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The Meaning of Sustainability

Sep 12, 2011

by Karen Brown

Etsy.com handmade and vintage goods

“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?

Sustainability on the Blog

3 Featured Comments

  • TheLittleRagamuffin

    TheLittleRagamuffin said 8 years ago Featured

    Some might consider our small scale farmstead a sustainable one since we use no imported fertilizers or chemicals, nor do we use petroleum intensive machinery. However, this ideal model requires the back breaking labor of individuals who can't sell a product for the cost it is truly worth. I would not expect anyone to pay $5+/lb for organically grown, hand tended potatoes, even if that is their true cost. The entire model inherently lacks sustainability yet we press on in order to preserve this earth as best we can.

  • jennyhoople

    jennyhoople said 8 years ago Featured

    Interesting that you brought up "resilience." A friend of mine who's really intense about wanting to create a permaculture community on her property has been using that word a lot. She also keeps saying that she's not an environmentalist, but that she believes in systems. I tend to feel this is all a human thing, more than being about providing a sustainable future for other organisms. Organisms have been adapting ever since the first plants emitted the first poisonous whiffs of oxygen into the atmosphere. They said: "hey, lets develop something that can breathe that stuff" and pretty soon after...here we were! We want those other organisms that are already around to stay around because that will make a nice ecosystem for us to live in.

  • Mclovebuddy

    Mclovebuddy said 8 years ago Featured

    sustainable living isn't truly possible at this point and probably not in my lifetime due to the sheer number of people on earth (that population boom coincides with industrial agriculture). i really don't want to say it, but nature has a blunt way of correcting for things when they get out of hands. i hope i won't be around to see it.

52 comments

  • MootiDesigns

    MootiDesigns said 8 years ago

    Great article. Thanks for sharing!

  • scarletbegonia11

    scarletbegonia11 said 8 years ago

    nice article !

  • myvintagecrush

    myvintagecrush said 8 years ago

    "..collaboration at all levels over generations." - yep, lifestyle. Great article to get us thinking just how we define "it".

  • AukinasGoddess

    AukinasGoddess said 8 years ago

    Thought provoking..thank you for sharing.

  • shannondzikas

    shannondzikas said 8 years ago

    Michael Pollan is like some sort of prophet and everything he says is important. "It" may not have a word yet but the idea is growing like a little organic seed.

  • DessertWine

    DessertWine said 8 years ago

    Working together seems like a bit of an oxymoron lately. Starting small, though, I think we can accomplish anything - that little organic seed in the comment above!!

  • CarryTheWord

    CarryTheWord said 8 years ago

    Interesting article!

  • KisforCalligraphy

    KisforCalligraphy said 8 years ago

    "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?" The Monkey Wrench Gang

  • sparrowgrey

    sparrowgrey said 8 years ago

    Great article; very informative.

  • TheIDconnection

    TheIDconnection said 8 years ago

    Love it - thank you for sharing!

  • baconsquarefarm

    baconsquarefarm said 8 years ago

    Enjoyed reading your article, thanks...

  • SeannPatrick

    SeannPatrick said 8 years ago

    Personally I think that moving towards sustainable living is vital to maintaining the world's population as it is today. As Janet said,“If you can’t make a living farming,” she says, “your farm isn’t sustainable, no matter how good your practices are.” If we can't feed the world's population then the world isn't living sustainably. This is a huge issue throughout the world and I am interested to see how it progresses! Great article, thank you

  • jammerjewelry

    jammerjewelry said 8 years ago

    Loved the article, Thanks!

  • VintageEyeFashion

    VintageEyeFashion said 8 years ago

    Resilience, self reliance & concern for others in all things.

  • bhangtiez

    bhangtiez said 8 years ago

    Great article! Thank you for sharing!

  • InYourBones

    InYourBones said 8 years ago

    wonderful article, thank you for sharing.

  • jeremiahgrover

    jeremiahgrover said 8 years ago

    How about "cooperative responsibility?" Note: general headings will always leave room for relatively different things.

  • sherrytruitt

    sherrytruitt said 8 years ago

    As an artist in business, sustainablity is important to me. In the face of corporate "greenwashing", I think it is imperative for hand makers to leave a lighter footprint on the planet. I use recycled (not mined) sterling silver as much as I can, as well as eco friendly packing products. The global economy requires innovatative solutions to our businesses, but if everyone altered just a few things they did, I think it would make a huge difference. Lots of great food for thought in the article, thanks.

  • SugarChills

    SugarChills said 8 years ago

    “If you can’t make a living farming..... your farm isn’t sustainable, no matter how good your practices are.” Well-stated! This applies to all of us and each of our businesses.

  • oldyellowhorsegifts

    oldyellowhorsegifts said 8 years ago

    Great read ! Michael Pollan is a true pioneer in the local food movement promoting good quality food being accessable to everyone.

