Sustainability Sucks

November 27, 2013

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

I confess to wanting to get your attention because I have something to say about sustainability.  Mostly I want to talk about the word "sustainable" which falls under the same banner as "green" and "eco" and "natural" these days, even though I may agree with many of the specific practices people are labeling as "sustainable."  After all, several large agribiz companies now purport to be practicing "sustainable business" and "sustainable agriculture" and, quite frankly, they have been sustaining many of their (in my opinion) bad practices for quite some time.   As one of my former students pointed out, "Even crappy stuff can be sustained for a really long time."  Fair enough.

Beyond the technical meaning that comes with being able to sustain something over a period of time, there is the overuse problem.  The words sustainable and sustainability have been employed by so many businesses, organizations and individuals in wildly different ways – perhaps in too many ways – that they have ceased to contain any agreed-upon meaning.  It seems that most users of those terms are generally referring to more environmentally-friendly practices or products.  Sometimes sustainable implies a smaller carbon footprint or negative environmental impact.  At any rate, it’s not always clear what users of these words are intending to convey without further inquiry.  In fact, I tend to ask people exactly what they mean by "sustainable" when I catch them using it, effectively annoying them with the prospect of having to be clear and specific with their language.  I’m not popular sometimes.

There is the problematic U.N. definition of "sustainable development" which I absolutely love to unpack and dissect, language geek that I am.  That version says that sustainable development is "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." (United Nations. 1987."Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development.").  First of all this definition fails to differentiate "needs" from "wants" which is a very sticky wicket indeed.  It also seems to insinuate that simply maintaining what we have now so that the next generation can have the same is, well, good enough.  I happen to think that’s pretty lackluster and we can actually do much better than that.  Plus, most people I know are complaining about the "now;" are we sure that’s what the next generation even wants?  The U.N. definition seems pretty anthropocentric, but then again, we are human.

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I tend to think that our choices (for policy, for business, for ways of living, etc.) go beyond the binary of "business vs. environment" or "sustainable" vs. not.  See if you can consider our choices along a spectrum.  At one end of the spectrum are what some might define as "bad" practices, those which are are ultimately bad for our economy, our land and our people.  At the "positive" end of the spectrum are the really creative, innovative and regenerative practices that can actually support a thriving local economy over the long haul while enhancing human and ecosystem health. This is where building resilient communities and economies comes into play and which will be the topic of future blog posts.

In the middle of this spectrum you find choices that are better than the negative ones, but kind of neutral.  These choices are about conserving, preserving and maintaining: generally "holding actions."  However, as one of my teachers used to say, "If someone asks you how your marriage is doing, you generally don’t glowingly assert ‘It’s really sustainable!’"  Wow.  Great.

Finally, the term sustainable, for better or worse, is a trigger which can quickly divide communities that really need to be spending their time finding common ground, identifying shared problems and collaborative solutions.  If a word like "sustainable" is going to immediately alienate half my neighbors, maybe I shouldn’t be so tied to using it, even if the practices being espoused may be perfectly good ones.  Let go of the terms that no longer serve us and our communities so that we can get to real conversations that matter somewhere out beyond our differences.

I’m no fan of the language police but I do think that we can get much better in our choice of words as we weave a different future, a future that combines the wisdom of our past with the creativity and innovation that is always emerging.

What is the replacement word for "sustainable?"  I honestly don’t know and we may not have a good language set yet for what we’re trying to do.  However, I can say that the attributes of resilient communities and systems are many and complex.  We want systems that are durable and robust, can bounce back and learn from disruptions and shocks.  We need backup systems and stacked functions.  We need systems that are created in an inclusive and participatory way.  We need to gather up the resilient threads of how previous generations were able to live in the world but modify and combine them with appropriate technologies and social justice. We need to listen to the wisdom of ecological systems and incorporate those patterns into our models of commerce, food production, energy  and resource use; ecological patterns ruled this planet long before humans arrived on the scene and those same patterns will ultimately win out.

Thinking through all of this now, I’m reminded of a dear friend who recently passed away describing how we might create food systems here in Maine that could allow each and every one of us to have enough healthy food to eat, indefinitely.  Indefinitely.  Let that sink in.  Barring some aberration like a meteor strike, what might we do to design our future so that humans could live here indefinitely?  Now that, friends, is what the word "sustainable" should really mean.

Tags: language, resilience, Sustainability