Why I Don’t Like the Word “Sustainability”

“So, what do you do for a living?”
The question has been asked of me hundreds of times, and more often than not, the answer yields blank stares and further questions.
“I’m a sustainability coordinator at a university.”
This time I am talking to a nurse at an urgent care clinic.
“Oh. Is that where you keep the students from dropping out of school?” She asks casually as she wraps the blood pressure gauge around my arm.

At times like this I am left to ponder how evocative is this word sustainability that everyone uses so liberally but nobody seems to understand. Everything is “sustainable” these days–sustainable tourism, sustainable agriculture, sustainable business, sustainable development. Yet despite its ubiquity, it has become a catch phrase known only to insiders, the way heteronormativity is known to cultural critics. Maybe the reason environmentalists like to use it is the same reason that cultural critics like heteronormativity. It is hard to say, and therefore, confers a kind of exclusivity and superiority to those fluent in the lingo of the trade. Seriously, try saying sustainability five times in a row. Try fitting it on a conference brochure. No matter how you put it, it’s an awkward and ugly word, meant to deter the lay person.

So how did we get to using sustainability so much anyway? In the late 1980s, environmentalists started using sustainability in order to get away from a narrow definition of environmentalism.  Environmentalism was born out of the conservation movement, where individuals like John Muir and Aldo Leopold advocated the preservation of wild lands in opposition to development and industrialization. But in the late twentieth century, traditional environmentalism was being perceived as elitist and narrow, a movement that focused on the preservation of nature at the exclusion of human welfare, including those of indigenous people that have used the land for ages. Sustainability was a broader and more inviting term than environmentalism because it implies the connection between the environment and the welfare of societies that depend on them. The widely cited definition of sustainability from the United Nations, “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs,” articulates this balance. The emergence of environment, social equity, and economic viability as the three pillars of sustainability soon became another widely accepted definition of sustainability. “Sustainable development” is a term meant to reconcile economic growth with conservation. It says, “we are in favor of development, within certain constraints.”  It was meant to not alienate non-environmentalists.

Except that it did the opposite. If anyone has ever taken a creative writing class, she would have learned that the first rule of writing is “show, don’t tell.” Don’t give us an abstract concept, give us a metaphor, an image, an action that people can envision, taste, and smell. It is through the senses that we engaged. The word “environmentalism” is derived from a word that most people understand. The environment refers to nature, our surroundings, ecosystems, the planet on which we live. To be an environmentalist means someone who is an advocate for these entities. It is based on an actual object that people can relate to. Sustainability, however, is a concept. It is abstract and intellectual and not self-explanatory. And what do you call people who believe in sustainability? Sustainabilitists? Try saying that five times.

Rhetorical objections aside, what does sustainability mean anyway? The Oxford English Dictionary defines sustainable as “able to be maintained at a certain rate or level.” It is related to sustenance, “the maintaining of someone or something in life or existence.” When we say we want to sustain something, we mean we want to provide it with the minimum requirements necessary to continue its existence. When we sustain a medical patient, we don’t mean to heal him, we mean to keep him alive. When we say we want to sustain an institution’s finances, it doesn’t mean to grow it, it means to keep it from falling into debt. Sustainability does not mean improve or benefit, it means to barely maintain. How long can people be sustained on polluted air? A long time. They could live for decades with asthma and eventually die from lung cancer, but they are sustained in the meanwhile. How long can the planet sustain global warming? Forever. Seventy percent of the world’s species may become extinct but there will be enough to sustain life on earth no matter what we do.

In nature, sustainability is not a healthy state of things. A healthy ecosystem is vibrant, thriving, dynamic and creative. In a climax ecosystem, such as a mature rainforest, diverse species find their own niche in the ecosystem and the activities of one feed those of another. A healthy ecosystem is resilient, an environment where all living things thrive. Human societies are the same way. A society that merely sustains itself is in trouble; it is on the verge of collapsing. A healthy human society is defined by the flourishing of human rights, arts, and culture. A society that values its natural and human assets doesn’t merely sustain them. It allows each to thrive in its own way.

Sustainability assumes an anthropocentric perspective, which is the reason that it appeals to a larger audience. It takes the stance that the reason for us to protect the environment is so that we can maintain our own activities and fulfill our own wants, and not for any intrinsic value of the environment itself. It is a utilitarian and anthropocentric approach, easy to swallow for those raised in the Christian ideology that God created the Earth for man’s use. It resonates for a world where the values of the Enlightenment and Scientific Revolution are the foundation for progress–chiefly that nature is an object to be dissected, studied, and harnessed for man’s purposes. It makes caring for the environment a part of our own economic and utilitarian interests.

George Orwell, in his essay “Politics and the English Language”, admonishes writers to never use a Latinate word if a plain Anglo-Saxon one will do. He was convinced that people who couch their ideas in flowery, Latinate language are trying to hide something. Sustainability is a Latinate word if there ever was one, and hidden in its layers is the message, “we care about the environment, but only to the extent where it does not compromise our social and economic interests.” It is a technical, abstract, and well-meaning word. You will never hear sustainability in a poem. It will never appear in a pop song. It is not poetic and certainly not inspirational.

