The word sustainability and its synonym “green” have become common household terms. These words are spoken by government officials to describe community plans and used by businesses to demonstrate a commitment to the environment.

But what does “sustainability” mean and why should we be aware of it instead of letting it become just another buzzword?

The idea of sustainability revolves around the reality that the resources needed to maintain all living organisms on earth are limited. Since resources are limited, we need to manage the earth’s resources in a way that all organisms can live now, plus leave enough resources for future generations.

A resource like trees is sustainable because we can use them now for our survival needs and within a generation or two, we can grow more trees for the next generation to use. Resources like oil and gas are not sustainable because while they can be renewed over time, it takes millennia to create more.

When discussing the sustainable management of resources, we have to consider the “Three Pillars of Sustainability” to ensure that the resource is managed economically, environmentally, and fairly (or equitably).

As an example, take the sustainability issues relating to water. Water may not seem like a problem in the Pittsburgh region because we are surrounded by water and it runs freely from our taps. Water, however, is one of the earth’s most important resources and because of that it was chosen as the theme for last year’s World Environment Day, which was hosted in Pittsburgh.

Economically, access to clean water keeps people healthy, reducing medical costs. Water powers the local economy through dams, coal and nuclear power plants. Therefore water is essential for a healthy economy.

Environmentally, water provides us with recreational opportunities and maintains healthy habitats for wildlife.

And lastly, clean water is fairly distributed throughout the city so that every resident can have access to quality water.

In order to be good neighbors, we clean up our water before returning it to the environment and don’t pass on contaminated water to downstream cities. By the same token we ask cities upstream of Pittsburgh to clean their water before discharging it into the Allegheny River so we do not have to drink their pollution. This issue is going to be the biggest challenge in the coming years as Marcellus Shale attracts more gas drilling industry to Pennsylvania.

What sustainability issue is most important to you? What are your concerns about sustainability? What is your vision of a sustainable community and how would you implement that vision?

Joseph Reznik teaches sustainability at the Community College of Allegheny County’s main campus. You can reach him at greenmanpgh@gmail.com.