We Don’t Disambiguate Anymore

The thing that’s perhaps most interesting about the sustainability movement isn’t so much that it exists, though that in and of itself is certainly an accomplishment.  The recognition that we need to live in harmony with our surroundings is nothing new – Native American culture, to some extent, mirrors these exact values (though Alan Weisman in his book The World Without Us makes the point that Native American culture, too, hasn’t completely lived by this credo in the past).  What is new is that sustainability has somehow become synonymous with the environment – so much so that when we say sustainability today, it’s assumed that we’re talking about environmental sustainability.

Why does this make a difference?  Consider the many different contexts of the word:

  • Business sustainability, usually referring to whether a business or a business model can survive or not
  • Information sustainability, referring to how information is kept alive
  • Cultural sustainability, referring to whether a particular culture can survive
  • Ecosystem sustainability, which is a subset of environmental sustainability referencing a particular type of environment

Environmental sustainability is huge – it interweaves itself in and through our culture, our values, our economic system, our way of life.  So what does it mean when simply saying the word "sustainability" is almost a given reference to the environment?  There are four reasons that pop to mind:

  1. It is a recognition of the current "fad" that is getting governmental attention, though to call it a fad is to grossly understate the urgency of understanding our relationship with our surroundings.  This particular position is not one I agree with for exactly that reason, though it is held by various people.
  2. It is an acceptance of the idea that we must change our way of thinking about our daily lives.
  3. It is an encapsulation of many of the fears we have about the future and provides a focal point for our efforts to better understand and support the world around us.
  4. It is a tacit recognition that we have ignored the environmental impact of a consumerist society.

The tricky part about the entire question of sustainability is that its many different spheres – environmental, cultural, and all the rest – are all so enmeshed that changing our way of thinking about one type of sustainability can drastically weaken or strengthen the rest.  For example, the state of Washington (and every other state in the Union, for that matter) has strict policies on how long particular records must be kept by public organizations for audit purposes.  If you change those rules, you immediately impact three types of sustainability:

  • environmental, because you’ve changed how the information must be stored and how the media must be preserved (which could require special material treatments, additional infrastructure, etc.);
  • cultural, because you’ve changed the rules on how long records must be retained and thus have required the people responsible for those records to adjust their practices (note that this is a smaller example of cultural sustainability than what I was referencing above); and
  • information sustainability, because you’ve changed the length of time that that information must exist.

What happens, then, when we begin to think sustainably about our environment?  Our way of being changes.  This is not only essential; it’s required.  That’s why the word "sustainability" must be linked in people’s minds to the environment: to not do so is to put us all in grave danger of forgetting that we have to change.