I have a confession. I am getting increasingly sick of the word 'sustainability'.
When we refer to 'sustainability', we refer to practises with the ability to sustain life on Earth. To sustain Nature. When we talk about sustaining ourselves, we conjure images of survival, and of scarcity. 'To sustain' is also used in the context of under-going or suffering when we talk of 'sustaining injury'.
But Nature does not sustain itself. Nature thrives and flourishes, even in the most hostile of places. Even when thwarting is attempted, roots will push through concrete, fungus will infest damp cellars, bacteria and viruses will travel seas and even hide inside cells.
Instead of aiming to be sustainable, why not take a leaf from Nature's book... and create a world in which all species flourish and thrive. If all we want is to sustain Life on Earth, then zoos and conservation will be as far reaching as our sustainability efforts will go.
Consider the definition of 'sustainable development'.
The most popular definition of sustainable development is from the Brundtland Report of 1987, which said:
"Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."
This is the definition I was presented with during my years at school, when it came around to learn about the topics I thought would tell me about 'how to change the world', 'how to save the rainforest', and 'how do we build things that help not only us, but the other living things around us?' That learning period (at school at least) proved uninspiring and difficult to connect with. Where were the discussions around what those needs are, and how best to meet them? Of hacking problems, building solutions, and also all of the social change, philosophical and political change, that would need to accompany any such development?
Diving into such a definition itself, it communicates some interesting attitudes behind this 'sustainable development' initiative. I see a lot of power in our choice of language - a lot of implicit assumptions and thought patterns are unconsciously propagated in our terminology. Oftentimes, it is enough to critically review a definition or term to uncover some interesting underlying assumptions.
Firstly: What does it mean to create a world that simply sustains our needs? What does it mean to imply that we are entities that exist separate to the world at large, or that our development is something that only creates material wealth to fuel our progression on this Earth? Do we want to create a world for using (until we've used it all up) or for being, and living?
The other point to draw attention to is this term: 'needs of the present'. What does this really refer to here? The needs we had in 1987 (the time of the definition)? The needs we have now? Yesterday? Tomorrow? The needs of the average American? Or the needs of the average Bangladeshi? Have we defined and established the "normal" human need? We go on and on about how there 'too many people' living today and using up resources; but is it overpopulation that is really the problem, or in fact overconsumption by a select minority of that population? Our needs are increasing every day, and a shifting baseline is unhelpful for us if we are to determine what is realistic for us to demand of our planet.
If we are constantly to be stuck in a loop of meeting our needs today while preserving, or creating, more resources to satisfy our needs tomorrow - then what really gets prioritised: the carrying capacity of this planet (i.e. the number of trees left in our rainforests), or: our needs? How is this going to help us change our fundamental behaviours and move away from patterns of linear consumption, to those of regeneration, rejuvenation and a circular economy - those that act symbiotically, instead of parasitically. I wonder about why, when choosing the above definition, they did not consider 'meeting our needs without destroying the planet' or 'developing in an ecologically sound, socially just and politically stable way, while meeting our needs'.
It's also unhelpful when you consider a field, such as technology, whereby the very existence of a new technology often gives birth to a new need, or market, where one did not exist beforehand. Take virtual reality. Is virtual reality going to answer our current needs? Do we need to plug in to an alternative reality and trick our brains into pseudo-real experiences? Does a surgeon need better, and more life-like training before entering the surgery? Does the sex industry need a revamp, does psychotherapy need better tools to treat devastating psychiatric disorders? Does virtual reality helps us meet the needs of the present without jeopardising the future's needs? Does it create new vacuums of need in itself?
And what about the consequences? If a technology creates new needs, and meets them, but has consequences that are harmful to our longevity on this planet, or to the planet itself, is it sustainable by definition? If we are increasing the distance between us and the natural world, and even between us and our own bodies, is this technology sustainable, and will it ultimately increase our sustainable actions? Do some needs (improving medicine, saving lives, or having an incredible orgasm) take priority over others (ecological destruction, connection to Nature, warfare, inequality, non-human lives)?
How do we create new terminology to reframe the way we are thinking about our development?
Is our definition of 'sustainability' - today, a term used synonymously with the bright, ecological future we'd like to build - really to centre around consumption, and sustained consumption of resources? Do we think that a more beautiful world is one that continues to prioritise growth, as long as that growth allows us to keep on taking? And ultimately, how do we view our spaceship, Earth? Is it simply a resource that we require to sustain our needs, as those needs increase, and we bend our available materials to fit and satisfy those needs and hungry visions?
It seems to me that the thinking behind 'sustainability' and the strive to satisfy it, comes from exactly the system which has failed to provide us with vision and creative, ecological, resilient and just solutions to our current problems. In fact, it could even be argued that the thinking that puts us, Homo sapiens, as separate to this living, breathing, network - and the Earth as a bounty of resources - instead of an abundant, complex system, of which we are just one node - is exactly what has created many of our current problems to begin with.
It's time to re-think 'sustainability' - and re-write our terminology, and in turn our entire narrative: a new story of our time.