“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 this word sustainability is that everyone uses so liberally but nobody seems to understand. Everything is “sustainable” these days—sustainable tourism, sustainable agriculture, sustainable business and sustainable development. Yet despite its ubiquity, sustainability has become a catch phrase known only to insiders, the same way that cultural critics know heteronormativity. 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 layperson.
So why did we start using the word sustainability so much anyway? 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 perceived as elitist and narrow – a movement focused on the preservation of nature at the exclusion of human welfare, including those of indigenous people who have used the lands for ages.
Sustainability, as opposed to environmentalism, is considered a more inviting and inclusive term because it implies the connection between the environment and the welfare of societies that depend on the environment. 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. The term says: “we are in favor of development, within certain constraints.” It was meant to not alienate non-environmentalists.
Except it did the opposite.
The word environmentalism is limiting, but it is derived from a word that most people understand. As we all know, the environment refers to nature, our surroundings, ecosystems and the planet in which we live. To be an environmentalist means to be someone who is an advocate for these entities. It is based on an actual object that people can relate to. Sustainability is a concept that is intellectual and abstract, but the word itself is not self-explanatory. And what do you call people who believe in sustainability? Sustainabilitists? Try saying that five times.
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 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. 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 niches and the activities of one feed those of another. Human societies are the same way. 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. A society that merely sustains itself is in trouble; it is on the verge of collapsing.
Sustainability implies that the goal is to maintain the status quo. But has it been established that the status quo is good? The birth of modern democracy was a systemic change that had nothing to do with making the existing system at the time more sustainable. Many countries have sustainable development as their goal. Development could refer to progress in knowledge, happiness, or social equity, but in most cases, sustainable development refers to economic growth. And who benefits from that growth? Even if it can be sustained indefinitely growth alone does not lead to knowledge, happiness, or social equity. Mark Heiman in his essay “Education for Sustainable Development: Addressing the Oxymoron” writes, “We cannot change our relationship with nature until we change the social relations of production, as the same system that exploits nature also exploits human labor.” Sustainability isn’t necessarily sustainable until we define what it is that we are sustaining.
In George Orwell’s essay, “Politics and the English Language”, he advises 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. It is technical, abstract and political. 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. But if we want to inspire, motivate and help people envision a better future, we must aspire to something 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 the people, but to 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 our children a planet that isn’t just sustainable, but vibrant, flourishing, abundant and life-giving for all.