Should We Be Using the Word ‘Sustainability’?
In 1972, the word ‘sustainable’ was first used in connection with the environment in The Ecologist’s landmark article, ‘A Blueprint for Survival’ — a text well before its time calling out the ‘irreversible disruption of the life-support systems on this planet’ in response to industrialization.
“The principal defect of the industrial way of life with its ethos of expansion is that it is not sustainable.” — A Blueprint for Survival, The Ecologist Vol. 2 No. 1
Interestingly, at no point in the entire text did the word ‘sustainability’ ever appear. Only the words ‘sustain’, ‘sustainable’ and ‘sustained’. More over, these words were used in relation to the creation of a sustainable society by radically changing it.
“Radical change is both necessary and inevitable because the present increases in human numbers and per capita consumption, by disrupting ecosystems and depleting resources, are undermining the very foundations of survival.”
Whilst it is understandable to see how the word ‘sustainability’ was borne from the text, arguably, its true meaning is lost today.
For example, a quick Wikipedia search of the word ‘sustainability’ highlights a fundamental contradiction:
Sustainability is the process of people maintaining change in a balanced environment, in which the exploitation of resources, the direction of investments, the orientation of technological development and institutional change are all in harmony and enhance both current and future potential to meet human needs and aspirations.
Sustainability is now a buzzword that is thrown around and its definition remains elusive to many.
A survey found that only 59% of consumers understood what the word “sustainable” meant, and 76% considered it “expensive”.
According to author and local-food advocate Douglas Gayeton, “the term “sustainable” is utterly meaningless. It’s meaningless because corporate interests latched onto the word because they felt that it resonated with people”.
And he is not wrong, as the FMCG sustainability market in the United States is predicted to reach $150 billion by 2021.
Why are these semantics problematic?
Looking back at where the word ‘sustainable’ originated from, the authors of ‘A Blueprint for Survival’ were not talking about sustaining current systems. They were telling us that radical changes were needed in order to create a sustainable society.
Now when we look at the FMCG, food and fashion industries, we see no evidence of production slowing down. Instead, more goods are being produced under the guise of “sustainability”. Arguably, this is not creating a sustainable society through radical change at all, but rather beating a drum to the same tune.
It is indeed interesting to see how these industries have latched onto a word with the mistaken idea that it needs to sustain an already broken system, instead of reconstructing or revolutionizing it.
As it persists, I believe that a distorted understanding and application of what it means to be sustainable will ultimately be detrimental.
The sustainability industry as it stands is like putting a Band-Aid on an accident victim, rather than devising a well-considered plan to keep people from getting run over. — Labor Network for Sustainability
Thus when we use the word sustainability, we should use it not in terms of ‘maintaining’ systems as they are, but revolutionizing them.
That, or we should stop using the word all together and find a new one.