“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.