Sustainability is a technical requirement, not an aspiration. It dumbs down the value we place on the environment to merely utilitarian ones. And while intellectually I don’t like it, I am forced to keep using it because I want to turn up in search engines. But if environmentalists want to inspire, motivate, and help people envision a better future, we must aspire to more than sustainability. To merely “sustain” ourselves while the rest of the world is collapsing is not enough. So instead of sustainable, let us be eco-conscious, eco-positive, earth-oriented, and environmentally responsible. We are not here to put the needs of nature above those of people, but deliver environmental justice, a world where everyone is entitled to the basic necessities of clean air, clean water, fresh food and shelter. Let us leave to our children a planet that isn’t just sustainable, but that is vibrant, flourishing, abundant, and life-giving for all.

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8 thoughts on “Why I Don’t Like the Word “Sustainability”

  1. Well-stated. I share your objections to the terminology and to a concept that seems to include an inherent belief in man’s supremacy, as though we can really “manage” the future. I see myself as environmentally responsible but harbor no illusions that I or we, togther, can “sustain” life — that’s God’s role!

  2. Hey Clara,

    I have come to regard the word “sustainability” with disdain as well. As my grandmother used to admonish me “Say what you mean and mean what you say!” Sustainability does neither. Instead it creates a banner or slogan, the meaning of which is so cloaked in feel good absolution that it’s lost all context of the original purpose.

    What really galls me is with all the hype around “sustainability” the notion of conservation has been completely eclipsed. The core value of living in concert with nature on a finite earth is conservation of resources. Who talks about conservation today?
    No one. What you see instead is: green-e electricity? Use plenty of it, it’s GREEN. Clean Natural Gas? Use plenty of it! It’s CLEAN! Take down a stand of trees and build a LEED Platinum whatever and that’s worthy of a press release because it’s so much more sustainable than some patch of ground! That’s a true story where I personally witnessed a rapt audience applauding a college administrator extolling the virtues of a brand new five story LEED Gold building on what had been “underutilized” flat ground… I didn’t get it…

    The “three pillars” notion was further insult to an already injured concept. The natural world relegated to peer status with economic concerns and societal needs. Really? The source of our existence carries no more weight than our inflated sense of self importance? At an alumni talk I gave using the Venn diagram, I renamed the pillars the overlapping pancakes of competing needs where I reminded my audience that mother nature doesn’t need us at all and the business world will work to its own benefit even if it harms the other two. All nature gives us is a place in the food chain. If we loose our footing nature will fill the void.

    So, to get back to grandma’s admonition, you are falling into the same trap (as the “sustainability” adherents) applying “eco” to anything. You can have a perfectly awful ecosystem that thrives to the exclusion of humans. Let us be conservationists. That is indeed what we need to be to ensure that the world that we cherish survives for all creatures.

    (Anonymous friend who sent this to me in an email which I’m posting because I think it’s great)

  3. Hi Clara,

    I guess the first thing that comes to mind is, if we change to some new word, won’t commercial industry just co-opt that one as well?

    In chess, we have a concept called ‘tempo’. White always starts with tempo, because it has the first move. Black must react to this move with some sort of plan that at least acknowledges Whites move, or risk establishing a serious long-term spatial disadvantage. A good chess player playing Black can later oftentimes gain tempo by forcing White to acknowledge Blacks latest move.

    If industry has co-opted the word and thus ‘gained tempo’, should we concede and move on to a new game? Or should we find new ways for popularly explaining sustainability? One important consideration, is that there is no guarantee that industry will not continually co-opting our language, which, in my opinion, could have deleterious long term effects on academia’s ability to communicate to the popular culture on other fronts. I suspect industry would co-opt anything we produce, such as what ‘resilience’ is now experiencing. However, we should ask who really has the tempo…

    Sustainability is a paradigm. It assumes the question, “How far into the future are you thinking?” It is the opposite in many ways of the current consumption paradigm, i.e. “How much can I get right now?” If the commercial forces of the world have been forced to acknowledge the new paradigm of valuing a long term outcome, then I think we can say we have the tempo.
    I like what Debra Rowe says in the first four minutes of this video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nhECKIzoT0I

  4. I think all of you are reading too much into the question or word, I’m guessing most of us realize it means “how much longer can we continue on this path”. What word would any of you rather choose?

  5. Talk about having the opposite effect: Legislation was introduced in Kansas to prohibit public funds for “Sustainability” programs.

  6. As you mentioned sustainability is very popular in the conservation field. As a nature lover I prefer an eco-centric approach. I realized that is the ideology of Buddha. Thanks for your deep ideas.

  7. From the literal sense, sustainability is a synonym with maintenance. Both are used in reference to continuation of something. Most would probably perceive financial sustainability as a budget with incomes and expenditures that balance. Environmental sustainability is not so easy to perceive. People in the Environmental Services department of the hospital where I work would use “environmental sustainability” to mean maintenance of the cleanliness of the building interiors. People working at golf courses would probably mean maintenance of the appearance of short grass. Landlords might mean the maintenance of the land’s market value. Its meaning depends on the individual’s perception of what is being sustained.

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