Beyond Sustainability

Still from a video produced by the McDonald’s corporation to assure potential customers that it is not a terrible, terrible organization.

One aim of good landscape design is to render vacations obsolete.  After today’s workshop at the Washington Youth Garden had wrapped up, on of the participants mentioned that he didn’t want to leave the place, both the physical area, a beautiful garden on the edge of a vibrant upland wood, and the social space we’d created over the course of the morning.  A number of people stayed to chat and mill about and pick tomatoes, not quite ready to break their engagement with that place.  If we can create spaces like this to spend our lives in, home grounds full of excitement and mystery and warm feeling, we’ve done much to address the very pressing need many of us currently feel to flee our daily territories for alien climates, pursued by a thirst for diversion or relaxation.

All of which leads me, in a roundabout way, to the main topic: unpacking this word, ‘sustainability’.  I called today’s workshop “Beyond Sustainability”, and I’ve spent a great deal of hot air on the subject, but I’ve yet to write much about it.  The words ‘sustainable’ and ‘sustainability’ strike me as somewhat haphazardly bandied about in the spoken and written vernacular.  They seem to be used rather like religious icons, in that their connotative meanings are far richer and more diverse than their denotative definitions would suggest.  On the one hand, it’s wonderful that a growing group of people are invested enough in their love of being healthy and alive, their pursuit of fairness and justice in social relationships, their concern for the well-being of future communities, and their commitment to reconnect with the wider non-human world that they would establish a common shorthand for such intentions.  On the other hand, leaving these and other embraces of the healing world inchoate renders effective action to address such needs more difficult.  A more specific vocabulary with regards to what theologian and trauma cousellor Joanna Macy calls “the work that reconnects” seems necessary.

Before I get into the thousand-and-one words within ‘sustainability’, it’s worth taking a moment to examine the literal definition of the word itself.  Sustainability refers to the capacity of a system for sustaining itself.  ‘To sustain’ is defined by the Random House dictionary as, among other things:

“1.  To support, hold, or bear up from below; bear the weight of, as a structure.

2.  To bear (a burden, charge, etc.)

3.  To undergo, experience, or suffer (i.e. injury, loss, etc.); endure without giving way or yielding.

4.  To keep (a person, the mind, the spirits, etc.) from giving way, as under trial or affliction.

5.  To keep up, or keep going, as an action or process; to sustain a conversation.

6.  To supply with food, drink, and other necessities of life.”

So, how’s your marriage?  “Oh, you know, it’s sustainable.”  Did you enjoy the apple pie?  “Yeah, it was really sustainable!”  What do you think of the city’s plan to address rising oil prices?  “Well, it’s almost sustainable…”

Sustainability refers to a very specific aspect of interconnected systems: their ability to survive adverse conditions while remaining intact and relatively unchanged.  An unsustainable system will collapse upon exposure to environmental conditions not taken into account during that system’s design or development.  Considering sustainability to be a goal is like attempting mediocrity; if you’re going to try for something, why not shoot for excellence?  At minimum, any system that one expects to last for more than a couple of years must be sustainable.  For these reasons, I consider sustainability to be a great aspect to evaluate and consider, but by no means the most motivating property to work towards.  Sustainability, on its own, does not necessarily include elements of fairness, joy, health, beauty, diversity, or other systemic characteristics generally considered to be positive.  It is for this reason that I sometimes wonder if those of us acting out of love for the world haven’t been sold a bill of goods in the adoption of this word as our rallying icon.

The rather grim definition of the word, coupled with its many adherents’ vague conception of what it means to them, has made ‘sustainable’ and ‘sustainability’ extraordinarily useful terms for those invested in sustaining the current balance of power and privilege in the world.  Much like ‘organic’ has been robbed of much of its meaning as a gauge of food safety by foolhardy legislation and duplicitous agribusines advertising, ‘sustainable’ has been used by all sorts of organizations, from timber companies to toaster manufacturers to describe behaviors that, while they may be able to sustain a certain degree of (economic) hardship, are arguably highly detrimental to the health and well-being of nearly every living system they affect (“clean” coal, anyone?)  Furthermore, elevating a word describing a system’s resistance to change as one of it’s most beneficial properties avoids both an examination of whether or not the system in question might indeed benefit from a little change, and an open evaluation of just how effectively that system, whether a society, a business venture, or a managed landscape, actually is able to weather the harsh effects it is likely to encounter.  This is all problematic, and can lead, at the least, to ineffective activism, or, at its worst, to complacency and resignation to the status quo.

