“The word ‘sustainability’ has gotten such a workout lately that the whole concept is in danger of floating away on a sea of inoffensiveness,” wrote journalist Michael Pollan in 2007. “Everyone, it seems, is for it — whatever ‘it’ means.”
Sustainability. What does it mean? Does the word signal a return to a more balanced way of living, including a more harmonious relationship with nature? Or has it become meaningless to the point that, as Pollan suggests, it has no more force than “natural” or “green” or “nice”?
My sister Janet, a certified organic grower, brings a farmer’s practicality to the discussion. “If you can’t make a living farming,” she says, “your farm isn’t sustainable, no matter how good your practices are.”
Michael Stone reminds us in Smart by Nature that the word “sustainable” entered the general vocabulary in the 1980s, particularly after the release in 1987 of Our Common Future, the report of the U.N. World Commission on the Environment and World Development (the Brundtland Commission). Stone writes, “The report offers the following, still often quoted definition, ‘Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.’”
This Brundtland definition includes a few important and sometimes overlooked concepts. First, it makes a distinction between needs and wants, so important in guiding decisions about consumption and the distribution of resources, particularly in regards to the essential needs of the poor. It introduces the unavoidable reality of earthly limits. And it emphasizes the idea that we have a connection to future generations and a responsibility to leave a livable world to those who follow us.
And I like to think that considering “future generations” applies not only to human beings, but to all other living things as well. After all, our lives are connected to and depend on healthy future generations of living communities in nature, from whom we have much to learn about how nature sustains life.
The practice of considering inter-generational outcomes is well established in indigenous communities, communities who managed to live — and there’s that word again — sustainably for thousands of years. Jeannette Armstrong, an Okanagan knowledge keeper, writes that the Okanagan people routinely engage in profoundly deep group consultations that ensure “an outcome that results in a community strengthened by the dynamics of deep collaboration — that is, collaboration at all levels over generations.”
Lately, another word – resilience – has entered into use, particularly in the contexts of strengthening local communities and economies, honoring human labor and creativity, and developing the ability to find viable solutions within community boundaries. Nowhere is this more true than in the Transition Movement, which supports “community-led responses to climate change and shrinking supplies of cheap energy, building resilience and happiness.”
Could anything as deep and important as this be defined by a single word? Probably not. But working together, could we accomplish a better, fairer, and more balanced way of living that is geared to meeting future challenges? And if we did that, what would we call it?