to maintain sustainability.

Although, most of the world is very disconnected from the basic functioning of the planet and it’s easy to lose sight of essential factors, according to Weinstein. For example, humans are members of Earth and live in the same spaces as the rest of the living beings on the planet. “Our current economic activity ignores these boundaries,” Weinstein said.

One thing is clear: environmental sustainability is vital because human survival depends on it.

What Can You Do?

Mike Weinstein with the text Mike WeinsteinYou can install solar panels, use an electric car, ride a bike or use other practices that minimize your economic footprint. Still, these can be costly, often more so than non-sustainable solutions, Weinstein said. While expense doesn’t rule out those practices, there are other solutions you can pursue as well.

You can also focus on pressuring large systems to change. Weinstein said that SNHU has an Office of Sustainability because SNHU President Paul LeBlanc and the university’s Board of Trustees and senior leadership understand that it is the right thing to do—and, because SNHU’s staff, faculty and students expressed interest in a university-wide commitment.

Across college campuses, there is a public outcry for change. 92% of college students agreed that their institutions should incorporate and promote sustainable development, according to Students Organizing for Sustainability (SOS) International (SOS PDF Source).

SNHU can bring principles of sustainability to its community because it is uniquely positioned by its global reach with students and faculty located on campus and around the world, said Weinstein.

How Do You Achieve Environmental Sustainability?

Environmental regulations come from organizations like the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The EPA has congressional authority to write rules that lead to the implementation of laws.

According to the EPA, these regulations are mandatory and can apply to:

  • Businesses
  • Individuals
  • Nonprofit institutions
  • State or local governments

These regulations create accountability, but they need to be both strict and strictly enforced, Weinstein said, if they are to succeed in creating environmental sustainability. The challenge is, he said, that the EPA is backlogged, and our current public infrastructures are failing to create accountability. It may feel frustrating, but there are ways everyone can begin to make a difference.

So, how can you help achieve sustainability? The UN offers 17 goals for sustainable development that act as the path to achieving a more sustainable future. These goals address global challenges like:

  • Clean water and sanitation: Such as learning to avoid wasting water
  • Climate action: Acting now to stop global warming
  • Life below water: Avoiding the use of plastic bags to keep the oceans clean
  • Life on land: Planting trees to help protect the environment
  • Responsible consumption and production: Recycling items such as paper, plastic, glass and aluminum
  • Sustainable cities and communities: Biking, walking or using public transportation

Sustainability goes beyond nature itself. “We have to simultaneously recognize that oppressed communities are more severely impacted by environmental degradation,” Weinstein said. You can’t truly achieve sustainability, he said, until everyone has safe, healthy and happy communities that operate with future generations in mind.

Examples of Sustainability at SNHU

SNHU’s Environmental Sustainability Strategic Plan has four primary areas of focus (PDF Source):

  • Academics: Creating a positive environment with opportunities for all learners to become engaged with sustainability.
  • Community engagement: Fostering a culture of sustainability at all levels and being recognized within local communities.
  • Operations: The work behind the scenes, where processes such as carbon neutrality are followed through to ensure day-to-day operations are supporting sustainability.
  • Planning and administration: Organizing and maintaining goals while being transparent on progress. Tools such as the Office of Sustainability and the Environmental Sustainable Strategic Plan are instrumental in conducting planning and administration.

There are many ways you can continue to expand your sustainability knowledge and efforts, including pursuing a degree in environmental science.  

What Can You Do with an Environmental Science Degree?

Environmental scientists are people who look after and care for the planet. Pursuing a degree in environmental science can give you a foundation in both natural and physical sciences. You may engage in frontline work, such as identifying and addressing areas of environmental degradation like pollution and biodiversity loss, Weinstein said.

There are other educational options you can pursue, such as a geoscience degree which focuses more on the physical sciences such as geology, geography, physics, chemistry and more.

Another choice is an MBA program with a concentration in sustainability and environmental compliance. This will give you the opportunity to learn about green business practices and applying solutions to sustainability challenges. An MBA like that can be beneficial in an array of workplaces including various organizations, nonprofits and private companies.

Is Sustainability a Good Career?

A career in sustainability could be meaningful if you are interested in bringing people together to create a better future. Sustainability may be a good career choice because jobs are growing in demand, said Weinstein.

A few career paths you could pursue are:

  • Environmental scientist: Typically requiring a bachelor’s degree, environmental scientists use their knowledge to protect the environment and human health, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Environmental scientists and specialists earned median pay of $73,230 in 2020, and BLS reports the those jobs are expected to grow by 8% through 2030.
  • Geoscientist: Using their knowledge of physical science to learn about earth, geoscientists need a bachelor’s degree, according to BLS. Although, for some positions employers may prefer a master’s. BLS reports that geoscientists earned median pay of $93,580 in 2020, and those jobs are expected to grow by 7% through 2030.
  • Engineer: There are many types of engineering – some of which are focused on the environment. Environmental engineers combine engineering, biology and chemistry to develop environmental solutions, according to BLS, and most will need a bachelor’s for this position. BLS reports environmental engineers earned median pay of $92,120 in 2020, and those jobs are expected to grow by 4% through 2030.

The sustainability field casts a wide net and requires knowledge from many different sectors, said Weinstein. This leads to a variety of ways that you can contribute to the field.

Regardless of education level or career, there are many ways that you can make a difference in environmental sustainability, starting today.

Discover more about SNHU’s environmental science degree: Find out what courses you’ll take, skills you’ll learn and how to request information about the program.

Nicholas Patterson is a writer at Southern New Hampshire University. Connect with him on LinkedIn.

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About Southern New Hampshire University

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SNHU is a nonprofit, institutionally accredited university with a mission to make high-quality education more accessible and affordable for everyone.

Founded in 1932, and online since 1995, we’ve helped countless students reach their goals with flexible, career-focused programs. Our 300-acre campus in Manchester, NH is home to over 3,000 students, and we serve over 135,000 students online. Visit our about SNHU page to learn more about our mission, accreditations, leadership team, national recognitions and awards.