Defining sustainability

January 31, 2008

The simplest things are getting more and more complicated. I used to think about a certain word and know, almost instinctively, what it meant. Like the word natural. When I was young I would hear things like “he’s a natural,” meaning his special abilities just kind of came to him. Or, “she’s a natural beauty,” meaning she was just born that way…naturally beautiful. The birds and the bees were natural, as was most of the food we ate. It all boiled down to something being really special all on its own. No help from anything anyone did or didn’t do. Looking back, natural was almost, super-natural.

Today the word natural has become so convoluted it’s almost impossible to conceptualize. We have star athletes taking steroids, beauty queens with implants, cloned and genetically engineered animals and foods. We have companies making ‘natural’ products where the only natural ingredient is natural flavoring. All these things may appear natural but in reality they’re far from it.

The dictionary definition of natural:

existing in or formed by nature (opposed to artificial), not altered, treated, or disguised, based on the state of things in nature, constituted by nature, of or pertaining to nature or the universe, in a state of nature, uncultivated, as land, growing spontaneously, without being planted or tended by human hand, as vegetation, having undergone little or no processing and containing no chemical additives.

Save those dictionaries. I can see it now. Someday, in an updated version, in front of this age-old definition of natural will be the two words, reminiscent of…

But I digress; this is about sustainability, a word I started obsessing about after reading the previous post. Since we’ll be hearing a lot more about sustainability, and before its true meaning gets all turned around, let’s plant firmly in our minds (if not our day-to-day reality) exactly what it’s supposed to be.

The word sustainable, from the Latin, sustinere, to keep in existence, implies permanence or long-term support.

The most popular definition of sustainability can be traced to a 1987 UN conference. It defined sustainable developments as those that “meet present needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs”(WECD, 1987).

Robert Gillman, editor of the In Context magazine, extends this goal oriented definition by stating “sustainability refers to a very old and simple concept (The Golden Rule)…do onto future generations as you would have them do onto you.”

Sustainability begs responsibility. It entails more than science and economics. It requires heart and soul. It’s a way of life.

As the late Robert Rodale was fond of saying “Sustainability is a question rather than an answer.” Sustainability is a direction rather than a destination, like a star that guides the ships at sea but remains forever beyond the horizon.

In our gut and in our heart, we know when we’re headed in the right direction. We can’t let anyone put sustainability in (or on) a box.

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