Shades of Sustainability


On this 39th anniversary of Earth Day, it seems our appetite for all things sustainable is increasing faster than ever. Every company, industry, and product is being repackaged and redesigned with sustainability in mind, and every newspaper, magazine, and television station has a growing list of sustainable themed programs. In the food world, everyone from large agribusiness to corner markets are flaunting their sustainable credentials…no one wants to be left behind.

At the same time, despite claims to the contrary, many uses of the word are contradictory and misleading. Unfortunately, this confounds an understanding of its real meaning.This is nothing new; sustainability as a concept has been both misunderstood and misappropriated since its modern creation in the 1980’s.

What is sustainable?

I get asked this question all the time, and it’s not an easy one to answer. The first popular use of the word in its current form came from a late 1980’s report of the World Commission on Environment and Development, defining sustainability as the ability of a culture to meet “the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” The very name of the report highlights the twin aspects of sustainability theory – human actions (development) in the context of the environment. But the idea did not originate there. It can be found in the famous Iroquois law “In every deliberation, we must consider the impact on the seventh generation… even if it requires having skin as thick as the bark of a pine.” And in Europe the threats of un-sustainability were central to the ideas of Thomas Malthus when he wrote “The power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man,” back in 1798.

At the same time, it’s useful to look at the primary root of sustainable – sustain. In various contexts, sustain means: provide with nourishment, maintained at length without interruption or weakening, be the physical support of, carry the weight of.

Together these draw a picture of what sustainable should be: actions that provide nourishment and that can carry the weight of humanity, at length and without interruption.

This is a far cry from some current usage. A plastic water bottle, designed to be used once and discarded, is not sustainable simply because it uses 30% less plastic than a previous version.

Which brings us to a recent article in Scientific American Earth 3.0 Magazine “Top 10 Myths about Sustainability” by Michael Lemonick. His article, while well written and researched, is filled with circular reasoning and half-truths. For example, Lemonick’s “Myth 1” is that “nobody knows what sustainability really means.” He claims that the World Commission definition mentioned earlier should clear up all the confusion. We should simply not “take more than our share.” However, the futility of this argument is highlighted by his Myth 10, where he correctly points out that even if we accept this generic definition we can’t easily put these ideas into practice. In short, he concludes that he’s hitched his horse to a definition of sustainable that’s vague, incomplete, and all but unusable in daily practice.

A great example comes from a recent New York Times Magazine article on the Transition movement by Jon Mooallem, The End Is Near! (Yay!). Mooallem quotes the founder of the Transition movement, Rob Hopkins: “Sustainability is about reducing the impacts of what comes out of the tailpipe of industrial society.”

While this is one way that the word “sustainability” is used (particularly by corporate interests), this definition is not true to the words origins. In this quote, however, Hopkins has selected his definition to make his Transition movement sound novel, even revolutionary. In fact, Hopkins is simply advocating for a dramatic social form of the same age-old ideas.

Sustainability varies with time and place

One thing that is conspicuously missing from most discussions of sustainable actions is the acknowledgment that they are inherently time and place dependent. This is because sustainability is grounded in our environment, and our environment is cyclical in nature. The bottom line: anyone who tells you “this is sustainable” without specifying a time or place is engaging in blatant greenwashing. A sustainable farming practice for one acre of rainy Washington State might be completely unsustainable for a thousand acre farm, and certainly wrong for a farm of any size in the Arizona desert.

Another example: in her recent 60-minutes profile, Alice Waters served eggs cooked in a wood-fired oven. Unfortunately, while I’m sure those eggs were mighty tasty, that’s not a particularly sustainable practice for coastal California where she lives. Just think: where did the wood come from? Certainly not from the scrubby hills around her home. It’s fine if the practice is adopted by her and a few others – but just think what would happen if this practice was adopted en masse. We don’t have to speculate. Many rural regions of the world cook over wood primarily with disastrous environmental results. For our modern world, natural gas stoves are a much better alternative (Electric stoves are another matter, as electricity comes from so many different sources.)

However, in the African rainforest where I lived in the late 1990’s we had a fire going 24/7 in our camp and cooked over it daily. We never had to forage more than a few minutes to collect enough fallen wood for the day, and never had to cut down more trees to meet our needs. That said, I was living in a tiny rainforest camp that had a population of 15 people…this equation would quickly change if the population increased.

So there are no “one size fits all” solutions. We need to take the changing environment into account for each situation.

Sustainable Food

When it comes to food, the definition of sustainable is defined in the fantastic new book edited by Cheryl Baldwin Sustainability in the Food Industry (Wiley Blackwell, 2009). Unfortunately this is priced for an academic audience at $199 and so most people will probably never read it, which is a shame because it is well written and informative. In her introduction, Baldwin writes “A sustainable food supply would mean that food is produced and consumed in a way the supports the well-being of generations. The current food supply has demonstrated impacts that make it unsustainable.” She continues by listing some of the well-known negative impacts of our current food lifestyle and then writes “Benefits of sustainable practices include lower production costs, improved product function and quality, increased market share, improved environmental performance, improved relationships with stakeholders, and lower risks.”

The recent “Inaugural National Symposium on Food Systems and Sustainability” at U.C. Davis discussed many of these topics. With its mix of participants from academia, industry, non-profits, and agriculture, the conversations and panels addressed the changes we would need to make to point us in the right direction. It was agreed that a sustainable food system would be more efficient, which would both raise profits and reduce environmental impacts. The issues surrounding resilience (system stability) were also raised, ensuring the welfare for our children and grandchildren.

Even in this educated company I heard at least five different definitions of sustainability during the morning sessions alone. Addressing a question on the topic, William Clark, Director of the Sustainable Science Program at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, put the topic in perspective by asking if we need a definition of the term at all. He suggested that sustainability was closer to something like “justice” or “freedom” – terms that most of us loosely understand but can’t precisely define. It is this flexibility, Clark said, that will allow these concepts to remain relevant as we move into the future.

Perhaps it is only fitting, in the end, if a word grounded in ecological variation is allowed some variation of its own.

Webcasts and white papers from the Davis Sustainability Symposium can be found here.

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  1. Wednesday, April 22nd, 2009
    Thermodynamics tells us that sustainability is an unattainable goal ... Energy cannot either be created or destroyed, only transformed. So, no perpetual motion machines and no ultimate sustainability. But sustainability is akin to efficiency (also a thermodynamic term) that refers to minimizing entropic waste. So, sustainability might have an analogy in efficiency, much as William Clark analogs freedom or justice.