How do we know what’s sustainable and what isn’t? How can we get people to work together to protect and enhance our shared environment over the long term? What do we mean by “sustainability” anyway?

These were some of the questions the United Nations’ Brundtland Commission considered back in the 1980s before defining sustainability as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

This definition focuses our attention on the consequences of our actions and allows us to measure our sustainability scientifically.

In this column, I invite you to consider how you’re meeting your own needs and what measurable impact your choices have on the ability of younger people to meet their needs. For example, you need energy. Are you burning fossil fuel for energy? If so, our posterity will have less coal, petroleum, or natural gas to use and more pollution to manage. What would happen instead if you invest in solar panels for your home or business? Then our posterity will enjoy more solar power and suffer less pollution. Your energy choices today directly affect the quality of life for future generations.

Solar modules that are 1 square meter in size can generate between 25,500 and 33,000 kilowatt hours (kWh) of electricity over their 30-year useful lives and then be recycled into new modules again and again. Until recent years, discussions of solar power mostly involved science and engineering questions, which can be resolved by taking measurements, using math, and evaluating results rationally. For example, data shows that manufacturing requires about 600 kWh per square meter of solar, so the “energy payback” is less than a year.

We can use solar modules to generate electricity to make more solar modules. We can vote for tax, incentive and tariff policies to set the price of solar and determine the “financial payback,” influencing how quickly or slowly we want the solar market to grow.


But as solar power began threatening financial profits from burning coal, petroleum, and fossil gas, people with investments at risk have politicized solar conversations and attacked science as a method to make wise decisions that benefit everyone. The coal industry is fighting for its life, so it’s not surprising that coal investors losing money and coal workers losing jobs may not accept the science showing which energy sources really are best for our planet.

In the past 20 years, coal power as a share of electricity generation in the United States has plummeted from 51% to just 16.2%. 2023 saw installations of 33 billion watts (GW) of solar power in America and 216.9 GW in China, while only 69.5 GW of new coal power was built in the entire world — and 21.1 GW was retired. Coal is crashing, and solar is soaring.

We can evaluate the sustainability of our own energy choices by measuring three things: first, how much fuel we burn; second, how much electricity we use; and third, how our electricity is generated. Thanks to advances in technology, including heat pumps, induction stoves, electric vehicles, and battery-powered tools and equipment, it’s possible today to have a comfortable and affordable lifestyle that is 100% electrified. Not only that, but we can generate our electricity from fuel-free renewable sources like solar, wind, and water. We can save coal, petroleum, and fossil gas for making steel, pharmaceuticals, and other valuable materials rather than burning these finite fossil resources.

By thinking about future generations as we consider how to meet our own needs, and then actually measuring our own impacts, we can turn sustainability from an empty buzzword into a meaningful practice. The choices we make to meet our needs for food, water, goods, energy, habitat, movement, and community will either save our planet so future generations can enjoy their lives fully or spend our planet so our posterity will be forced to make compromises to compensate for the resources we’ve destroyed and the messes we’ve left for them to clean up.

Fred Horch is principal adviser of Sustainable Practice. To receive expert action guides to help your household and organizations become superbly sustainable, visit SustainablePractice.Life and subscribe to “One Step This Week.”

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