  • greatestfriend

    greatestfriend said 8 years ago

    I believe in order for things to "turn around" it has to once again has to be natural in a person to think of the planet and to be able to fend for themselves in every way. sadly 60 years of glazed over eyes due to capitalism in this country makes it tough for many whom grew up here to spend time thinking of anything else but work, shopping, saving, their appearance, buying and paying bills. only those privileged enough to have had money to get the appropriate education or handed down land are able to live a "sustainable" lifestyle. all the lower income and blue collar people are backed into a corner of having to rely on corporate supplies in every respect. its so far gone. perhaps we could benefit from more european and eastern influence here, perhaps we could benefit from those amongst us whom are less privileged but naturally self sufficient to share ground level values and ideas, as most of this talk gets ignored because its all soapbox takls to the converted by the wealthy/scholars/privileged - once again they are the only ones included. outside of the states its a normal way of life, rich or poor to know how to grow your own food, to recycle your batteries, etc etc. here we talk about things until we flog them to no meaning and the only benefit is capital gain of those cashing in on such movements. its totally fascinating to watch this empire fall.

  • paramountvintage

    paramountvintage said 8 years ago

    wow, i didn't know the word "sustainable" was so new to the general vocabulary. and i am so eager to learn more about the transition movement!

  • Barnaclebags

    Barnaclebags said 8 years ago

    Thanks for sharing!

  • ikabags

    ikabags said 8 years ago

    Very informative ! Thanks so much !

  • TheLittleRagamuffin

    TheLittleRagamuffin said 8 years ago Featured

    Some might consider our small scale farmstead a sustainable one since we use no imported fertilizers or chemicals, nor do we use petroleum intensive machinery. However, this ideal model requires the back breaking labor of individuals who can't sell a product for the cost it is truly worth. I would not expect anyone to pay $5+/lb for organically grown, hand tended potatoes, even if that is their true cost. The entire model inherently lacks sustainability yet we press on in order to preserve this earth as best we can.

  • TheHappyPapaya

    TheHappyPapaya said 8 years ago

    I think many times "sustainable" is just a buzz word. Maybe people like to feel a little better about purchasing something if they believe it is eco-friendly or whatever. But overall, I believe there is quite a lot of ignorance and apathy about what really works to make our planet safe for this generation and the ones to follow.

  • Colettesboutique

    Colettesboutique said 8 years ago

    This is an interesting arcticle. I enjoyed reading it.

  • steinschmuckdesign

    steinschmuckdesign said 8 years ago

    hmmmm, talking about it is one, I feel we all need to start or carry on in our small lifes, all that each one can do, if we do, then the change gets in a roule.

  • MandyBesek

    MandyBesek said 8 years ago

    "And I like to think that considering “future generations” applies not only to human beings, but to all other living things as well." ...I'm so glad you pointed this out!

  • jennyhoople

    jennyhoople said 8 years ago Featured

    Interesting that you brought up "resilience." A friend of mine who's really intense about wanting to create a permaculture community on her property has been using that word a lot. She also keeps saying that she's not an environmentalist, but that she believes in systems. I tend to feel this is all a human thing, more than being about providing a sustainable future for other organisms. Organisms have been adapting ever since the first plants emitted the first poisonous whiffs of oxygen into the atmosphere. They said: "hey, lets develop something that can breathe that stuff" and pretty soon after...here we were! We want those other organisms that are already around to stay around because that will make a nice ecosystem for us to live in.

  • Mclovebuddy

    Mclovebuddy said 8 years ago Featured

    sustainable living isn't truly possible at this point and probably not in my lifetime due to the sheer number of people on earth (that population boom coincides with industrial agriculture). i really don't want to say it, but nature has a blunt way of correcting for things when they get out of hands. i hope i won't be around to see it.

  • LittleWrenPottery

    LittleWrenPottery said 8 years ago

    Interesting, words I think are as only as powerful as the people who use them. Surely at some point 'green' was a good value until it became a trend and greenwash took over...

  • Officeboy01

    Officeboy01 said 8 years ago

    Great article, I like what the author pointed out about the future generations just does not apply to humans. Trees, oceans and such all work together to provide us life.

  • tiltomorrow

    tiltomorrow said 8 years ago

    Interesting article. I wonder how it will play out for the generations to come?

  • TextilePlatypus

    TextilePlatypus said 8 years ago

    I think whatever word we use isn't as important as to have a clear concept of what's right to do in terms of using the natural resources that our planet provides us. The words can get meaning or loose it but the essence will always be the same, it is vital to preserve our planet and if changing words from time to time will help some people to notice this issue, then WELCOME sustainability!

  • MadeinMogotes

    MadeinMogotes said 8 years ago

    Thanks for putting this article together. I learned a few things I didn't know before :)

  • tiltomorrow

    tiltomorrow said 8 years ago

    Did you check out that sign in the other blog, "The Art of Junkin"

  • Iammie

    Iammie said 8 years ago

    Great article!

