Redefining “Sustainability”: Re-Empowering the Term Sustainable

“Sustainability” as a term is not as powerful as it used to be. It has been incorporated, some would argue co-opted, to such a degree that the very idea of “sustainability” can now refer to everything from water bottles with the use of less plastic, to corporate boardroom growth forecasts. We all have a basic understanding of what sustainability is – it’s vaguely good for the earth, it’s “green” (another one of those troublesome terms), it makes for great marketing, and most importantly, it implies that something can operate in form or function in perpetuity – whether that something is a product or a way of living. Granted, it’s an exceptional idea, and an exceptional word, and that is precisely the problem.

Sustainable as the Norm?

Using the word “sustainable” as a modifier only further validates the view that the “sustainable” thing in question is exceptional and out of the norm, when sustainability should BE the norm. For example, the use of durable water containers as opposed to plastic bottles is indeed very “sustainable”. It does not harm the environment, it is an activity that could theoretically go on in perpetuity without any undue waste of natural resources, and it saves money to boot. Therefore, durable water containers are exceptional. Wrong. They should be the norm. In the same way, double-paned windows, insulated walls, and air-tight ductwork should be the norm when it comes to home construction. But the alternative, shoddy suburban saltboxes, is so prevalent and ubiquitous, that a well-built and “sustainable” house seems rather exceptional doesn’t it?

The EPA defines sustainability thusly:

Sustainability is based on a simple principle: Everything that we need for our survival and well-being depends, either directly or indirectly, on our natural environment. Sustainability creates and maintains the conditions under which humans and nature can exist in productive harmony, that permit fulfilling the social, economic and other requirements of present and future generations.

Ironically, this is more or less what humans have been doing since the beginning of time – working with nature in order to survive and flourish. But in recent times, or at least since the advent of cheap and readily available fossil fuels, that sentiment has mostly given way to something decidedly abnormal – the dangerous idea that humans can consume limited resources with zero consequences.

Sustainable – A Necessary Reality

Therefore, we would propose that we add an addendum to the EPA’s definition:

Sustainability is what is natural and normal, working with the environment and not against it.

This redefinition is necessary and critical because as long we continue to view sustainability as an exceptional convenience rather than a necessary reality, we can never truly commit to tackling important environmental issues ranging from climate change to interior air quality. We should be redefining sustainability for the benefit of future generations.

What is your definition of sustainability? Please share your thought below. 

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  1. Eddie Leibold September 13, 2012 at 3:51 pm - Reply

    Yes Sir,
    I agree with the need to redefine sustainability. I agree with your definition.
    We need to return to working WITH nature instead of trying to manipulate the reserves we have and ultimately destroying everything.
    Its time to return to the basics.

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