Plows and Pitchforks # 8

Sustainability is the new ‘cool.’

June 29, 2013

By Matt Bernau

I was overcome by an urgent need to crawl inside my computer screen and yell at the author of the misguided opinions I was reading. Some white-paper study claimed that corn production is more ‘sustainable’ than in the past because corn producers are raising more bushels from less land.

The amount of land used to produce a bushel of output of grain or fruit or other crop is largely irrelevant to sustainability. Insofar as sustainability has to do with system stability and cycling…sustainability means that the capacity exists to keep doing what you’re doing ad-infinitum unless acted upon by an outside force. Which is my definition that has something to do with Newton’s First Law of Motion: “An object in motion tends to stay in motion unless acted upon by an outside force.”

Outside forces can affect the sustainability of a system but that has more to do with the resiliency and how more or less said system is resistant to change than it does with the basic definition of the term ‘sustainability.’ A system can change a lot and still be sustainable because it continues to exist. As a word, sustainability is defined by the beholder of his or her own idea. Sustainability has many users; there is environmental sustainability, social sustainability, corporate sustainability, agricultural sustainability, business sustainability, food sustainability, clothing sustainability, economic sustainability, design sustainability, architectural sustainability, educational sustainability, political sustainability, soil sustainability, engineering sustainability, and the gravitational sustainability of slippery slopes.

John Fraser Hart is a Professor of Geography at the University of Minnesota; he penned an article titled “Ruminations of a Dyspeptic Ex-Editor” (Hart, John Fraser. 1976. “Ruminations of a Dyspeptic Ex-Editor” The Professional Geographer 28 (3) 225-232).
Dr. Hart warned us about the use of ‘fad words’:  “Vogue words are vague words, and they should be avoided as one avoids any other social disease. Such words frequently substitute for careful thinking and precise phrasing, and they communicate little meaning, because they mean all things to all people” (Hart 1976). I fear that the popular use of the word ‘sustainability’ has rendered it weak and meaningless as far as modern scientific discourse is concerned. The defined ‘sustainability’ four ways:
1) “Sustainability is a lens through which to view all issues”
2) “A word that left leaning urban Caucasians use to feel good about themselves”
3) “The ability to endure a balance of economic, social, and environmental well being now and in the future”
4) “The ability to sustain oneself i.e. ‘I have the ability to sustain myself, so I have sustainability!’” (Accessed June 29, 2013).

The also had a definition for the word ‘awesome:’ “Something Americans use to describe everything.” So the next time you read something or listen to someone using the word ‘sustainability,’ cross it out of your mind and replace it with the word ‘awesome’ because it means the same thing.

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