  • lkmccray

    lkmccray said 8 years ago

    It's so easy to use words without thinking of their origins or their contemporary meaning. I appreciate especially the concepts of resilience and taking into account our actions on future generations, and how they have played a significant role in sustainable cultures. And I love your sister's pragmatic pronouncement. It really says it all. Thanks for making us pause and ponder.

  • BanglewoodSupplies

    BanglewoodSupplies said 8 years ago

    Awesome Article!

  • TaylorArts

    TaylorArts said 8 years ago

    Really interesting piece. You've got me thinking now.

  • luxe

    luxe said 8 years ago

    wow. the thing is, this applies to so many things beyond farming...it really is true that the way our culture has developed, people are just not aware of where it is that the things they use come from, what is involved in making it and what it really should cost. there isn't anything that makes it more obvious than being at a market and hearing people snicker at the prices of handmade goods, homemade foods, everything. people think that shopping at target rather than walmart makes them eco-friendly. i would rather buy less and have better quality, whether that is food or clothing. loved your article and your blog. thanks again!

  • PruAtelier

    PruAtelier said 8 years ago

    I think that throughout the world, there was "sustainability" and "resiliance" for many centuries long before monopolistic corporations ruled the world and its peoples. It was commonplace for farmers to save their seeds, plant wisely rotating their crops, NO chemical fertilizers, etc., and people passed down and recycled their clothes by turning them into something else, etc. There was no throwaway society with oodles of cheap junk spread far and wide. I really get tired though of all the buzzwords and especially UN directives on how sustainably we live our lives....we can really do fine once again for ourselves...people sharing with people!

  • TashaMillerGriffith

    TashaMillerGriffith said 8 years ago

    Wow. As TheLittleRagamuffin says,"However, this ideal model requires the back breaking labor of individuals who can't sell a product for the cost it is truly worth." I agree this concept is not just for farmers. I have given up on selling some items because more of my time and labor went into each one than customers were willing to pay for. I wonder if we can get back to a concept that the "things" in our daily lives should be made well, and should be preserved and fixed and last a long time, partly because they cost a lot. It's such a shift from the way most of us are raised to think about "things" that I wonder if it's possible. But I am determined to do my best to promote it!

  • Lapidarious

    Lapidarious said 8 years ago

    ...And of course the conundrum is that all of our planets economic paradigms are based upon growth. And the population keeps on growing at a rate of a million new folks every 4 days. Those two models are inherently such a strong factor that true sustainability is fantasy. Regardless of the rolling off of growth rate in population, sheer numbers will continue to increase. Education lifts folks out of ignorance and family size drops off, but those same folks then want to be a part of the culture awash in the glut of consumer goods. New formulas for population that result in negative growth, and economic patterns that are not pyramidal need to be established where less can be acceptable and further more, desirable, satisfying, and dare I say it truly sustainable.

  • TheScarfTree

    TheScarfTree said 8 years ago

    Very interesting and though provoking! Good subject for discussion! Thanks for sharing!

  • Furiousdreams

    Furiousdreams said 8 years ago

    Sustainability is very much possible in our lifetimes, I'll challenge one of the featured comments on that one. Research conducted at various ag schools has found that buying locally, and farming organically can not only reduce greenhouse emissions, but it can revitalize communities while supporting them with better and cheaper food! I have great hope for the handmade and new back to the land model that young farmers are forging. This will be a worldwide sustainable movement.

  • Aspyre

    Aspyre said 8 years ago

    Great article! Thanks for sharing.

  • mominblack

    mominblack said 8 years ago

    To simplify, for a system or product to be truly sustainable it has to meet the triple bottom line. It has to make sense environmentally, socially, and economically. If both the planet, and its people, don't prosper, then a system or product doesn't completely meet the criteria of sustainability.

  • WildRoseHerbs

    WildRoseHerbs said 8 years ago

    Love this article and the discussion surrounding it. Sustainability does seem to be yet another word swallowed by green washing. In terms of sustainability, I try to think of our collective history as a species. Prior to agriculture, we existed in a self-perpetuated system that changed very slowly. In past 10,000, or even 200 years our species has had such a fast shift that it's nearly impossible to think in generational terms simply because or world is so different from our grandparents', or even our parents'. Not to say we should return to this pre-ag state (indeed, the earth needs perennial polyculture farming to restore its ravaged topsoil). But, try to look past anything that makes a claim of sustainability to the actual give and take of that system. Personally, I don't want to put off environmental catastrophe for a generation or two, I want to eliminate that fate from this planet's future. Thank you so much for this article and for quoting Michael Pollan, an essential author on the subject.

  • BrittneyWest

    BrittneyWest said 8 years ago

    Great article! Thanks for the good read. "Let the beauty of what you love be what you do." --Rumi

  • RAiNBOWNiKKi

    RAiNBOWNiKKi said 8 years ago

    Love this!! :)

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