Why Sustainability Is A Terrible Goal

Why Sustainability Is A Terrible Goal

I hate the word sustainable.  Yes I use it to describe some of the things I do in my Linked-In account, but only because it’s the vernacular word that most people think of to describe the ultimate “green stuff.”   Google brings up nearly 80,000,000 entries for a search on “sustainable development,” 50,000,000 entries for “sustainable business” and 11,000,000 for “sustainable agriculture.”  Clearly many people are thinking about “sustainability.”  It’s become a buzzword, a keyword for greenwashing, and even though it is popularly used, it’s poorly defined.  But that’s not why I dislike sustainability.  I dislike sustainability because it is an insufficient, mediocre goal.

Here are some situations that demonstrate sustainability:

1:  Living paycheck to paycheck .

2:  A marriage that doesn’t result in divorce.

3:  susbsistence farming.

4:  serfdom.

On the scale of awesome, i think all of the four situations above all would qualify as, “not awesome.”  Let’s go a little deeper:

1:  I’ve lived paycheck to paycheck before.  It’s not a lot of fun.   But it is sustainable–as long as someone doesn’t get sick, as long as there is a job paying minimum wage, someone can live for a long long time without problem.  That’s a sustainable situation.  Who aspires to live paycheck to paycheck?  People who are very hungry.

2:  This isn’t my analogy–I saw it on a TedX video somewhere, but I don’t recall whose.  But if you were asking someone, “so how is marriage treating you?” and he replied, “well, you know, our marriage is sustainable.”  What impression would you have?  That the marriage is good or not?

3:  Subsistence farming is exactly that–subsisting.  Sustaining life.  It can go on (essentially) forever.  When you have asked a kid what he wants to be when he grows up, does he ever say, “I want to grow just enough food to eke out my existence!”  No.  But it would be sustainable!

4:  Serfs revolted from serfdom because sustainability wasn’t good enough for them.  It’s not good enough for us, either.

Sustainability means breaking even.  It means that you are producing no less than you consume, and also no more than you consume.  Unfortunately, 99% of all human society on the planet is entirely unsustainable, and over the last 40 years or so more and more people are beginning to realize it, and that is a terrifying realization to have.  That doesn’t mean we should simply go for broke.  We need to add some resilience to the system, and some regenerative ability.  Here is what I mean.

Resilience is the ability of a system to go back to a steady state after experiencing a shock.  On a personal financial level, this would be losing your job and yet having the ability to take care of yourself despite the loss in pay.  That shock (you’re fired!) to the system can be absorbed by substituting for what was lost (finding another job, having enough savings to get by, etc.)  The only way a system can be resilient is if it is producing more than it consumes, leaving some of it in storage to be used when shocks occur.

On an ecosystemic level, this is like a forest regrowing (resilience!) after a forest fire (the shock).   Or a watershed that has been dammed for 100 years (the shock)  filling back up with life and spawning salmon returning (the resilience!) after the dam is removed.

A resilient marriage is a marriage that can handle a lot of problems and keep going–shocks like unmet expectations, illness, the death of a child, financial difficulty, etc.  All those are shocks to a marriage relationship and unless there is some resilience, that system will fall apart.  Shocks happen to every system.   People are resilient but most of our built systems are not:  electric grids are notoriously fragile; political systems are fragile.  Trade and distribution networks,  food and water systems:  These are systems that are not built to withstand shocks, but built to be as inexpensive or as exploitative as possible.

But beyond resilience, there is regeneration.  A system that is regenerative is a system that is not only resilient, but that expands without interference–that perpetuates itself while moving into other domains.  This is a truly permanent system.  If an unsustainable system is in the negative, and sustainability is 0, then a regenerative system is positive.  If we want to have a truly permanent society, then we must build systems that do not consume their resource base (this is essentially every human system in the oil age), but that produce more than they consume.  I am not talking about a perpetual energy machine or any such flim-flammy chicanery.  I am talking about building human societies the way nature itself is built–by deriving all energy for our systems from the sun, and by redesigning how we design, produce, distribute, consume, and discard the products of human society.

Lots of people talk about saving the planet–the planet is fine.  But human society is destroying its resource base.  When our agricultural systems destroy soil and riparian areas, it should be obvious that those systems will not persevere, and that they are unsustainable.  When our methods of managing the oceans increase oceanic acidity and decimate fish and coral populations, it should be obvious that one day our progeny will not eat saltwater fish, unless those methods are redesigned and repurposed.  When people are instigating the next great extinctions, even while we depend on natural systems to keep us alive, it should be evident to anyone with his eyes open, that we are going the wrong way.   Something that cannot go on forever, won’t.

The right way is not sustainable.  The right way is regenerative and resilient.


  1. I don’t know about TEDx videos, but the idea of sustainability being a poor way to define a relationship is Bill McDonough’s. He mentions it in this video (well worth an hour or so of your time …) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xfzBQWfKpFA

    • Figures it would come from Bill. Cradle to Cradle changed how a lot of people thought. I must have gotten it second hand then…


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