So what IS ‘sustainable’?

In this post, in which I mentioned ‘renewable’ and ‘sustainable’ in the same breath, I claimed that few people really understood what ‘sustainable’ means. So what actually does the word mean?

That which can be sustained? Something…..a process, a thing…..which can be carried on or last for… how long? A short time? A long time? Indefinitely? There are all sorts of fancy definitions, such as the one from the famous Brundtland Report in 1987, which talked about ‘sustainable development’.

In searching for definitions I found this site. It’s extremely comprehensive and I think it’s one of the best I’ve seen on what is popularly known as the ‘sustainability crisis’. This extract is from the glossary which defines ‘sustainability’ :

We’re going to define sustainability quite differently from normal definitions because the most popular definition in the world, the Brundtland definition of so called “sustainable development,” is flawed. It’s so flawed it should be tossed on the rubbish heap of history’s biggest catastrophic mistakes.

First we’ll give you our definition, followed by a look at why “sustainable development” is not just flawed. It was designed to deliberately lead problem solvers astray, because guess who “development” benefits most, even more than developing nations? Why large for-profit corporations, of course.

So here’s their definition. Short and sweet and simple to understand :

Sustainability is the ability to continue a defined behavior indefinitely.

Indefinitely? How long is that? Until the sun burns out and everything on earth turns into a charred mass? I don’t think we need to go quite that far. Upright-walking humans have been around for about 4.5 million years. That’s the age of the oldest-known skeleton that has been found anyway. Noted biologist Edward O. Wilson, in one of his books, gives the average age of a species as around 5 million years. So we might have another half a million years to go. I reckon that’s enough to be going on with.

So what can be sustainable? Can things be sustainable? I’ve seen a newspaper article in which a couple claimed they’d bought a ‘more’ sustainable refrigerator. (I’ve highlighted that word ‘more’ because I want to go into that later). Refrigerators can’t be sustainable. Apart from the fact that an individual fridge will break down eventually, they’re part of a bigger system and that’s what has to be sustainable (did they consider whether the material resources and energy used to make the fridge were themselves sustainable?). Can a person be sustainable? I’ve seen people say they’re trying to be self-sustainable. Again no, because people are part of a bigger system which they depend on and can’t be sustainable as individuals unless that system itself is sustainable (what they really mean is self-sufficient). So what does sustainability refer to? This is the definition we learned in our permaculture design course :

A system is sustainable if it produces more energy than it consumes, with at least enough energy left over to maintain and reproduce itself indefinitely.

This is getting closer to the mark, especially because it uses the concept of energy in the definition and because all life on earth is defined by energy transfer between living things and their environment. And it refers to systems. Only systems can be sustainable, not individual things. A system can’t be sustainable if any process in that system isn’t sustainable, i.e. can’t be carried on indefinitely. There’s that word ‘indefinitely’ again. I think we might just opt for ‘a very long time’, but I’ll continue to use indefinitely because it’s easier to type.

So now we have two things to consider: a system and a time scale.

A system is a collection of components which are interacting, interconnected and interdependent, so in order to assess the sustainability of a system all the elements in the system and their interconnections to other systems need to be considered. If just one of those components is a part or a process that can’t be continued indefinitely, the entire system can’t be sustainable. The ultimate system, as far as humans are concerned is the biosphere…..the living earth. It’s a hierarchy of systems within systems, within systems, within systems. We don’t need to consider anything larger, like the solar system or the universe, just the earth will do.

So onto that word ‘more’ and why it irks me so much in this context. Either a system is sustainable or it isn’t. There are no degrees of sustainability. That which is sustainable persists; that which isn’t, doesn’t.

I can’t remember how many times I’ve seen or heard the words ‘more’ sustainable. There is no such thing as ‘more’ sustainable, just as there is no such thing as ‘more’ dead. There are no degrees of deadness. Either a thing is dead (not alive) or it isn’t. It’s a yes/no thing, an on/off thing, or if you’re into digital stuff, a 0/1 thing.

When I was Googling sustainable, I found dozens of sites claiming “10 ways (insert any number you prefer here) you can be more sustainable”, and so on. Without a thorough understanding of the concept we have no hope of planning a future that is truly sustainable.

The other phrase that shows that most people have little understanding of the concept of sustainability is ‘sustainable growth’, although I’m not seeing so much of that now. It’s been pointed out so many times that the earth is finite and that nothing can grow forever in a finite system, that people are catching on to that one.

So when you see something described as sustainable, think it right through. Look for all the connections it has to the entire system of which it’s a part and if one of those connections is unsustainable, then the whole system is also unsustainable.

