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Definitions of Sustainability
Alex Steffen, 6 Oct 04

One of the problems with using the word "sustainability" is that it has come to be freighted with all sorts of meanings, implications and cultural associations. Just how many? Jon forwarded me this page full of definitions of sustainability.

The question, of course, is: what do replace it with?

UPDATE -- In an email conversation today about the new Bright Green Living Wiki, I tried to explain my thinking here, thusly: "I think "sustainability" and "sustainable" are terrible words. First, they mean about 1,000 different things. Second, they are uninspiring to all but the already converted. Third, they play into the declensionist frame environmentalism is so often tarred with -- that things will inevitably get worse, that, at most, the best we can hope to do is "sustain" ourselves.

"One of the reasons I prefer the tag Bright Green is to get around problems 2 + 3: bright green futures are inherently progressive, rather than declensionist, and the phrase makes sense to people with only a tiny bit of explanation. If our goal is specifically to spread one-planet prosperity (standards of living equal to or greater than those we have now, but with ecological footprints equal to or lesser than our equitable share of one planet), we also get around many of the jumbled meanings of the 1st problem as well."


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Yes, yes, yes, no and maybe.

Or, to be more explicit, I think you're dead right about sustainability being a lousy word.

I think that "Bright Green" is an excellent interim concept, but still too close to "environment" as the-green-stuff rather than the entire picture of human-and-other welfare: it's not immediately obvious from *just*the*term* "Bright Green" that it's so much wider than just ecology.

I suspect that will get clarified over time by use, but you'd do well to stress the hell out of the social-good aspects of the "Bright Green" idea because they are not automatically visible in just the name.

Posted by: Vinay on 6 Oct 04

I like the term "generative" to replace "sustainable" (i.e., "generative development," "generative technology," etc.); unfortunately, it doesn't have a good noun form akin to "sustainability" -- "generativity" is the closest I can figure. I think "generative" captures the positive-sum aspect of non-declentionist thinking without being too-closely tied to terms which imply the current consumption-production cycle. In addition, it doesn't have an obvious tie to traditional green thinking, but fits nicely with it -- "generative environmentalism" has a good ring to it, at least to my ear.

Posted by: Jamais Cascio on 6 Oct 04

'Bright Green' is vivid and strong in my mind. I agree that the use of 'green' can have connotations with ecology that to some people may still not ring the right bell (they will think that we are not part of the ecosystem, when of course however you look at it we are, even if you believe that it is a cyborg-ecology/ecosystem heavily influenced away from purely natural forces).

Bruce Sterlings' Viridian name is much nicer here as it does conjur something more romantic as well as being futuristic, green and cool.

Thats what we could use, though I personally do likek the Bright Green moniker. For me it does conjur up neon green colours, phosphors and other technical shades of green :)

btw, I have just joined the mailing list and will send out a quick intro v. soon.



Posted by: Mark Simpkins on 7 Oct 04

Dear Alex and all

You have touched upon a crucial point. As Viney implies, no term for a serious concept can be understood without doing the thinking necessary to unpack its meaning.

There are indeed 1000 definitions of sustainability, mostly wishy-washy – but sustainability is not a matter of our definitions. Sustainability is a question of how reality works. If our ecology collapses, our behavior was not sustainable. So I believe the original focus on ecological sustainability is absolutely correct.

So the fundamental question is how would we know if we are actually avoiding the ecological deterioration that will lead to collapse? To my mind the clearest and most teachable approach this question has been provided by Karl Henrik Robèrt, who founded The Natural Step. He boiled the issue down to four system conditions for sustainability. Combined with a few simple scientific principles such as nothing disappears, the four system conditions enable people to quickly grasp the essence of environmental sustainability.

There are major companies, of which the most famous is probably Interface, a transnational commercial carpet tile company, who have used the Natural Step principles to systematically redesign their entire operation. In Interface's case they realize that the millions of tons of used carpet (originally made from oil) that go to landfill were actually a resource. So Interface (successfully) put its engineers to work working out how to turn the carpet back into oil for a new carpet.

The basic idea is that we know we are ecologically unsustainable if overall we are doing things like producing poisons faster than nature can absorb them, or if we are cutting down forests and destroying wetlands faster than they can regenerate.