Of course, there’s absolutely no reason for us to allow advertising executives and other scum to determine the shape of our language.  As the late science fiction author and noted iconoclast Robert Anton Wilson was fond of noting, what we are capable of saying affects what we are capable of thinking, and what we are capable of thinking affects what we are capable of doing.  Language is a powerful, though oft-neglected, tool of the permaculturalist.  Unlike shotguns or combine harvesters, words are precision instruments.  So, given all that, what other words might we use to describe what we’ve hitherto been calling sustainability?

Imagine your favorite place.  What are the patterns of light and shadow like?  What’s the temperature, and how is the air moving?  Are there other organisms there?  What sorts, and where are they in the landscape?  What about structures, paths, furniture?  What smells surround you?  Are there other people there with you?  Who are they?  Why are they there?  Now: how would you describe the feeling you get from this place?  What elements of this place contribute to your feeling this way?  What other places make you feel similarly?  What elements of those places elicit those emotions and sensations?  Over the next couple of days, pay attention to how you feel in different environments, and try to isolate those elements of place that are particularly affecting you.  Invite some of your fellow human being people to try this exercise, and then compare notes.  Are there any patterns or themes you all have in common?

Most of us have a pretty good intuitive sense for optimally functional systems.  They look beautiful to us, and it feels fulfilling to be a part of them.  What strikes us as visual attractiveness may be the health and diversity of a landscape or its maturity as an ecosystem.  We may be excited by a place’s bounty, the verdant character of its plant communities, or the vibrant life all around us.  We can find ourselves absorbed by a places mysterious nature, or the elegance and complexity of its interconnected systems.  We are amazed in a place that is wonderful, spectacular, and awesome.  We feel secure inside of a system that is flexible, resilient, and, yes, even sustainable.  The word I tend to use in reference to this general collection of feelings related to systemic functionality in preference to ‘sustainable’ is thriving.  A thriving place is a place full of life.  The word itself has onomonopoetic connotations of upward movement, brightness, happiness, and things whizzing about.  Sustainability seems to me a grey word, evoking images of gruel and highways.  Thriving evokes an image of bounding forward with great energy, joy, zest, and verve through fields of riotous verdure.

We must make of our homes a thriving world.  If we intend merely to accomplish sustainability, we’ll forever be vacationers, dreaming of escape from our circumstances.  The situations we find ourselves in may hardly be described as ideal, but the seeds are present in every landscape for a glorious wildness to burst forth from the earth and from our selves.  We must be uncompromising in our pursuit of excellence, both in our tenacity to shape the urban soils into rampant gardens and in our ability to find and appreciate gloriousness where it already exists.  Perhaps what we’ve come to call sustainability is a sort of homing instinct- the instinct to make every place a home.

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2 Responses to “Beyond Sustainability”

  1. As a graduate student currently studying “sustainable” cities, I appreciate this breakdown of the word many of us have come to take for granted. My classmates and I have been playing with our own definitions of sustainability this semester, but we haven’t gotten to the point where we’ve questioned the appropriateness of the vocabulary itself. I’m going to share this with them and suggest we imagine our favorite places to see what words come up.
    I’m in the DC area and was disappointed to miss your talk at WYG, but am glad I discovered your blog. Thanks for the good thinking.

  2. […] find their causes subtly undone by insufficient or unsatisfactory vocabulary.  See this earlier discussion of the word ‘sustainability’ for an example of this sort of pitfall.  Ben Okri, who writes frequently about the relationship of […]

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