This post wasn’t easy to write, because sustainability is a concept that few people think about and is therefore difficult to get across to the generally uninterested layperson.  So I want to thank Bernie, who is a regular reader, for his pre-publication input and comments. Bernie’s blog is here.



After writing this post I remembered a writer whose work I admire, Paul Chefurka, so I went to look at his website again. In an article on sustainability he says this:

I use a very strict definition of sustainability. It reads something like this: “Sustainability is the ability of a species to survive in perpetuity without damaging the planetary ecosystem in the process.” This principle applies only to a species’ own actions, rather than uncontrollable external forces like Milankovitch cycles, asteroid impacts, plate tectonics, etc.

Paul talks about carrying capacity and overshoot, then goes on to ask, “what is a sustainable population level?” He uses three methods of assessment:

  1. the ecological footprint, in which he comes up with a figure of 4 billion people.
  2. the thermodynamic assessment—a population of about 1 billion.
  3. the population density assessment—about 35 million people.

There is a fourth assessment—the ecological assessment, in which he quotes the work of American marine biologist Dr Charles Fowler. Fowler did three assessments based on different approaches and came up with figures:

1) 35 million, 2) 10 million, 3) 7 million. Quite a difference!

My own view is this, formed after much reading and thinking:

Humans lived sustainably within the constraints of the biosphere for over 4 million years. Those constraints apply to all living things and include food availability, predation and disease. As hunter gatherers, humans must have lived sustainably. If they hadn’t, they would have gone extinct and we, their descendants, wouldn’t be here now discussing it. Of course, human populations would have risen and fallen over that time, but on the whole didn’t grow appreciably.

Then, some 12,000 years ago, agriculture was adopted. Before this, hunter-gatherer societies had been in approximate equilibrium, relying on photosynthetic energy to supply plant and animal foods and fuels for cooking and heating and barely altering the Earth’s surface. Agriculture was probably an unavoidable consequence of a species with a large brain capable of observing and thinking, an upright habit thus freeing the forelimbs for holding tools, plus opposable thumbs, making holding things even easier. The main thing about agriculture is that it produces more food than would be available naturally and that allows more people to survive, so population increases. More people means more food has to be grown and more food means more people. We have been on that positive feedback treadmill ever since. Now, we could have gotten off that treadmill (and still could), if we had realised the problem and done something to control our numbers. But we didn’t and now there are way too many of us and our activities are destroying the biosphere on which all life depends. It is too late to go back. Finding and using fossil fuels to grow even more food just exacerbated the problem and has produced huge increases in population over a very short time.

Without food supply constraints and self-control of numbers, a crash is inevitable. Whether you call it a crash or an ecological correction, it is all the same. Nature (our name for the biosphere system) makes the rules, not any one species.

So my view is this: any form of food-growing, without self-control of numbers will prove to be unsustainable and that applies even to permaculture, which is still agriculture, although one of the permaculture principles, ‘apply self-regulation and accept feedback’, covers this nicely, so long as those who practise permaculture adhere to it.

It’s also my view (and the view of others I’ve read), that hunter-gathering was and is, the only sustainable way of living for humans, simply because that is the evolved way for all other species and we are no different; just another species of large mammal, living in a system in which the emergent properties of the system set and maintain the behaviour of that system. Our large and complex brain has enabled us to get where we are today, but it’s more than likely it will ultimately and quite literally, be the death of us.

12 Responses to “So what IS ‘sustainable’?”

  1. narf7 Says:

    The trouble is, “Sustainability” (the word, the concept the “ID”) sells. It’s a way to mass market to a worried population who really doesn’t want to look at the big picture but whom are looking through their fingers at the massive problem and seeing what they are willing to do. It’s a mass salve word that allows people to think “I can fly to Los Angeles on my holidays as I paid extra for a “Carbon Offset” flight…or “The kids can all have iPhones for Christmas as they are being made “more sustainably” now”… “carry on regardless” and try to justify it all by using the latest trending buzz words. At the end of the day all we can do is try to minimise our environmental footprint (now also a series of buzz words…sigh…) Steve and I are doing what we can to do this. We are the perfect example of middle aged “hippies”. We don’t shower every day. We reuse all of the water that we utilise, we try to find ways to simplify everything and reduce the need for external purchases but without extra alternatives we are unable to truly make a difference. We can’t afford to go off grid and even if we could, the batteries required are not sustainable. “If everyone…” but they won’t. I understand why this post would be hard to write.