He puts these ideas in this elegant way:

In a sustainable society, nature is NOT subject to systematically increasing

1. concentrations of substances extracted from the Earth's crust
2. concentrations of substances produced by society
3. degradation by physical means

and in a sustainable society

4. human needs are met worldwide.

What is elegant about this is that he is looking at trend lines, rather than arguing over local details. Nobody knows exactly how much lead dug up from the earth’s crust will actually hurt us. But we know that life in general is adapted to the flows that existed prior to man’s intervention. Life – our own and other organisms – is not adapted to larger flows. If those flows are systematically increasing it means that substances that living forms cannot cope with are increasing.

Translation: if toxins or other environmental degradation are increasing, the trend is unsustainable.

It is widely recognized that for many the term sustainability is depressing. Personally I do not think the term is inherently depressing. Seen from certain point of view, it is reality that is depressing. We are measurably going down the tubes at an increasing rate (despite counter currents like the possibilities of fuel cells), and the betting odds are that within the lifetime of our granddaughters, should we have them, the world will turn incredibly vicious on ecological grounds. With oil peaking now, would you accept Iraq as an example? I have dealt with that by choosing to be a committed optimist, working for a world that works despite the odds. And I'm also to a great degree able to maintain my own internal sense of well-being and pleasure even though I know what's going on.

I can empathize with those who want to cast the whole thing more positively. “Sustainability is improving our quality-of-life,” announces a sustainability educator in Australia. Dig into it, and yes, if we did all the ecological and social things we need to do to become actually sustainable, it would be transformed in wonderful world. But this definition, unlike the Natural Step definition, does not give you a clue about how to get there.

So I propose two things. First, that we all wholeheartedly accept ecological sustainability as the most fundamental issue of our time. And secondly, that we accept Riane Eisler’s distinction between partnership/respect relating and domination/control relating as the core social orienting principle for our time. Actually, contrary to what I said above, these terms are almost self-explanatory – except that when you dig into it they are highly contrasting uses of the nervous system, and predilection for one or the other is heavily influenced by childhood experience. You may not love Freud, but he opened the door to seeing clearly that if you are messed about in childhood you are likely to be a bully (again, think of George Bush) or a victim in adulthood. Hmm – looking at the psychological stuff is even less popular in looking at our true environmental issues.

Anyway, people who are using partnership/respect relating are concerned for the good of the whole. I happily cite WorldChanging itself as an example of a group of people use partnership thinking. People who use dominator thinking typically use force and intimidation to achieve power over others for their own aggrandizement (or to act out their hostile psychological stuff – Iraq seems to have huge doses of both).

This leads to a conclusion. If it is true that people with dominator attitudes are driving our increasing ecological and social deterioration (think of the WTO restrictions on environmental protection), then it follows that if we are to have a world that is ecologically sustainable and humane – a world that works, as I call it – then we must improve childrearing, put massive resources into teaching people the Partnership-Dominator distinction (the essence of democracy) and encourage people to train in partnership disciplines such as Conflict Resolution, improvisational acting, Synectics, Aikido and the Feldenkrais method of body education so that they actually learn to embody partnership skills. We must also rework all of our institutions from schools to businesses to governments at every level to operate on partnership principles. This is the proper agenda for those of us who care, and many people are working on this already.

For further reading go to Karl Henrik Robèrt’s The Natural Step Story (or the Natural Step web site) and Riane Eisler’s The Chalice and the Blade.



Posted by: Andrew Gaines on 7 Oct 04

Agreed, the word is meaningless.

Posted by: praktike on 7 Oct 04

Why dont you just call it either a perpetual economy or an eternal economy?

As in something that can run forever.

Posted by: wintermane on 7 Oct 04

I confess that I am unpleasantly surprised and disappointed to see this question taken so seriously in this forum.

To begin with, there are two questions regarding the term "sustainable". The question raised here is "Does the word sustainable accurately represent what we mean to refer to when we use it?" And the second is "Do we know what we mean to refer to when we use the word sustainable?" To compound these questions is a grave error; it shows not a problem in terminology, simply unclear thinking.

