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MATTHEW WATKINSON • WEB: http://www.fishsnorkel.com • TWITTER: http://twitter.com/fishsnorkel

WHAT DOES SUSTAINABLE EVEN MEAN? Matthew Watkinson

“Everything now is called ‘sustainable.’ It’s the ‘in’ thing to do, whether it’s sustainable or not.” Dr Albert Bartlett SUMMARY •

‘Sustainability’ is a utopian concept with very little relevance outside PR (corporate and personal) and product marketing.

INTRODUCTION If you haven’t heard about sustainability then, quite frankly, you must have been living in a cave. Actually no, if you haven’t heard about sustainability you must have been living in a sealed bunker in a cave. Actually no, if you genuinely haven’t heard about sustainability you must have been living in a sealed bunker in a passage that would be a cave if there was a direct connection to the outside world, which there clearly isn’t. In fact, if you haven’t heard about sustainability, how on Earth are you reading this book? You should be permanently trapped inside a sealed cave. If you have heard about sustainability on the other hand, then, apart from not living in a bunker in a passage that would be a cave if there was a connection to the outside world, you’re probably well aware that sustainability is the key to the future of Life on Earth. Apparently, it will “save the planet” but is it actually achievable or even, for that matter, biologically sensible? In fact, what does it even mean?

SUSTAINABILITY DEFINED Perhaps the independent environmental and natural resource policy research group Resources for the Future (RFF) can provide a concrete definition: “…there is no clear understanding of, let alone consensus around, what constitutes a sustainability objective or standard.” Pezzey and Toman, The Economics of Sustainability: A Review of Journal Articles (http://ht.ly/36G5K)

Perfect. I think they have deftly captured the universally accepted meaning of the word. This conclusion followed this observation as well, which deftly captures the universally accepted use of the word: “… sustainability proved a remarkably difficult concept to define and use precisely…One result was that words such as ‘sustainability’ and ‘sustainable’ became common buzzwords – motherhood-and-apple-pie concepts mouthed approvingly by anyone from media moguls to multinational mining companies – that often meant nothing more than ‘environmentally desirable’, if that.” Pezzey and Toman, The Economics of Sustainability: A Review of Journal Articles (http://ht.ly/36G5K)

Perhaps the phrase ‘sustainable development’ is a bit clearer: “In implying everything, sustainable development arguably ends up meaning nothing.”

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MATTHEW WATKINSON • WEB: http://www.fishsnorkel.com • TWITTER: http://twitter.com/fishsnorkel

I see. That’s from the IUCN’s The Future of Sustainability by the way. Which also had this to say: “The phrase sustainable development covers a complex range of ideas and meanings…Analysts agree that one reason for the widespread acceptance of the idea is precisely this looseness.” IUCN, The Future of Sustainability: Re-thinking Environment and Development in the Twenty-first Century (http://ht.ly/36GcS)

And this is from What is Sustainable Development, by…some other people: “...sustainable development draws much of its resonance, power, and creativity from its very ambiguity.” Kates et al, What Is Sustainable Development? Goals, Indicators, Values, and Practice (http://ht.ly/36Gh3)

I wonder what Konrad Ott thinks, author of a sustainability chapter in Griefswald’s Environmental Ethics (2003): “The basic liberty principle and the equal opportunity principal are both lexically prior to the so-called difference principle…What this may mean is open to interpretation…” You’re telling me. The point is there are no conclusive agreements about what any of these concepts actually mean, and even less about how to achieve them. The Brudtland Commission (1987) defined sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” for instance, but that’s as fluffy as it is hopeful. There are no references to which future generations, or when a future generation becomes a current generation, or how the needs of any future generations might change, or what a future generation should expect, or indeed anything much. It’s just hopeful rhetoric built on good intentions and little else. Four years after the Brundtland Commission promised human perfectibility, in 1991, the IUCN, alongside the WWF and the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), published Caring for the Earth (http://ht.ly/36Gvv), a report that accepted the needs for a more focused definition by stating that: “‘Sustainable development’ is used in this strategy to mean: improving the quality of human life while living within the carrying capacity of supporting ecosystems.” But how is that any better? It’s not. It’s just as fluffy and just as hopeful and there are still no reference points. 19 years later, in 2006, the IUCN accepted that sustainability is “holistic, attractive, elastic but imprecise” by offering this little update: “The relevant metric of sustainability is ‘the production of human wellbeing (not necessarily material goods) per unit of extraction from or imposition upon nature.” .” IUCN, The Future of Sustainability: Re-thinking Environment and Development in the Twenty-first Century (http://ht.ly/36GcS)

But I have absolutely no idea how that helps.

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MATTHEW WATKINSON • WEB: http://www.fishsnorkel.com • TWITTER: http://twitter.com/fishsnorkel

More amazing is the remarkable fact that, as far as I can work out, the United Nations Division for Sustainable Development doesn’t even define sustainable development. They just think we should develop sustainably. Those at the Sustainable Development Gateway have this to say: “Sustainable development means different things to different people…”

Which, if nothing else, is absolutely true. To be fair, they do go on to reveal what it means to them: “Sustainable development focuses on improving the quality of life for all of the Earth’s citizens without increasing the use of natural resources beyond the capacity of the environment to supply them indefinitely.”

But, rather predictably (and in the spirit of meaning “different things to different people”), that’s slightly different from the definition given by those at the International Institute for Sustainable Development, to which the Sustainable Development Gateway is linked: “[Sustainability is] Environmental, economic and social well-being for today and tomorrow.”

The UK Government believes that: “The goal of sustainable development is to enable all people throughout the world to satisfy their basic needs and enjoy a better quality of life, without compromising the quality of life of future generations.” (http://ht.ly/36GF8)

But that’s still fluffy and still hopeful. They may as well have said: “‘Sustainable development’ means everybody and everything living happily ever after.”

In fact, that’s exactly what they should have said, because that’s exactly what they mean. In fact, that’s exactly what everybody should have said, because that’s exactly what everybody means. The truth is that ‘sustainability’ and ‘sustainable development’ are just technical terms for. Regardless of the definition, ‘sustainability’ and ‘sustainable development’ are about living happily ever after and really represent the triumph of faith and the pursuit of a fairytale: “Once upon a time there lived the most important species in the history of everything and, after a few unpleasant hiccups, they, and everything else on Planet Earth, lived happily ever after.”

The End. “Like the word ‘green’, ‘sustainable’ or ‘sustainability’ has become the buzzword of the millennia. Corporations and governments of the left or right feel compelled to dress up the most ecologically invasive development proposal or economic activity with assurances that it is ‘sustainable’. Employed as an adjective it coats the unpalatable with the sweet syrup of delectability rendering the bitter pill of upheaval and damage neutral in flavour. Growth not couched in green psychobabble went down like Buckley’s Mixture, but ‘sustainable growth’, ‘sustainable tourism’ and ‘sustainable agriculture’ on the other hand tastes like sugary cough syrup. Such is the Newspeak of contemporary growthism, the vocabulary of deceit that promises a new kind of capitalism, capitalism in a green velvet glove, business as usual with apparent sensitivity to environmental concerns that will nevertheless satisfy the shareholders.” Tim Murray (http://bit.ly/a8TsSp)

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What Does Sustainable Even Mean?  

‘Sustainability’ is a utopian concept with very little relevance outside PR (corporate and personal) and product marketing

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