Sustainablah

The term sustainable has been bothering me more and more. It started when I saw a talk by Anna Lappe a couple of years ago at the E.F. Schumacher Society. She said she doesn‚Äôt like the term because it conveys a sense of maintaining, sustaining what we‚Äôre already doing, the non-event of continuing with the status quo. It‚Äôs hardly a term that lights people on fire and propels them into action. You just can‚Äôt cheer your team with “Go out there and sustain!”. She articulated so well this fact that I had sensed but hadn‚Äôt formed into words. It‚Äôs pretty hard to get the movement riled up around the concept of sustaining, and it’s too weak to engage folks outside of the movement. Plus, to avert ecological disaster, we don‚Äôt want sustaining, we want change, and lots of it. Less consumption of natural resources, less fuel use, less mountaintop removal, less deadzones from agricultural runoff, and less consumers who don‚Äôt know they‚Äôre supporting these practices. These are big goals, and the ‚Äòbusiness as usual‚Äô connotation of sustainability doesn‚Äôt capture it. Granted, at this point sustainability is a far better term than the entirely co-opted and vacuous green, which used to be a completely fine label but has been so over-applied that it is now about as meaningless as wholesome. Sustainability is a broader term that covers not only environmental issues but also social issues like inequality and food security. This generality adds to its appeal and usefulness as a cover-term for many ethical dimensions, but, like Anna, I have issues with it.

One thing that bugs me about sustainability, specifically in its use to refer to environmental responsibility, is the definition that’s often thrown up at the beginning of talks as a definition of sustainability, from the UN: “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. This is not a definition of sustainability. It is a definition of sustainable development, as though development is inevitable. Maybe they were using a different definition of development than I do, but it seems to me that development and sustainability are incompatible. Development means MORE and what we need, at least in the developed world, is LESS. One concept implicit in that definition that I do like is that we should provide for ourselves without doing irreversible damage to the earth’s processes and living systems. Irreversible damage like sending the climate past a tipping point, or extinguishing genetic lines, or toxifying all the drinking water, or wiping out interdependent systems of cooperating plants, animals, and microbes. These outcomes will certainly compromise the ability of future generations to meet their own needs, so that aspect of the definition is right on the mark.

However, I agree with Toby Hemenway that most affluent people who have been brought up in Western culture don’t understand the difference between their needs and their wants. Anything you like having can be construed somehow as a need. A definition of sustainability that encourages affluent people in developed countries (i.e. exactly the people we need to convert) to imagine that there will be development aimed at satisfying their needs, whatever those might be, and that this development will somehow be achieved without causing ecological harm, is inherently flawed, and makes people complacent, and will not produce the cultural shift we need.

As a guideline for environmental stewardship, the definition also suffers from being entirely human-centric. I would be happier with its aims if it stated that we should care about the ability of not only future generations of humans, but also both present and future generations of non-humans, to live and thrive on earth. Under such an expanded definition, impacts like human-induced climate destabilization or groundwater pollution should be avoided because they effect not only humans’ ability to provide for their future needs, but also wild animals, plants, microbes, etc.

A new term is sorely needed. It has to have broad appeal, because we need to convince absolutely everyone to line up behind it. Any term that conveys a sense of LACK/WEAKNESS rather than GAIN/POWER will not work, because it will be repulsive to the monkey-brain side of us that desires only to accumulate power chips and then flaunt them to achieve reproductive success. That basic drive is what spurs our current acquisitive, ambitious culture forward, doing its massive ecological harm (present company excluded of course). The goal is to slow the draw-down of nonrenewable resources, stabilize climate change and eliminate harm to living systems. We need a label for these values that hits you in the gut with the fact that it’s all about your personal choices affecting LIFE on earth, not something weak and vague that implies a top-down, policy-based solution. For energy use, we can talk about living within a solar budget. In agriculture, I like the use of the term ‘regenerative’ because it sounds so positive and moves beyond just not causing further damage, to actually envision improving things. It will be a challenge to come up with something that comprehensively applies to many aspects of human activity, like sustainability does.

Maybe an action word like the Guardian movement (we are guarding our earth), or even LIVE! (which, I just noticed, is EVIL backwards), or HEROIC (because we are leaping into action to avert an impending disaster). No these will never do. You creative types, help me out here!

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