What’s So Unexciting about Being “Sustainable”? Consider the Alternative

One of my colleagues and associates, Roberta Fernandez (ISIS Academy USA), started an excellent discussion thread on ISSP/LinkedIn about the meaning of the word sustainability. It drew a lot of comments, as people proposed alternative “brandings” for sustainability and spoke for or against their favorite alternatives, such “Balanced Living” or “BaLi” for short (!). At one point, an old quote from William McDonough was cited, about how the word sustainability is unexciting:  “What if I asked you, ‘How is your relationship with your husband?’ and you say ‘Sustainable.’ It’s not that interesting really. I would almost feel as if I had to say, ‘I’m sorry to hear that.'” The McDonough quote got me to respond, and I reproduce my comment below. Click here to read the whole thread.

I confess that I’ve never liked that quote from McDonough. I for one am very glad that my relationship to my wife is sustainable. It is not the first thing I say about my marriage, and it is far from the best thing about it. But if it were not sustainable, then it would cease to be … which would be a very tragic state of affairs.

The thing is, many things in this world are truly at risk of “ceasing to be.” Numerous species have already ceased to be. Homes destroyed by global warming’s wild weather have already ceased to be. The chances for many young people to experience the kind of economic opportunity as well as natural beauty that most of us (“us” meaning folks using computers, LinkedIn, etc.) took for granted as children … the North Pole’s ice cover … we all know the list of Disappearing Things.

Sustainability is not a brand name. It is a generic systems concept, applied in finance, ecosystems, even families. It means the capacity of a system, *any* system, to keep going without collapsing.

It has always been amazing to me that this fundamental concept is the focus of a global movement in the first place, but this is an indicator that we really do have some challenges that are fundamental. Some things about our civilizations are not sustainable; they are causing collapse, disappearance, a ceasing to be, in ways both tragic and dangerous.

Of course, we in this profession are not only working for the fundamental continuance of certain things. We’re working for a better, more beautiful world. A more attractive world. This is the motive behind the Happiness Movement, for sure (see the new http://www.happycounts.org website, by the way). Working *for* these things is one way of working to give other things — say, the habitat of river dolphins, or the chances that a young woman in Chad will get an education — a greater chance to continue to exist.

So … which word should one use, and when? In my view, it all depends on what you are talking about, and when you are talking about it, and to whom you are talking. Sustainability is a serious and basic management concept, with a long history and a robust intellectual foundation in decades of research and practice, not something one should toss aside. (You should hear French, Germans, and others talk with longing about how they *wish* they had a word for sustainability that was as good as the English word!) And just practically, I don’t think VP’s for Sustainability in companies are going to change their titles to become VP’s for BaLi.

But are there other words one can use, to attract attention, push forward different ways of working with the topic, get people engaged? Absolutely — just as other words and concepts embellished concepts like “quality” in the past. I’m a pragmatist and believe we should us whatever works. If saying “Balanced Living” attracts certain folks to practicing more sustainable development, that’s terrific.

But sustainability is still, well, sustainable. At least in my view.

One thought on “What’s So Unexciting about Being “Sustainable”? Consider the Alternative

  1. Dea Alan:
    When Elaine and I organized SSAP (Sustainable Society Action Project) we took “sustainability” from “sustainable agriculture”, that is, the ability to farm the same ground into the foreseeable future. It still seems to fit.
    Peace, in a sustainable world,

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