From today’s Washington Post:

PUERTO VARAS, Chile — “Sustainability” may be a worthy goal, but the word has become cliché, now typically deployed in its adverbial form to modify various nature-exploiting activities like “logging” and “fishing” or the catch-all “development.”

So let’s quit talking about “sustainable” this or that and face the overarching question about the future: Can we create a durable civilization in which humans become good neighbors in the community of life? Where our society is embedded in a matrix of wild nature that allows all creatures — from microorganisms to blue whales — freedom to pursue happiness and raise their progeny in a secure habitat?

The path to that flourishing future for the diversity of life is “rewilding” — helping nature heal by returning missing species and processes to parts of the planet where they’ve been eliminated or diminished by human activity. In a strange and inversely proportional ratio of planetary sickness to public concern, there seems to be less attention paid to the mountains of data that scientists are gathering on Earth’s ecological and climate unraveling. We have, however, seen the power of rewilding projects to capture public imagination and gain widespread support.

I have been flagging this problem with “sustainability” for well over a decade. Here’s a few paragraphs from my 2013 book, Flourishing. Nice to see others recognizing it as well.

Sustainable is an adjective. Sustainable anything is all about the anything; in sustainable development, it’s all about development. Sustainable business refers to what the business is going to do to keep itself going. The word is widely misused. The way that businesses and other institutions use the word, it’s quite clear that they have no idea of what it is they want to sustain except the status quo.

Sustainability is grammatically and fundamentally different. First of all, it’s a noun. It stands by itself, but it doesn’t have any normative or social significance. Sustainability, as I already noted, is simply a property of some system to keep producing whatever it is you want. So the key to doing something about sustainability is that you have to first say what you want to sustain. I say that what we want is flourishing. We want the system we live in, Planet Earth, to run in a way that human beings and all other life is going to flourish. That means that we’re not going to have people living so far below the poverty line that they can’t subsist, ecosystems will not collapse, and on and on. It’s a vision of a world that works. That may sound simplistic, but most people really understand what we mean when we say a world that works.

Once again, my almost completely revamped manuscript for the next book awaits approval. I have my fingers crossed. Today’s post suggests the need for more exposure to the false sense of forward motion in the “sustainability” world. It will take a lot more than getting the semantics right.

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