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Sustainability Blues: Too Pop to Mean Much

Published 08/22/2013 VCReporter

I got aboard the Sustainability Train early, in the late 1970’s. I saw it as a dazzling breakthrough concept. I won an international Mitchell Prize for an essay I wrote, “New Metaphors, Myths, and Values for a Steady State Future,” where I proposed local councils to promote and measure the level of sustainability in communities (see essay in Professional Work).

Then with a colleague at CSU Northridge, I wrote a grant to measure to level of sustainable practices, called Footprints, in the City of Oxnard, CA. Three other colleagues came aboard and one had his graduate students take on big parts of the Project. We published a report entitled “Limits to Growth and Quality of Life in Oxnard CA September 2001.” (See post in General Essays)

The term is arresting, honorific. It’s everywhere. It sounds techno-scientific.

And it means….?

Definitions of the big abstraction “sustainability” have always been problematic and necessarily stipulative since the term by itself is vague —“the ability to emulate or support natural process; the quality or state being able to go on, endure, maintain.” What sort of state is that?

Perhaps this state is not a state at all, but rather a process needing ongoing attention and adjustment. As a noun it’s static, whereas it mainly characterizes an action, or a kind of particular growth, or living process, something organic, biologic, “green.” As a very broad catchall term, it’s a concept perpetually in search of definitions requiring actual cases. As noble ideal applied to all sorts of areas, it sounds made up.

Today “sustainability” has faded to pale green as we try to gin lots of things up into some environmentally wholesome status: sustainable agriculture, sustainable architecture, sustainable tourism, sustainable management, and sustainable development. What do they mean?

According to the website of Sustainability Leaders, it “depends on the context”: “For some people, sustainability is about protecting the natural environment and environmental resources for future generations. Others link it to social justice or never-ending economic prosperity.” These are worthy, lofty goals, still ideals for today. They likely motivate and encourage better practices in the three traditional areas of standard sustainability practice –the environment, the economy, and society. But how these very different areas are connected through sustainability needs elaborate explanation.

The popular use of the word often slides into meaning “long lasting” with a dollop of environmental care--there’s “sustainable eco-friendly retail packaging”; “sustainable sandals” or “generic sustainable brands.” The Sustainable Juicery creates an “intimate organic vibe.” Then there are algae-based renewable oils, a molded fiber bottle. a greener Clean sponge, etc. and Target has Hundreds of sustainable products to offer. Most of these products’ claim to sustainability involves their “green” aspects—they are recyclable, organic, non-toxic. 1

A sustainable fishery is one that fishing interests try to avoid depleting of fish. After all, sustain comes from “sub+tenere,” to hold up from below, to endure and to maintain, like a note in music held and lasting. But what’s the whole song of which the “nota sustenuta” is a lingering, enduring part? We want more than a catch-phrase or meme that evokes something wholesome.

We would expect the academic and professional institutions promoting sustainability to define the concept to which they dedicate themselves.

Arizona State University has a School of Sustainability, offering “a comprehensive degree-granting program with a transdisciplinary focus on finding real-world solutions to environmental, economic, and social challenges.” (

Three ASU spokespersons offer definitions: President Michael Crow states that, “Sustainability is a concept with as much transformative potential as justice, liberty, and equality.” Julie Ann Wrigley, who founded the Global Institute of Sustainability at ASU says, “Sustainability is larger than one person, one company, or one country. Its scope, scale, and importance demand unprecedented and swift solutions to environmental protection and other complex problems.” And Dean Chris Boone provides something a bit more definitive: “Sustainability is improving human well being and ensuring social equity for present and future generations while safeguarding the planet's life-supporting ecosystems.” Sustainability it seems includes many things in its broad reach.

The Institute for Sustainable Communities wants to promote: A better quality of life for the whole community without compromising the wellbeing of other communities; Healthy ecosystems; Effective governance supported by meaningful and broad-based citizen participation; Economic security (

“Sustainability is ensuring we have a better quality of life now and in the future - it means progressing economic and social development while moving quickly to live within resource limits and allowing the ecosystem to recover." Peter Head, Chair of the Institute for Sustainability Communities,

I would argue that we are off on at least two wrong feet from the start.

First, things defined as sustainable must follow a process that takes into account some basic ecology. Context may be important, but use of the term cannot avoid its original biological imperatives—no toxics, and no lessening of biodiversity. Another key fundamental requires use of renewable resources. These three little requirements turn out to be very tough.

Second, things that endure often must change, even fall apart, rebuild, and reconfigure in order to endure. Sustainability does not point to a steady state, but to carefully shaped dynamic change. This overlooked aspect will help refine the term for its practical and realistic application, perhaps even leading to question its very use.

Key points: endure is key? no, things must change and rebuild. Resilience, Recovery are closer as long as we don’t demand recovery of original conditions. In order to endure, one has to struggle, adapt, change. lose something, gain something modified. Ongoing Repair is better, or a clean functioning, adjusting system. The term has to point to an ongoing adjusting process and lack of contamination. Finally, it must acknowledge loss, a lessening of ideal conditions, of struggle that squeaks by with most but not all diversity intact, with some use of non-renewable resources, some residue of toxics.

Reset, Ongoing Replenishment, Healing, Mending, Cure:

Recovering, Resilience-ing, Replenishing, Recovering, Ongoing Repairing, Ongoing Recovering,

Culture must be added into the framework of the Environment

In his book, The Myth of Progress: Toward a Sustainable Future (2006), Tom Wessels states that there are three laws of sustainability: the law of limits to growth, the second law of thermodynamics, and the law of self-organization in complex systems. He explains that these laws contribute to linear reductionist thinking which does not take into account how all the parts of a complex system interact with each other, interactions that cannot be predicted exactly. Wessels notes that, “What is lost in this paradigmatic view of the world is that the whole may be much more than the sum of its parts” (6). This is an important argument for the inclusion of culture as the fourth pillar of sustainability. The topic of adding culture to the already widely accepted three pillars of sustainability — social, environmental, and economic — is an important idea for society to address because the addition of a fourth pillar to represent culture creates a holistic approach to sustainability. Cultural sustainability examines ways to improve our lives and leave a viable inheritance for future generations.



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