What’s the Aim of Sustainable X?


In my last post, I define sustainability in a generic sense as the possibility of system to continue to deliver some desired outputs over a long time period. Sustainability defined this way is a noun connoting possibility, not any thing. I notice that I occasionally slip into using “ability” instead of “possibility.” Possibility is the better choice because ability suggests that we know how the system works and can describe what it can do. Complexity means that we cannot do this as a rule. In a limited sense, perhaps we can as long as the system is very near a stable point, but we lose our ability to predict the outcomes of any intervention we make as soon as it departs from there.

We always must define the end that we are seeking; sustainability without further modification has little meaning. I have chosen flourishing as the end because, as I have written, this word seems to capture the “good life” robustly. When we speak of sustainable X as in sustainable development, the end is not clear, per se. If one is not careful, the adjectival use of sustainable tends to focus attention on whatever it modifies. The fact that the X is usually only a means to get somewhere, not the end itself, is easily overlooked.

In the past several weeks, the blogosphere has been filled with lists of the best and worst instances of a wide variety of sustainable X’s. I looked at these and tried to guess what ends they has in mind. I’ll start with the grandparent of all, sustainable development. The means here is economic development. The ends are implicit in the idea of development, which is, at the simplest level, the idea that wealth is tantamount to the good life. For many, including myself, this identity is problematic and underlies the rise of the conditions signaling the unsustainability of our planetary system.

Next is sustainable business. What are the ends that business serves? Foremost, in our and other market economies, it provides goods and services demanded by people; jobs; and capital returns. None of these are ends directly associated with flourishing; they can, at most, be proper means. The ends are implicit and include the same one as above--that wealth is tantamount to well-being--and that choice in the market is related to freedom. The call for corporate social responsibility, now tightly coupled to sustainable business, is also only a means, and in many cases is directed at politically convenient targets. If consumption itself is a contributor to unsustainability, as others and I strongly believe, then if business truly wants to join the effort toward generating sustainability, it must critically examine what it is doing.

Next, sustainable buildings. Here the end is usually clear, reducing environmental unsustainability by technological improvements that, in turn, reduce demands for man-made energy. Very few architects include ends more directly attached to humans. The design of spaces affects our sense of community and self-realization. Peter Block points to this in his excellent book, Community: The Structure of Belonging. The architect, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christopher_Alexander has devoted his career to this subject. His latest work, a four-volume set entitled, The Nature of Order, argues that space exerts profound influence of life within it.

Sustainable design is another confusing and confused usage. Design, itself, does nothing. What is being designed; artifacts, structures, organizations, laws, syllabi, and so on, are means to some end. Without being more specific as to the ultimate ends, sustainable design has little inherent connection to sustainability as flourishing.

I have written several recent posts on the danger that sustainability was becoming just another buzzword, without a clear meaning. I was motivated, then, by a series of similar posts all saying much the same thing. This post comes out of some more thinking about the word, sustainability, and about the end it is connected to--flourishing in my writings. It also comes from the results of a Google search using “sustainable” as the search term. Here is the list of X’s that popped up in the first six pages (warning-it’s long): communities, development, table, specific place (Africa, Seattle . . .), agriculture, measures, tourism, investment, food, packaging, living, architecture, landscapes, gardening, style, tomorrow, spaces, transport, sources, seas, industry, conservation, energy, endowments, connections, sites, hospitals, cotton, city, and village. I am afraid that this linguistic habit will disguise the critically important ends because many of these categories describes activities that tinker only with the means.