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I return now to something I started in my first blog--defining terms. Among the thorniest of the terms that run across my blog's banner is "sustainability." I have often suggested that the notion of sustainability suffers the reputation of being both a buzz word and a buzz saw. 

I sympathize with those who see sustainable development as one more new buzz word to contend with. We hear the term a lot these days, especially in advertisements from companies vying for the attention and admiration of the public. With the ever increasing usage of the term, there comes, I fear, ever increasing confusion about its meaning. 

Sustainability, it seems, is in the eyes of the beholder. There is some truth to this. A sustainable society for some may mean a return to simpler--less technologically driven--times (a return to Nature with a capital N). For others, it brings to mind the boy scout adage about camping, only in this case it is human society that leaves behind nothing but its footprints and takes away only its memories as it passes through in its journey on the planet. Both notions are overly romantic and unattainable. Then there are the pragmatists who see sustainable development strictly in terms of dollars and cents--sustained and continuous economic growth. This too is utopian and unrealistic, not to mention extremely narrow.


The dictionary doesn't help a bit.  My computer's dictionary (The New Oxford American Dictionary) defines sustainable as "able to be maintained at a certain rate or level."  There is a certain irony in their choice of "sustainable fusion" as an example for the main definition, given that technology's long history of a future promise never realized. The same might be said of many claims of sustainable technology that are always just beyond the blue horizon.

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It is a sign of the times that even the dictionary has added an ecological definition--one which reads uncomfortably like the boy scout definition I mentioned above. It is one thing for a diligent troop of scouts to strive to have no impact when they camp. It is quite another to presume that human society can achieve such a goal on a planetary scale.

Perhaps the most popular definition of sustainable development comes from the United Nations. It too is overly idealistic. But it at least focuses on the true purpose of sustainable development:

"[S]ustainable development meets the needs of the present without compromising the needs of future generations."

It is a truer definition because it acknowledges that it  is for the benefit of all human kind (present and future) that we worry about what we do to our planet and how we manage our natural resources. For all too many, sustainability is more about preserving Nature (with a capital N) than it is about achieving a good quality of life for all. They confuse the ends with the means. Indeed there is a certain arrogance in the attitude that only we can preserve the planet. Our planet will survive just fine without us. What is important is finding a way to live and thrive (and survive) in the world we have been given. 
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The UN's definition doesn't get us around the buzz word problem, however. Sticking with my scouting theme, I've dubbed their definition the "Kumbaya" definition. It's something we can all join hands and sing along with. Who could possibly disagree with it? Don't get me wrong. I think it was a huge step forward for society that we codified the need to consider the future impacts of what we do today. But this definition offers little practical guidance as to what it means to be sustainable. 

Drilling down in the definition of sustainability inevitably exposes the devil in the details. More on that in my next blog.

  The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author(s) and not necessarily
  of the Institute on the Environment/University of Minnesota.

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This page is an archive of recent entries in the General category.

Fuel ethanol is the previous category.

Politics of Biofuels is the next category.

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