What Does “Sustainable” Actually Mean?

The word “sustainable” is not only half of our organization’s name, it defines the core of our mission. Yet it’s a word that is so variously and casually used today, we ought to take a step back and carefully explain what we mean by it.

One widely used definition comes from the 1987 report “Our Common Future” issued by the U.N.’s Brundtland Commission. It states: “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” and further explains that “the ‘environment’ is where we live; and ‘development’ is what we all do in attempting to improve our lot within that abode. The two are inseparable.”

Two key points are made in these passages: Sustainability involves a long term perspective that challenges us to think carefully about how we gratify our present desires. And there is an organic relationship between our social/economic/political systems and the systems of the natural world; everything we do affects, and is affected by, the planet’s biosphere.

In other words, sustainability requires systemic or holistic thinking. We must not separate the present from the future, or human activity from the life-supporting matrix of the natural world. We need to see and respect connections, including the ripple effects of our actions that might not always be immediately evident.

For many centuries western civilization largely remained ignorant or unconcerned about human impacts on the natural world. It was not until the nineteenth century that the German naturalist Alexander von Humboldt and Woodstock’s native son, George Perkins Marsh, recognized how agriculture, forestry, industry and other activities could cause severe, lasting damage to ecosystems.

Their writings gave rise to the scientific discipline of ecology, which described more precisely how this happens. Ecologists learned that the life world is intricately and delicately balanced and interdependent, that species thrive in particular niches, that species diversity is essential to healthy ecosystems, and that changes in physical conditions can destroy this dynamic dance of relationships.

Ecologists coined the term “carrying capacity” to explain what physical and biological resources are available to support diverse species in any given environment. When a population exceeds this capacity (e.g. by consuming food more rapidly than it can be replenished) or diminishes it (by degrading the soil, water or atmosphere), the environment can no longer sustain that population.

Some resources, like plants and sunlight, are regenerative (renewable) and can continue to sustain consumption up to the capacity of a given environment. But others, like fossil fuels and topsoil, are limited (finite), and once they are consumed, they are simply gone, and are unavailable for years, generations, or forever, according to their properties.

Sustainability, then, is the ongoing, self-renewing capacity of an ecosystem to nurture life. Nature has devised sophisticated ways to maintain sustainable environments over long, long stretches of time (barring catastrophic events such as volcanic eruptions or meteor impacts). It is the human species, with its tragic blend of cleverness and greed, that has figured out how to inhabit ecosystems so destructively, to blow past their carrying capacity so dramatically, as to render them unlivable.

If we are to live sustainably, to rejoin our fellow “members of the biotic community” (as Aldo Leopold put it) in a balanced relationship to the environment, we must learn to temper our technological cleverness with humility and respect for natural processes, and to temper our wanton materialism and economic expansionism with a morality rooted in ecological principles.

No single product, technology, practice or business model is, in itself, “sustainable.” Sustainability demands an all-encompassing attitude, a way of life. To be sustainable, a community and a culture need to consistently adopt a holistic, ecological wisdom.

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