I wrote this last year (2011) for The Noise. I must have forgot to post the digital copy.
“’Sustain’ is a pretty ancient word in the English vocabulary. As far back as the 13th or 14th century, we see verbal forms of that word. They are analogous to way we today use the abstract noun ‘sustainability,’” explained environmental historian, William Cronon, to a packed auditorium during his key note lecture, “The Riddle of Sustainability: A Surprisingly Short History of the Future,” during the annual conference for the American Society for Environmental History, which happened to be in Phoenix this year. To sustain is, “to cause to continue in a certain state, to keep up without intermission, to keep up a community without failing, or giving away.”
During his talk, which provided not only an etymology of the word “sustainability,” but also a cultural narrative surrounding its relatively recent emergence as part of the English language and its solidification as an ideal upon which the human future is imagined.
If you look up the word “sustainability” in the dictionary, you won’t find it. The adjective, “sustainable,” however, is defined in The American Heritage Dictionary as “capable of being continued with minimal long term effect on the environment,” and in Merriam Webster’s College Dictionary, “of, relating to, or being a method of harvesting or using a resource so that the resource is not depleted or permanently damaged.”
However, when the word “sustainable” entered the English language, it had nothing to do with the environment; let alone social justice. Until the middle of the 1960’s, “it had to do with the legal usage of arguments that are sustainable…it’s not until 1965 that we see the adjective ‘sustainable’ coupled with the word that describes social systems—sustainable growth, or sustainable economic growth—that’s how the word entered the English language.
The first appearance of the word “sustainability” was by the neo-conservative economist Thomas Sowell in his University of Chicago doctoral dissertation. “Notice that 1972, in the context of a discussion about the history of economics, is where that word first appeared,” said Cronon. “Nobody in the 1970’s used that word at all.”
While we can recognize that early conservationists were focused on questions related to the way we think of sustainability today, usage of the word did not gain ground until recently. “The efficient use of natural resources by eliminating waste is something that, of course, Gifford Pinchot introduced in that famous quotation, borrowed and modified from Jeremy Bentham, ‘the greatest good for the greatest number, for the longest time.’”
For a clear illustration of how quickly the word “sustainability” entered the English lexicon, Cronon had the audience consider the 2004 anniversary edition to the 1972 international best seller, The Limits of Growth. In the 1972 edition, the word “sustainable” occurs only a few times, while “sustainability” and “unsustainability” do not appear at all. Though if you read the 2004 edition, “you will find there the world sustainability occurring dozens of times and the words ‘sustainable’ and ‘unsustainable’ occurring hundreds of times…which is a measure of how much the linguistic universe we’re talking about changed in the interval between 1972 and the beginning of the 21st century.”
The most widely reproduced definition of sustainability comes from the United Nations Brundtland Commission: “To meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability for future generations to meet their own needs.”
In the 1980’s, as environmental justice movements exposed the disproportionate exposure poor communities suffered as a result of environmental degradation and pollution as well as illuminating the often racist rhetoric surrounding issues of overpopulation, “one of the features, interestingly, of sustainability, will be it’s assertion, from the beginning that concerns about the environment can never be tackled by themselves…all definitions of sustainability, the argument will be you cannot solve environmental problems without also worrying about sustainable economic growth…and worrying about social equity. Social justice. It all must be done simultaneously,” said Cronon, providing historical insight into the creation of the now ubiquitous, “three legged stool” of sustainability, which is articulated in various ways: economy, society, ecology; economy, equity, environment; the triple-bottom line of people, planet, profit.
The incarnation of this triple concern arose “to move away from an environmentalism that seems to be focused too much on nature and not enough on people.”
Cronon’s “Riddle of Sustainability,” lies in, among other things, negotiating the tension between the idea of a balanced stool and the current reality, which is one that in many ways places our current economic system as a priority over the environment or social justice. “Is sustainability sustainable?” he asked. “Can it be sustained? What are its virtues? What are its unresolved tensions? What are the paradoxes built into it?”