Most of the confusion/complexity regarding sustainability in the webpage cited above ( concerns the meaning of the concept, not the term itself. Change the term, and the ambiguity remains the same. Furthermore, as many of those quotes maintain, ambiguity may not always be a flaw. If a large institution sought to impose the same program of sustainability upon the entire world, we could end up with a mess not unlike that which 'development' has given us. Also, the reality of sustainability is that it would be beneficial, in most cases, to try to speed up the process of returning our environment to a healthier state. These practices would not necessarily themselves be sustainable, perhaps they would be destructive if we continued with them after they were no longer needed. But if used appropriately they would be a part of a wider move towards sustainability--towards living with the earth in a way that is balanced and functional over time.

I am highly skeptical of this habit of tearing holes in widespread terminology. It can lead to a thought provoking discussion in a college seminar, but when it comes down to it one must be realistic. Sustainability is not perfect but it is certainly functional. Terminology of any sort is not usually inspiring to the unconverted. To casually say that something is a terrible word and try to replace it with another can easily result in a babble of sub-sectarianism.

Personally, I don't think there's anything wrong with the term. I don't see the definitions in the site mentioned above contradicting each other. But even say there was. Take "feminism" for example. As feminism progressed and accomplished some of its goals, the orientation became more towards "gender equality". But that doesn't mean that we should throw out the term "feminism"--it has not necessarily outlived its usefulness. Meanwhile, now we find that the term "gender" is problematic and in a sense falls apart under closer inspection. So what then, shall we call it "Pink and Blue" or "Bababa" or some term with no pre-existant meaning?

In any case "Bright Green" doesn't quite fulfill this criteria either. Although "green" is a neat term to quickly suggest environmental concepts, there's always confusion with the Green Revolution. And we've seen that nowadays there's a trend of anti-environmental groups taking names which sound environmental (ditto for women's groups and so forth).

No term is ever perfect. I think it is a grave mistake to treat this issue too casually. It can be a drain on energy, and can confuse newcomers.

Posted by: Sasha on 7 Oct 04

I largely agree with the sentiments of the last posting.

The biggest problem isn't that the word "sustainability" is unclear. I suspect that the biggest problem is we really aren't (as a society, at least) ready to deal with the implications of what sustainability actually requires.

The word sustainability, while definitely not perfect, does already have a certain following. Deconstructing this word, or inventing others with essentially the same meaning, seems like it would lead to additional confusion at this point.

Perhaps we need to focus more energy on better defining and explaining the term, instead of finding a new one? Or show what the actual implication of sustainability are, across a variety of cases and scales?

Just a thought.

Posted by: Jon Foley on 8 Oct 04

Clarity of concept is of no use, whatever, if that concept remains packaged in such a way that it convinces no one new, which is unfortunately the situation with "sustainability" (though actually, I'd take real issue with the contention that sustainability is simple, clear or objectively measureable).

Even if I did agree, however, that "sustainable" has a clear and useful meaning, it very clearly does not persuade terribly well, and really doesn't inspire.

We need terms that'll send folks, if not to the barricades, at least to the polls with change in their eyes.

Sustainability just doesn't cut it folks. The sooner we abandon the term the better.

Posted by: Alex Steffen on 8 Oct 04

I think an underlying issue is the idea of creating a society that lives within it's ecological limits is such a global, large scale process that, no matter what word you use to describe it, the idea will be untangible and unclear to a newcomer to the dialogue. It's simply a complex idea.

Posted by: Noah Pollock on 8 Oct 04

Hi Andrew,

I enjoyed your comment/post about "sustainability" at World Changing. I read Chalice And The Blade a couple of years ago, as well as Cradle to Cradle and Natural Capitalism. It seems to me we need a mix of optimism (C2C and NC) but we also need to address the underlying causes. Which are complex: religious, political, cultural. I was so grateful for Riane Eisler's books (including Sacred Pleasure) showing that past cultures have been more partnership and less domination/hierarchy in their approach.

Your post was the first time I've seen Eisler quoted. Do you know of other forums/blogs where her ideas are discussed in conjunction with the ecology/environment?



Posted by: John on 9 Oct 04



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