From time to time, terms expand beyond the Webster’s definition to the point that everybody uses them but nobody really knows what they mean. A good example is the word “organic”. All chemicals containing carbon chains are organic. All food comes from an organism and is hence organic. When we hear "organic food" we know that this is not what is meant, but what does it really mean? Many legal actions have been necessary because using the word “organic” on a food label is subject to so many different interpretations.
"Sustainability” is one of those words. In my engineering practice I first encountered its use in the term “sustainable buildings”. Initially I thought they meant buildings that were easy to maintain and lasted a long time. I quickly figured out that was not correct. It sounded like it had something to do with the environment. What were they talking about?
This term is now in regular use in certain professions and academic settings but has not yet come into much popular use. I expect this to change. This is the 21’st century word. If you havn’t heard it yet, you will hear it in the near future. Let’s try to head off the confusion.
The best definition I have found comes from www.sustainabletable.org:
"The ability to provide for the needs of the world’s current population without damaging the ability of future generations to provide for themselves. When a process is sustainable, it can be carried out over and over without negative environmental effects or impossibly high costs to anyone involved."
The essence of this concept is looking at the long term impact of our actions while dealing with our short term needs. This has grown out of the environmental movement and initially dealt with environmental issues. It has grown to include social, economic, and resource management issues. As a ‘catch phrase” or "buzz word" it’s usage will expand into many other fields.
Our culture is a “catch phrase” culture. Words like sustainability make great sound bites. This cultural phenomenon is annoying but before we allow ourselves to be annoyed lets think about this idea.
It has often been pointed out that the corporate world is under so much pressure to make the next quarter’s earnings report look good, that it is difficult to make short term sacrifices for long term benefits. We can all agree that this is unhealthy.
For individuals, the ability to forgo short term pleasure to pursue long term goals is a hallmark of maturity. Our society is fixated on instant gratification, indicating its immaturity. Credit card debt is at record levels and personal saving is at a low. Maybe it’s time for us to grow up.
“Sustainability” is a catch phrase and sound bites are a symptom of our short cultural attention span. But as we become annoyed with the inevitable overuse of this word, lets remember that this very annoyance is a symptom of the social immaturity that “sustainability” is trying to address.