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What Do We Mean By Sustainability?

SUSTAINABILITY FORUM on the Limitations and Benefits of the Sustainability Approach

By J. Baird Callicott, September 7, 2011

CREDIT: Garrett Ziegler (CC).

At the recent East-West Philosophers' Conference (2011) in Honolulu, a skeptical comparative philosopher from a "developing country" claimed that "sustainability" was a hollow buzzword. I disagreed.

First, the adjective "sustainable" can be used to characterize any activity or process. And it means that the activity or process can be carried on for an indefinite amount of time—"with no end in sight," as we say. But not, of course, for an infinite amount of time—we also say "all good things must come to an end."

The temporal reference of the term is relative to the activity or process in question. Long-distance runners, for example, can be said to run at a sustainable pace (or not). Working-class casino regulars may be said to incur gambling losses at a sustainable rate (or not). However, the implied indefinite duration of sustainable running and that of sustainable gambling losses is radically different. A sprint is not sustainable, but neither can a runner sustain any pace, however slow, for a period of time measured in units greater than hours. Weekly gambling losses of thousands of dollars are not sustainable for working-class casino patrons over a period of several years, but weekly gambling losses of dozens of dollars might be.

So to make sense of the contemporary concept of "sustainability," we have clearly to identify what activity or process we have in mind. Are humans threatening to destroy life on Earth? Hardly. Life on Earth has sustained itself for between three and four billion years, nor could we wipe it out, even if we tried our hardest—say by simultaneously setting off all our atomic weapons. However, that might well wipe us out. Which suggests that what we have in mind when we think about sustainability is sustaining the existence of the human species.

When we refer to "sustainability" what we really mean is sustaining global human civilization.

But short of nuclear holocaust or some similar colossal folly, Homo sapiens will survive, although possibly in much reduced numbers and in a state of abject barbarism. In other words, when we refer to "sustainability" what we really mean is sustaining global human civilization—which is indeed at genuine risk of collapse. We can avoid all the suffering, dieing, and loss of all that is precious to us—science, art, philosophy, architecture, to say nothing of security, mobility, and comfort—only by transitioning to a human economy that does not threaten to disrupt the economy of nature.

The global human economy is embedded in and dependent upon the global economy of nature. The recent Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA) has slyly enabled this way of thinking by expressing the economy of nature in economic terms—in terms of ecosystem "services": provisioning services, regulating services, supporting services, and cultural services. Initiated by the United Nations in 2000, "the objective of the MA was to assess the consequences of ecosystem change for human well-being and the scientific basis for action needed to enhance the conservation and sustainable use of those systems and their contribution to human well-being."

Preserving these services provided by the self-sustaining economy of nature—self-sustaining provided we do not disrupt them—are necessary for the sustainability of global human civilization. Seriously disrupting these ecosystem services, and the embedded global human economy within it, will likewise lead to the collapse of human civilization.

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