Home > Knowledge Features > Environmental Sustainability

Environmental Sustainability


Better management of the environment and wise investments in sustainable development are critical weapons in the battle against many of the world’s most serious diseases, and essential interventions to ensuring health for all— Dr. Margaret Chan, Health and Environment: Managing the Linkages for Sustainable Development.

To mark its centennial in 2008, the Canadian Nurses Association (CNA) developed a series of environmental health papers to help nurses further their knowledge of the linkages between environment and health and understand their personal role in addressing climate change and ‘greening’ the health-care system. While these documents remain current and starkly relevant today, a tragic series of extreme weather events and natural disasters, within a few short years, and the emergence or re-emergence of disease threats have provided harsh reminders of the critical relation between human health and environmental conditions as well as the human, social and economic costs of ignoring it.

This module seeks to build on the timely information provided in earlier CNA documents and to explore why it is increasingly critical that nurses be aware and concerned about environmental issues, and literate about sustainability and sustainable development in our society and world. As CNA’s 2008 Code of Ethics for Registered Nurses outlines, nursing practice and values epitomize an “ethic of care” deeply rooted in social justice; the commitment to safely nurture patients to health and wellness in the context of fair access and equity of treatment.

“Sustainability” literacy underpins this sense of responsible action and respect, not only for oneself and others such as professionals and clients, but also towards the earth. As nurses, we have a long history of advocacy, of giving a voice to the powerless and of providing the best possible care, all of which naturally extends to the planet and its occupants.

The earlier CNA modules that explored nursing’s role in environmental health offered many pragmatic strategies for reducing waste, emissions and exposure to environmental hazards and for making the environment central to an overall vision of health. So why do nurses need to be more knowledgeable about sustainability literacy when dealing with environmental issues, sustainability and action?

Why Sustainability Literacy?

“We do not need to invent sustainable human communities from scratch. We can learn from societies that have sustained themselves for centuries… We can model communities after nature's ecosystems, which are sustainable communities of plants, animals, and micro-organisms” — Fritjof Capra, Sustainable Living, Ecological Literacy, and the Breath of Life.

Just as the outstanding characteristic of the earth’s biosphere (air, land and water) is its inherent ability to support life on our planet, a truly sustainable community supports the health and quality of life of present and future generations. Along with a safe, clean environment, such a community strives to protect all organisms from harm and works toward physical, emotional, intellectual, cultural and spiritual sustenance for its citizens.

Stibbe (2008) describes sustainability literacy as the knowledge, skills and attitudes necessary to contribute to a more sustainable world, seeing the term as following in the footsteps of “environmental literacy” and “ecological literacy.” This trajectory shows movement away from a narrow focus on environmental pollution and toward wider concerns about how the environment can provide basic necessities and be valued for current and future generations (this is also known as sustainable development, a concept expanded upon more fully in the next section). Most notably, this broader notion of sustainability encompasses an environmental ethic that incorporates the idea of social change.

As a consequence, definitions of the new form of “literacy” have become increasingly less specific (e.g., within the terms of biological science) and more interdisciplinary and general in scope. For example, the United Kingdom’s Forum for the Future’s definitional framework suggests that a sustainability literate person would be able to:

  • understand the need to change to a sustainable way of doing things, individually and collectively;
  • have sufficient knowledge and skills to decide and act in a way that favours sustainable development; and
  • recognize and reward other people’s decisions and actions that favour sustainable development (Forum for the Future (FF), July 2005).

The term “literacy” itself helps to reflect this need for learning in a broader sense, because it is a universal requirement for students in all subject areas. In fact, researchers have identified a trend demanding that sustainability skills be developed in the same way as the core competencies of reading, writing and (now) computing (Stibbe, 2008; FF, 2005). In general, sustainability literacy means acquiring an ability to analyze, to read and write critically, and to communicate effectively about the interconnected environmental, economic and social aspects of our world that affect the lives and health of current and future generations. For nurses, it can mean thinking, working and engaging in creative and inclusive ways, becoming a “change agent,” seeing the big picture and contributing to a conscious transformation that leads to a more viable health-care system and a more just society.