University at Albany

What is Sustainability?

Sustainability has been most commonly defined as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (Brundtland 1987). This outlines a broad scope that encompasses such items as environmental awareness, energy conservation, waste reduction, social awareness and equality, healthy eating and active lifestyle choices.

Milton Friedman, the Nobel Prize economist, reminds us of how interconnected we are on Earth, often without realizing it by detailing the resources needed to make a pencil.

“Nobody knows how to make a pencil. There's not a single person in the world who actually knows how to make a pencil.  In order to make a pencil, you have to get wood for the barrel. In order to get wood, you have to have logging. You have to have somebody who can manufacture saws. No single person knows how to do all that.  What's called lead isn't lead. It's graphite. It comes from some mines in South America. In order to make pencils, you'd have to be able to get the lead. The rubber at the tip isn't really rubber, but it used to be. It comes from Malaysia, although the rubber tree is not native to Malaysia. It was imported into Malaysia by some English botanists”
“So, in order to make a pencil, you would have to be able to do all of these things. There are probably thousands of people who have cooperated together to make this pencil. Somehow or other, the people in South America who dug out the graphite cooperated with the people in Malaysia who tapped the rubber trees, cooperated with, maybe, people in Oregon who cut down the trees. These thousands of people don't know one another. They speak different languages. They come from different religions.”

Friedman used this parable to promote the existence and mechanisms of the free market.  However, it shows us how something we all use connects us to people all over the world as well as to our natural resources.