Sustainability and Equity

What is sustainability?

The Oxford dictionary defines sustainability as “the ability to be maintained at a certain rate or level.” From the UN World Commission on Environment and Development’s perspective, sustainability focuses on meeting the needs of the present without compromising the needs of the future. Most perspectives get at the heart of the same idea: there are finite resources, and we need to have practices that promise stability and well-being for future generations, especially in regard to the environment.

We believe sustainability means striving for and building a better, more equitable world - starting at Central Michigan University and its surrounding communities. Sustainability should be a tool for tackling global issues and a solution that ensures a just and environmentally sound planet.

The most pressing issues we face today are incredibly complex and deeply interconnected; environmental issues have societal impacts and vice versa. The lack of proper action can fuel social inequalities, economic disparities, and environmental degradation. When groups of people are targeted, environmental and social destruction increases. These are the faults of a system that undermines the value of life and permits unsustainable practices, creating a vicious cycle of exploitation, cruelty, and violence.

It’s not a coincidence that Central Sustainability is sourced out of the Office for Institutional Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. That’s because sustainability cannot be achieved without greater social awareness and cultural understanding. We need to support and develop resilient local efforts, inclusive institutions and services, and effective reforms that connect us in meaningful ways to people from different backgrounds and perspectives.
 
In addition to implementing policies that benefit the holistic environment, we must advocate for actions that empower disenfranchised communities and ensure justice for all. This diversity in experience and interaction makes all of our efforts more sustainable, even our efforts toward sustainability.

Indigenous Peoples

We cannot discuss sustainability and equity without acknowledging the presence of indigenous peoples and their important role in sustainability and conservation. Throughout the world, there are approximately 370 million indigenous peoples, who represent as many as 5,000 different indigenous cultures.

At least a quarter of the world’s land area is owned, managed, used or occupied by indigenous peoples and local communities. Although nature degradation is slower in these areas, the effects of climate and ecosystem change has a direct impact on local livelihoods and cultural preservation. Lack of self-determination and autonomy; land rights in law, but not in reality; extractive industries; and the implementation gap all pose challenges to indigenous communities and simultaneously exacerbate the threats of climate change, perpetuating environmental stressors, extreme poverty, and social inequalities.

The UN Sustainable Development Goals address global challenges, including those related to poverty, inequality, climate change, environmental degradation, peace, and justice. All 17 SDGs are set to be achieved by 2030, but cannot be accomplished without the inclusion and empowerment of indigenous peoples. Likewise, the Green Climate Fund adopted an Indigenous Peoples Policy to ensure that indigenous people are included in climate change mitigation decision-making and that GCF activities are implemented in a way that fosters respect, promotion, and safeguarding of indigenous peoples.

At CMU, we regularly partner with our neighbors, the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe of Michigan, including on a recent project involving composting at the Andahwod Elder Care Center on the reservation. Beyond specific projects, an aerial photo of Isabella County shows that the greenest and most preserved land can be found on the reservation. As we work to enhance restorative agriculture, incorporate wind power, and develop sustainable practices locally, we must continue to partner with indigenous people that have intimately known our region for longer than any other community present today.

Environmental Racism and Environmental Justice
According to Greenaction for Health and Environmental Justice, environmental racism is the “disproportionate impact of environmental hazards on people of color” as a result of institutional neglect and/or lack of institutional power among communities. 

Environmental racism refers to “institutional rules, regulations, policies or government and/or corporate decisions that deliberately target certain communities for locally undesirable land uses and lax enforcement of zoning and environmental laws, resulting in communities being disproportionately exposed to toxic and hazardous waste based upon race.“ 

Environmental Justice is a movement that recognizes the link between economic, environmental, and health issues. It promotes sustainability, making sure that communities and their natural environments are clean and safe without the presence of environmental inequities. Environmental Justice is supported by “decent paying and secure jobs; quality schools and recreation; decent housing and adequate health care; democratic decision-making; and finally, personal empowerment.”

If you’re interested in learning about environmental racism and Environmental Justice, you can read more below: