Woolly, feel-good & unachievable?  Or a vital goal for practical action?

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Philip Sutton
Director, Policy and Strategy
Green Innovations Inc.
Tel & fax: +61 3 9486 4799
16 June 2000
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Paper marked up in HTML format
by Philip Sutton.



What’s the problem with ‘sustainability’?
The heart of ‘sustainability’?
The emerging muddle

The sustainability challenge
Being clear about sustainability

A shortened version of this article has been published in Trees and Natural Resources Vol. 43 No. 2 June 2001.

What’s the problem with ‘sustainability’?

I was at a conference in Sydney some years ago.  Over morning tea I asked an environmental manager from the ICI Botany plant what they were doing about sustainability.  My conversation partner visibly paled and suddenly became inarticulate.  This was a bit strange, I thought, because only seconds before he had been enthusiastically describing the very exciting work he and his colleagues were doing to protect the environment.

So why the sudden change?  I pressed the point.  What was the problem with sustainability-work when he clearly had no problem with environmental-work?  My morning tea companion told me that sustainability was a great idea but it was so big and difficult and vague.

I must admit I was a bit surprised by this response.  In my mind I quickly ran through the things I thought needed doing to achieve sustainability: detoxification/pollution control, protection of natural and productive natural systems, switching to renewable resources, dematerialising the economy and closing the loops, and so on.  Big jobs indeed but not that hard to understand.

What, I wondered was so difficult conceptually about these things?  I went through the list with my conversation partner.  He had no problem with any of the specific items!

In my experience this ICI environmental manager’s difficulty with the concept of ‘sustainability’ is not an isolated case.  A great many people I deal with have trouble using the notion of sustainability as a guide for practical action.

So what is the problem with ‘sustainability’?


The heart of ‘sustainability’?

The word sustain has been around the language for thousands of years.  It comes from the Latin sustinere, “to hold up from below”, that is, to support.  Over the millennia the use of the word has evolved, so now the meaning includes the idea of maintenance through time, for example a sustaining meal is one that will keep you going.

Given this core meaning, it is not so surprising that, when a few hundred years ago the Germans invented a new form of forestry practice designed to ensure that the forests were not run down, it was called in the English-speaking world sustainable-yield forestry.

And in the 1970s it came naturally for the authors of The Blueprint for Survival and The Limits to Growth to speak of our need for  "sustainability" and "sustainable development" and for “ecological and economic stability that is sustainable far into the future”.

But strangely as time has gone on people have become less confident about the meaning of sustainability.


The emerging muddle

I was asked recently to provide the best 20 definitions of sustainability.  I pressed my trusty search engine into service and went on a hunting expedition on the Web.  A few minutes later I had literally hundreds of definitions!  I pulled them all together and began to sift through them.  I hadn’t gone far before my eyes started to glaze over and my brain slid gently towards sleep.

The problem was there were just so many definitions, often with only subtle differences between them, that I just couldn’t make sense of it.  Then I decided to take a new tack - to try to sort the definitions into bundles that were the most alike.  Some time later this effort had yielded four basic definition types.  People define sustainability in terms of:

  1. the differentiating essence
  2. a preferred application
  3. the key strategies for achieving the outcome in question
  4. the key indicators or desired outcomes arising from the operation or existence of the concept in question.
(See Box for explanation)


There are at least four ways that people ‘define’ things, by using:

1.  a description of what the thing or action is (dictionary-style definition)

(definition by describing the differentiating essence)


·        What is a cat?  An animal with such and such characteristics

·        What is sustainability? The ability for something (eg. an entity, condition or action) to survive or persist.

·        What is sustainable development?  Development (a process of change) that is able to keep going, persist or be maintained.

2.  a description of a key instance

(definition by preferred application)

·        What is a cat? An animal of the genus Felis domestica (or Felis catus)

·        What is a cat? An animal of the family Felidae (big cats), the genus Felis or the genus Lynx

·        What is sustainability? The ability to maintain the environment. What is sustainability? The ability to maintain the environment, society and economy. What is sustainability? The ability to maintain the profits or the viability of the firm

3.  a description of what is required to bring the thing or action into being

(definition by strategy)

·        What is a cat?  The result of having a cat lady living nearby.

·        What is sustainability?  A capacity for resilience and adaptibility.

·        What is sustainability?  A process that integrates economic, social and environmental decision making.

4.  a description of the consequences of the thing or action being in existence

(definition by indicators or desired outcomes)

·        What is a cat?  The cause of hairs all over the carpet.

·        What is sustainability? In relation to society, a condition where cultural diversity is high.

·        What is sustainable development?  A state where the needs of present generations can be met without compromising the needs of future generations.

 Interestingly most of the hundreds of definitions I found were of type 3 or 4 (ie. focussed on the strategies for pursuing sustainability or the outcomes of sustainability) and yet you can really only be clear about what sustainability is at the core if you start with a dictionary-style definition (type 1).

 Getting the definitions right, far from being an exercise in academic hair splitting, actually has very practical implications.

 For example, a surprisingly large number of people see sustainability as some kind of woolly feel-good idea, like “the good society”, that we endlessly strive for but never expect to achieve in full.  Sustainability is the ‘light on the hill’, the inspiration but not something to be achieved in our lifetime (or ever!).  If you don’t think you can ever achieve an objective then there is a good chance you will not put much effort into devising practical action plans that are really equal to the scale of the problem.  Going-through-the-motions can become the order of the day.

Some people use the term sustainability as if it were an umbrella term for everything that is good and desirable.  It’s almost as if they are using it as a new age substitute for other ethical frameworks that no longer hold their allegiance. Body Shop people, for example, often use sustainability as an alternative term for ethical or genuine progress.

Almost any good idea can contribute to ethical progress, but it is easy to lose yourself in worthwhile but rather un-strategic good-works while in the meantime environmental (or social or economic) values are being lost for the lack of effective preventative action.

To others sustainability is essentially just the simultaneous consideration of environmental, social and economic issues, accompanied with trade-offs between the three areas. This approach involves a classic confusion of means and ends.  Of course sustainability, for example ecological sustainability, can only be achieved if there are changes in society and the economy.  But the prime objective in this case is to maintain certain environmental values.  The changes in the society and the economy are only relevant to the extent they contribute to the ecological objective, and they must be achieved without any major environmental trade-offs.  The same argument would apply if the objective was the sustainability of valued attributes of a society.  In both cases the key objective is to avoid major trade-offs.


The sustainability challenge

What do we value in the environment (or in the society or the economy) that will not be maintained through time (sustained) if we don’t take action?

Here are some examples:

In the environment: eg.

·        the productivity of ecosystem-based renewable resources eg. soil productivity in farming systems (threatened by salinity, agricultural chemicals, soil erosion, etc.)

·        the economic value of non-renewable resources (threatened by depletion eg. oil & failure to capitalise on the economic value produced from non-renewable resources to fund the generation of effective renewable substitutes & conservation measures)

·        the adequacy of supply of natural resources eg. oil / water / food / fisheries (threatened by static or declining productivity [supply] and by wasteful lifestyles and population growth [demand])

·        optimal atmospheric conditions (threatened by the rising release of greenhouse gases, etc.)

·        species/ecological communities (threatened by habitat damage and loss, over -harvesting, pollution, etc.)

In society: eg.

·        generosity of spirit/ compassion for others (threatened by me-first lifestyles, advertising dominated media, loss of local community and failure to create other all-inclusive forms of community, etc.)

·        capacity for problem solving (threatened by a fast, superficial way of working & living, inadequate public funding and philanthropy, etc.)

·        capacity for peace (threatened by rising fundamentalist values, rising resource shortages, etc.)


In the economy: eg.

·        capacity for adequate and continuing income generation (threatened by recession/ depression, lack of a well-informed consensus about how to manage economies, etc.)


Being clear about sustainability

Sustainability is fundamentally about maintaining valued things or dynamics that already exist. This contrasts with the concept of ‘genuine progress’ which is about the creation of improvements that go beyond anything that has ever existed.

There is no one legitimate focus for sustainability. It is just as legitimate to apply the concept to the maintenance of the profitability of a firm, or the maintenance of a critical aspect of society-as-a-whole as it is to apply it to the environment. But for clarity of communication it is vital to always ask: ‘what is to be sustained in this case?’

Sustainability is the flip-side of loss or extinction so it makes no sense to be concerned about sustainability unless the aim is to try to actually achieve it. Sustainability should always be approached with a sense of immediacy and practicality even if the task to achieve the sustainability of something that is valued is enormous.

Since real societies always combine elements of change with elements of stability, it is clear that a sustainable society (ie. with crucial aspects of the environment, economy and society that can be and are sustained) cannot be rigid or frozen in time. It must be able to sustain the valued elements in a dynamic way even while other aspects of the society/economy/ environment are changing.

Some key points can be illustrated using the issue of climate change. For supporting arguments and references for this case see:

It appears from studies of ice cores and marine fossils that the last time the atmospheric CO2 level was as high as it is now was about 20 million years ago. This is such a long time ago that a great many ecosystems will find the changes set in train by the elevated CO2 are beyond their capacity for rapid adaptation. If we are to maximise our chances of sustaining these ecosystems (and the species that depend on them) as well as our agricultural, fisheries and forestry systems that are embedded within the wider natural ecosystems, then we will need to apply the precautionary principle. It appears that in the last 400 000 years CO2 levels have not exceeded 300 ppmv. So perhaps this should be taken as the level at which we should eventually stabilise atmospheric CO2 levels.

If we were to stabilise at this level it appears that we need to cut C O 2 emissions from industry, agriculture and society to zero and that we will need to use all our capacity to sequester (trap) CO2 in order to cut a significant quantity of the past CO 2 emission out of the atmosphere. This gives you an idea of the scale of change that is posed by just one sustainability issue. As to the speed with which this transformation should take place it seems that we need to move very rapidly to cut emissions of CO2 - perhaps this should be done in just one generation. It will take a great deal longer to remove much of the excess CO 2 from the atmosphere.

So you can see that the concept of sustainability can have very potent implications for society at the most practical level. It will therefore pay to make sure that both our thinking and communications are as clear as we can make them.

Figure 1: Hypothetical fossil fuel phase-out curve.



Author:  Philip Sutton
First posted:  16 June 2001
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