The word “sustainability” gets bandied around a lot these days, and like many words that are used too often, its meaning is getting watered down. I was appalled to hear that “literally” has now been redefined by the Oxford English Dictionary to mean its own opposite, i.e. metaphorically. (Yes, I’m a pedant, and I’m proud.)
Is “sustainable” in danger of going the same way?
This is a definition of sustainability that I put in a presentation to Eagle Hill Middle School in Syracuse earlier this year:
But a softer, more utilitarian, version might be “the greatest good for the greatest number for the greatest duration of time”.
I prefer the former, albeit idealistic, version. I’d (generally, but not invariably!) like human beings to be around for as long as possible, and for our eventual demise to be for reasons outside of our control… which is not where we’re heading at the moment.
So for me, “sustainable” has to mean exactly that – something that can be sustained indefinitely. This has big implications, such as:
Fossil fuels – not sustainable. Biofuels may be renewable, but not sustainable in the quantities that we would currently require.
Plastic – not sustainable, a) because most plastics are derived from oil, and b) because we are going to run out of space to put all this non-biodegradable rubbish.
Population growth – not sustainable, no matter how good we get at squeezing more productivity out of the earth.
Economic growth – wow, this is a thorny one. I am a huge fan of “Prosperity Without Growth” by Tim Jackson (see his TED Talk here), and agree with him that you can’t have infinite growth on a finite planet, and that we need to question fundamental assumptions about continuing growth in societies that are already meeting all basic human needs.
Growth in human wellbeing – now, this IS sustainable, and we have a long, long way to go before we have universal access to water, adequate food, justice, women’s rights, gay rights, education, medicine, and good governance.
What do you think? What does sustainability mean to you? What definition do you think we should be aiming for?