Is ’sustainable’ the right word?

This is a question I’ve been asked a number of times lately. It has made me think. And I have come to the conclusion that it is the right word. Let me briefly explain why.

First and foremost ’sustainable’ is the established term we have used for a long time when we mean systems that are healthy and productive.

Secondly introducing a new term at this moment in time would risk confusion, and perhaps even lead us astray in the important work we have before us.

What seems to be considered problematic with the term ’sustainable’  is the view that no systems truly are sustainable. As far as I can recall from my studies in natural sciences this seems to stem from some confusion about how systems tend to function. In order to be sustainable systems do not have to be stable over time. They can be disturbed. But if they are resilient they recover. If they are not they collapse. A resilient system would be sustainable. A system that collapses would not be.

My understanding is that human life on Earth is a living system within a larger system we can call biological life on Earth. Our life style is making other systems collapse (species extinction). We are also disturbing the large system of life on Earth. But I seriously doubt we have the capacity to make this system collapse completely. We will kill ourselves before that happens. So the biological life system on Earth is resilient. Human life at this moment is on a track to collapse.

Some suggest that a better term would be ’harmony’. That we as a species should live in harmony with nature. I have no trouble with this term, but it lacks the quite solid groundwork done in the sustainability movement where relatively concrete definitions and action plans have been derived over the decades. Harmony in comparison becomes very fluffy and I fear it can serve as an escape hatch for doing the very specific work we know needs to be done.

So, I will stick to using the terms ’sustainable’. ’sustainability’ and ’sustainable development’. This wikipedia entry gives a good overview me thinks.

— Jan