    Liked by 1 person

    • foodnstuff Says:

      I think you’ve said it all, Fran. People just can’t see the big picture. Sometimes I think it’s a refusal to see….head in the sand is so much more comfortable. I’m so glad to meet someone else who doesn’t shower every day and isn’t bothered about admitting it. Nature provides us with a free layer of protective oil on our skin and we go and soap it off every day! Once a week me, maybe an extra ‘quickie’ after a hot summer’s day or when I have to go to the GP. Hot flannel does for the ‘smelly bits!’ Good. On. You. Think I’ll become a penniless hippie, too. I’m already doing the penniless bit!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. notsomethingelse Says:

    Thanks for the plug Bev. Nice post, and I see and hear your struggles with adequately defining the nebulous concept of ‘sustainability’.

    I commented elsewhere recently that I have become so fed up with the misuse and abuse of that word that I would like to see it completely expunged from the lexicon of human ideas for at least the next century.

    In its place? Well, how about ‘stability’, which implies no concept of growth or unwanted change of any sort, for the lifetime of the system, once the desired conditions are achieved. It is the word of choice used by Bill Mollison in his grand opus ‘Permaculture – A designer’s Manual’, to describe the sort of things that the word sus…, sust…, (I can’t even bring myself to write the word now), was perhaps intended to convey. As far as I can tell (with no ability to perform an electronic search or the time and patience to read the whole thing again), Bill never used that ‘sust…’ word throughout the whole book. That’s good enough for me.


    • foodnstuff Says:

      I meant to look up that section in Mollison’s manual that you mentioned but never got round to it…must do that. I didn’t really want to introduce another ‘new’ word, that’s why kept to ‘sus….that word you don’t like. 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  3. notsomethingelse Says:

    Oh, and by the way, I am a mostly once-a-week showerer too.

    Look at it this way, we will be streets ahead of the great over-washed hordes when the time comes that access to water is so low or perhaps so overpriced or restricted in other ways, that a once-a-week shower will be considered a luxury 🙂


    • foodnstuff Says:

      I reckon if I can live off the smell of an oily rag, I’ll be ahead of the game, if and when oily rags are all there is.


  4. Chris Says:

    This reminds me of a Youtube video I came across a few weeks ago, called Redesigning Civilisation with Permaculture. It’s 1 hour and 12 minutes long, but very well worth watching, as it describes how we went downwards since agriculture was introduced.

    The message is not entirely anti-agriculture, but how you design your systems, determines how long they can operate for. I particularly like his description of how agriculture, allowed the human species to increase population to unsustainable proportions to the landscape. It’s very interesting.

    Sustainability to me though, means knowledge and respect of energy flow. Science has taken care of the knowledge part, it’s the “respect” we struggle with. Hence, why, as a global population, we are being thwarted by natural disasters of incredible magnitude, than ever before. Our lack of respect to energy flow, is paying back, how we’ve invested.

    Every time we desecrate a developed eco-system, we mess with ancient energies, which have designed stability in them. Remove the stability, and we introduce instability. Only on a global scale.


    • foodnstuff Says:

      Thanks Chris, I’ll check that one out. I have a post in preparation about energy flows through ecosystems.


    • foodnstuff Says:

      Watched the video, Chris and will watch it again…dozed off a bit before the end…shouldn’t watch these things late at night 😦

      Also saw your comments under the video. We still talk about the ‘invention’ of agriculture don’t we? I bet it was a very gradual, long-drawn out process that just happened without any conscious thought and the culture changes occurred that way too.

      Had read some of Toby Hemenway’s stuff before but never watched him.


      • Chris Says:

        I look forward to your post on energy flows, when you’re inspired to write. I know it’s difficult to find the time to write the words, especially at this time of year.

        Regarding the invention of agriculture, I’m sure every generation had an advancement they tacked on for the next generation to add to. So it would have been an incredibly long process. For me, the question isn’t when agriculture began though. More, when did hunter-gathering stop existing as a main preoccupation?

        Because that’s when we started having to spend all of our time, manufacturing nature, instead of being part of the rejuvenation cycle which was already established. Which had millions of years of energy flow behind it.

        Liked by 1 person

        • foodnstuff Says:

          I’ve already written the post….it’s only a very simple one. I thought I’d better post some pretty pictures first for a change. 😉

          You may find this interesting. I found it only recently. I may post it as a link in the energy post. Just another way of understanding for me.

          I don’t know about hunter-gatherer societies in other parts of the world, but the aborigines were supposedly practising a minimalist form of agriculture, but were still primarily hunter-gatherers at the time the First Fleet arrived.


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