The term “sustainability” has become something of a catch-all word for any activity that is lower impact than conventional activity. But in certain rarefied circles (and in my thoughts) there are the questions of “What is Sustainability?” and “What are we Sustaining?”
The environmental philosopher Bryan Norton has written extensively on this topic and admits that the terms sustainability and sustainability are used imprecisely. He notes:
…it is often said that the terms sustainability and sustainable development mean all things to all people, that they have become banners around which environmentalists rally only to find that the banners are of all colors and that to follow these banners is to go in many directions simultaneously.
…One simply cannot overemphasize the role of problem formulation in seeking cooperation and success in environmental management. And at the heart of problem formulation is the question of how we talk about – how we articulate and discuss – environmental problems. (Bryan Norton, Sustainability: A Philosophy of Adaptive Ecosystem Management, p. xi)
The major debates that I see surrounding sustainability arise from those who think technology will provide the solution and those who think that going back to a simpler way of living is the One True Way.
Both of these viewpoints still avoid the question: What are we Sustaining? My background is in the natural sciences. I have spent a large portion of my life working with biologists who monitor the status of extremely rare species in fragile environments. While the loss of species and marginal habitats is only a small piece of the environmental puzzle, I always viewed it as the “canary in the coalmine” warning us of the potential for our own demise. Short of causing our own extinction, how much biodiversity loss are we willing to allow and still consider it sustainable?
Some biologists spend their careers debating the evolutionary pathways of obscure species and delineating detailed habitat requirements, and economists and political scientists quantify our willingness to pay to save biodiversity, I can’t help but marvel at how most people couldn’t even name the living things in their own back yard. How can we save what we cannot even identify?
I think we can all agree that sea level rise of several feet is an unacceptable outcome. We certainly don’t want a garbage dump in our neighborhoods. But beyond that, what do we consider a sustainable situation on this planet? How much are we willing to give up to achieve sustainability? Whose definition of sustainability will we subscribe to? And what if we don’t really subscribe to any?