Without context, sustainability is a useless word. It is similar to words like conservation or durability. Without knowing what you want to conserve, the word doesn’t have any meaning. The durability of a house is very different from the durability of an article of clothing.
Sustainability is simply the ability to sustain something.
To sustain something, we must prolong it indefinitely, which begs the obvious question: what is it that we want to sustain? Do we want to sustain our consumer lifestyle, our growth-based economic system, or our control over other nations’ resources? Sustainability, therefore, is the discussion around our ability to sustain something given the resources we have available. So often, we hear the word “sustainability” without context, which can lead to some pretty confusing scenarios.
Corporations often will talk a lot about sustainability. But do we ever ask them, what is it you are trying to sustain? If we did, we would find that the true goal of sustainability for them is to sustain their business, which ultimately means sustaining profit and revenue streams. Economists apply sustainability to economic growth, asking how we might sustain growth rates that require us to consume more year after year whether we have a need or not. Wall Street pundits actually apply the word sustainability to stock market rallies, as if it were possible to have a stock market that never went down.
So each of us must ask the question: what is it that we wish to sustain? When I think about sustainability, I think about sustaining the conditions for life to be able to thrive. Often, the things we must do to sustain life conflict with the things we must do to sustain the economy.
For example, many people seek the sustainability of their job. Creating jobs is often touted as a sustainable thing to do, as it enables people to earn money they can trade for their needs. But what if the jobs that are being created force us to destroy forests to make room for cattle grazing or use animals to test various chemicals in cosmetics or sell subsidized, unhealthy fast food to people in dire need of real food?
While jobs may increase our own ability to sustain ourselves in the economy we have constructed, many of these jobs also erode the capacity of the planet to support life. Nearly every product we bring to market takes life to create it. Let’s take an iPhone for example. The materials that comprise an iPhone need to be mined from all around the world, which causes the destruction of a local ecosystem. Oil is needed to ship these components all throughout the assembly process and to bring the final product to the local store near you. The phone requires electricity to keep it functional, which also requires the extraction of fuel. Everything we do or create costs something real, and I don’t mean money. To create anything, we must take it from somewhere else, and that cost is usually the life of an animal or a tree or a plant.
It takes life to sustain life.
A whale must eat krill in order to sustain himself, but the whale does not open up a for-profit business and decimate the entire krill population to sell them to the other whales in his community. At the same time, the whale helps to keep krill populations thriving by their movements through the water column.
When we are able to balance giving and taking, we find ourselves in a position to sustain life itself. Today, we have created an economy that promotes taking as much as you can for yourself. The more you consume, the more jobs that can be created, and the more people it is thought can thrive.We have forgotten this fundamental law of reciprocity, that too much taking upsets the delicate balance that allows all life to meet their needs. When we clear cut a forest, we remove the habitat for millions of animals. This is a cost that is not reflected on the balance sheet but it is a cost that is felt nonetheless. We cannot create something from nothing. Everything we do has an impact.To sustain our planet’s ability to support life, we need to become aware of these cumulative impacts, re-imagine and reorganize ourselves in ways that give back to the earth as much as we have taken from her. I see our role as humans living in a world dedicated to sustaining life on the planet is to become stewards of the earth, helping to create the conditions for all of life to thrive.
There are many such practices that you can learn about such as permaculture, industrial ecology, local living economies, natural building, and energy efficiency that can aid us in our quest to live in a world where all of life has the ability to thrive. But first we must begin to ask the question both of ourselves and others who are using the term “sustainability”, “what is it that you wish to sustain?”