Sustainability is arguably the most critical concept of our time, yet it is also a notorious buzzword co-opted for a variety of purposes. In many respects, if your goal is to mobilize the world to address the dire eco-crisis of the 21st Century, the word falls well short of the mark. Are we really supposed to get enthusiastic about “sustaining?” Wouldn’t it be better to “thrive?” Perhaps the rallying cry should be “Thrivability!” Nevertheless, given that the S-word seems to be what we’re stuck with for the moment, I need to ask: What does sustainability mean to you? This is a question we all should be contemplating. And the answer should be based as much as possible on a clear-headed view of the world. With the latter in mind, I would like to address what I see as three major misconceptions about sustainability, fundamental assumptions that must be recognized if we are to forge a viable path into the future.
Misconception #1: Humans are separate from (nonhuman) nature.
Today, the most commonly used definition of sustainability comes from the 1987 Report of the (UN-convened) Brundtland Commission: “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” A central premise of this definition is that sustainability refers solely to human sustainability, in turn founded on the presumed separation of humans from the rest of nature. Although the latter idea has been a persistent illusion of Western societies for centuries, it has become increasingly difficult to maintain in a world of global warming, species losses, and ecosystem collapses. We are but one weedy species among millions, and the heart of sustainability, the “things” most in need of being sustained, are the stunningly complex ecological networks that support us and the great bounty of life forms with which we share this planet. To state what should obvious to all thinking individuals—sustainability in any meaningful sense will be founded on the balanced articulation of human and nonhuman nature. In this revised conception, an overly simplified alternative definition might be “living within Earth’s limits.”
Misconception #2: Sustainability is a destination.
Sustainability is commonly thought of as an ultimate goal or endpoint, a utopian state of equilibrium where humanity final reins in its excesses and strikes some sort of balance. Commonly cited characteristics of a sustainable future include greatly improved energy efficiency, a shift to clean energy (“green electrons”), a vast reduction of wastes and toxins, a focus on locally produced organic food, and conservation of diverse ecosystems. Yet ecosystems and human societies, arguably the two most complex systems known, are dynamic and open, operating far from any equilibrium state. Like all such systems, their behaviors do not follow simple linear cascades of cause and effect (A influences B, which influences C, and so on). Instead these systems are chaotic and nonlinear, ruled by mutual causality (A, B, and C all influence one another, along with many other components in the system). Small inputs frequently generate large and unpredictable consequences (the infamous “butterfly effect”), and ecosystems have the ability to change in response to shifting conditions. Rather than being a final goal or destination, then, sustainability is better regarded as an ongoing evolutionary process. Truly sustainable societies will mimic nature’s ecosystems in being resilient and adaptable, capable of absorbing perturbations and undergoing transformations once limits are exceeded.
Misconception #3: Sustainability is a global phenomenon.
Closely related to the fiction of sustainability as a destination is the notion of “global sustainability.” Yes, we now live in a deeply interconnected world in which a gazillion bits of information travel around the planet each second and the global economy is vulnerable to local collapses. I get that. Yet the idea that sustainability must be global is rooted in misconception #1, the presumed separation of humans from nature. Let’s consider, for a moment, the idea of sustainability from Mother Nature’s perspective. Natural environments vary dramatically in their capacity to provide food, shelter, medicines, and energy, to assimilate wastes, to process and store carbon and nutrients, to purify water and regulate runoff, to build and maintain soils, and to house biological diversity. Sustainability, then, must be attuned to local (rather than global) needs. Add to this the fact that human social systems are also highly diverse, dependent on such factors as religion, ethnicity, and governmental structure, and the need for localization becomes even more evident. Notwithstanding present trends toward globalization, sustainability must be locally and regionally based, adapted to place-specific limits, and achievable at larger scales (for example, states, nations, and the biosphere) only on a cumulative basis. Of course, innovations in both technology and education will provide critical tools applicable in a wide range of settings. Yet there will be thousands upon thousands of sustainable solutions rather than one; indeed, in a very real sense the process will be unique to every place.
Imagine if the vast bulk of us understood—not just intellectually, but on a deeper gut level—that humanity is not separate from nature, but rather intricately interwoven into the fabric of the biosphere. Imagine if we thought less about reaching some utopian endpoint and worked instead to create adaptable societies capable of responding to inevitable perturbations. And imagine if the elements of those societies—for example, housing, transportation, industry, and energy supplies—were designed so as to be embedded into native landscapes, mimicking the workings of natural systems. Such a revamped perspective would make us think entirely different about our daily decisions, since we would know that those decisions have ramifying effects that either nurture or harm the places we live.
If you’re searching for inspiring examples of true sustainability, look no further than the nearest forest, grassland, desert, or reef. Life has persisted on the planet without interruption for over 3.5 billion years. And every ecosystem throughout most of that unfathomable duration has collected and dispersed solar energy and recycled wastes, all the while maintaining trillions of diverse lifeforms. While resilient to change, those untold ecosystems have also had the capacity to transform in the face of changing conditions. In the sustainability venture, then, Nature must be our guide. I could never make this claim as eloquently as the poet Rainer Marie Rilke, so I leave the final word to him:
“If we surrendered to earth’s intelligence, we could rise up rooted, like trees.”