The Problem with "Sustainability"

By Robert Kutter

It might seem like a strange message from the soon-to-be former editor-in-chief of a publication on sustainability, but I don’t like the word "sustainability." It hides the truly admirable part of what my classmates are trying to do: solve difficult problems with new approaches for the benefit of people and the environment. Actually, sustainability connotes keeping things the same, which is the opposite of what my classmates are trying to do: change things for the better.

The literature my classmates and I read in our coursework mostly talks about how to keep things the same. Usually, authors are concerned about the environment or quality of life. But the intention to keep things the same leads to different outcomes than the intention to help.

Trying to keep things the same is selfish because it springs from a desire to control for one’s own benefit. Parents who try to keep their kids a certain way or to over-control their lives end up harming them. Good parents nurture their children and—even though letting go is difficult—relinquish control as their children become more able to care for themselves. Only when we forget ourselves can we genuinely help others.

The word "sustainability" doesn’t do justice to practitioners’ work and doesn’t communicate a clear idea to the public. Sustainability of what? It’s hard to inspire people when the goal is unclear—especially when the means to achieve the goal are personal sacrifices, like giving up meat, or challenging tasks, like making solar energy affordable. Most authors don’t clearly define "sustainability" when they write about it, and that makes sustainability especially difficult for the public to understand. Even more concerning is that some authors want to leave it undefined to get more people involved in sustainability. Leaving sustainability undefined to get people to participate is like organizing a race and not telling runners how long or even where the course is. Before firing the starting gun, the race organizers might vaguely point to the horizon and say, "The finish line is somewhere in that general direction …" Bang!

People are inspired by positive visions for change, so we either need a new word for "sustainability" that conveys a clear, positive vision, or people working on sustainability need to agree on what "sustainability" means and communicate it to the public.

Contibutor's biography

Robert Kutter is editor-in-chief of The Sustainability Review and a doctoral student in the School of Sustainability at Arizona State University.