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:

Eagle Hill screenshot

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.

Prof Tim Jackson
Prof Tim Jackson

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?



  • For me sustainability is all about contentment. As you learn to be content, your footprint naturally shrinks. But how to extract people from their internal tornado? Tricky, I think an important step is avoiding advertising. Learning to accept yourself is important too. It seems a lot of people feel they need to be doing, consuming, building all the time – if not they feel guilty.

    • Wise words, Lorne. Maybe we need more simply “being”, less “doing” in the world. Contentment = enoughness. Discontent -> grasping and greed, and more environmental destruction.
      Love that phrase “internal tornado” – am going to remember that one!

  • Thanks Roz, for all that you do.
    I like the definition you used in your Eagle Hill Middle School presentation. Unfortunately, like many things, it is far easier said than done. HOW do we live sustainably in this world?
    I’ve created a life that I love, with a far smaller footprint than most in the developed world. I designed, built and live in a tiny house that is extremely energy efficient. I use a bicycle as primary transportation, and have traveled on it extensively. I created a small sailing/rowing/cruising boat and spent 3 months cruising on it this summer, all over the Salish Sea (I have inclinations toward adventure).
    But I used epoxy and fiberglass in building my boat, I take an occasional flight, and much of my food travels some distance to reach me . . . not to mention clothing and other things. And perhaps most important, regardless of what I do personally, world population continues to grow, and most of those who have less aspire to the material wealth and lifestyle they see in the mainstream developed world, and most of us in the developed world are far more interested in continuing our consumptive lifestyles and having even more than in moving toward sustainability.
    I applaud your efforts to publicize environmental issues and get people’s attention! I’m an incurable optimist and have faith that our beautiful planet will continue, changing and evolving. I expect that there will continue to be plenty of beauty for as long as I will be around (I’m 66). I’m less certain about how well I’d like the world that my grandchild will experience 75 years from now, let alone the world her children will inherit.
    And I continue to think and wonder about how to best spend my time and energy.

    • Thanks, Scot, for your comment, and thank you even more for being a conscientious and mindful global citizen. We’re none of us perfect in terms of sustainability, and within the present infrastructure it’s not possible to be – short of living in a cave, which I am not advocating! But we pick our battles and we do our best.
      You’re right – the planet will be fine. Possibly a bit bruised by our interference, but one day we will be gone and new species will emerge to fill the gap we leave behind.
      What happens between now and then may not be pretty, but ultimately harmony will be restored.

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