Can We Live Sustainably?

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Is there such a thing as sustainable development?

In our every deliberation, we must consider the impact of our decisions on the seventh generation.
From the Great Law of the Iroquois Confederacy.

What is sustainability?

The 1987 Brundtland Report defined development as sustainable if it "[s] the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."1

Whose needs must be met? Among how many are we sharing?

World population:         1830                 1 billion humans
                                 1925                 2 billion
                                 1974                 4 billion
                                 1999                 6 billion
                                 2040                 9-10 billion (projected)

Isn't it a matter of justice?

Currently, an average American uses roughly 5 times the "sustainable share" of our planet's resources in his/her lifetime (an affluent American uses 10 times more). While the "ecological footprint" of a person in India is less than 2 acres, the "footprint" of an average American is 242. What does that mean when 5.8 million others aspire to our lifestyle? To calculate your own footprint, see /footprint/



According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, the choices we have, as consumers, that have the most significant impact in terms of sustainability, are3 :

  • The location, size, and design of the house in which we live(largely determines our patterns of consumption of energy, material goods, and transportation).
  • What we drive or don't drive (determines fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions).
  • What we eat and where it comes from (has a direct impact on use of energy [production and transportation of our food], land, water, pesticides and herbicides, and antibiotics [fed to and injected into livestock and fowl])

As individuals in a faith community, a neighborhood, and as U.S. citizens, we can also make a difference by speaking up and/or taking action where choices effecting sustainability and justice are at stake.

(these apply to individual households as well)

The source and amount of energy the building uses:

  • Renewable energy - Do you know whether your congregation or community has switched to a 100% renewable electricity supplier? The PA interfaith Climate Change Campaign can help congregations. For information, call Joy Bergey at 215-836-5978, or
  • Energy Audits - ICE (Interfaith Coalition on Energy) can perform low cost audits that can identify ways to save money and energy. Contact Andy Rudin (215-635-1122)
  • Energy efficient appliances: - for example, if your refrigerator is more than 10 years old, it is using more than double the energy of a new Energy Star model. See
  • The food that is served : - Do the people planning meals make an effort to:
  • Obtain produce grown locally to reduce fuel used for transport?
  • Purchase meat and poultry that is humanely raised and slaughtered?
  • Offer a vegetarian and - even better - a vegan option at every meal?
  • The supplies and materials purchased - Are the products being purchased for office, kitchen, restroom, and janitorial needs the least damaging and most sustainable possible? See
  • Changing our human/Earth relationship - Become aware of faith-based groups working to raise consciousness on this critical issue, e.g., Quaker Earthcare Witness at
  • The designation of a contact person for your congregation or community : If you are willing to serve as a point of contact, groups working on these issues would welcome the opportunity to send announcements and alerts for you to share with your larger community. See contact info below.


What government policies are we supporting? (By speaking up through letters, postcards, or phone calls to your elected federal and state representatives, you can support legislation that encourages just and sustainable practices or protest legislation that does not).

Here are some groups that I rely on for alerts on when to write or call about state and national issues:

And if you carry a concern about earth issues, Quaker Earthcare Witness would like to know about you and your interests. Please email

 Some examples of how individual choices add up:

  • One gallon of gasoline, cleanly burned, combines with oxygen in the air to produce almost 20 lbs of C02. A car that averages 20 mpg, emits 1 lb of C02 for every mile driven. At 10,000 miles/year it emits 5 tons of C02.
  • "If every US household replaced just one roll of 1000 sheet virgin fiber bathroom tissue with 100% recycled [80% post consumer], we could save: 469,000 trees, 1.2 cubic feet of landfill space (= 1700 full garbage trucks), 169 million gallons of water (=1 year's supply for 1300 families of four)." Label on 7th Generation bath tissue.
  • To produce 1 lb of beef takes 2000 gallons of H20; to produce 1 lb of potatoes takes 24 gallons of H20. Pimental, D. et al, "Water Resources in Food and Energy Production," BIOSCIENCE 32:861-67 (1982)
  1. UN World Commission on Environment and Development met in 1987. The report from the conference, which met in Norway is known as the Brundtland Report, for Norway's head of state.
  2. Our Ecological Footprint, Mathis Wackernagel, & William Rees, New Society Publishers, 1996.
  3. Brower, Michael and Warren Leon. Consumer's Guide to Effective Environmental Choices: Practical Advice from the Union of Concerned Scientists. New York, NY: Three Rivers Press, 1999.292 pp. US $15.00 paper ISBN: 0-609-80281-X.

Prepared, December 2002 by Hollister Knowlton, Member Chestnut Hill Friends Meeting; PYM Environmental Working Group; Quaker Earthcare Witness. Questions? call 215-247-0718 or email