What does “Sustainability” mean anyway?

Earth Question MarkUse of the term is growing. As focusing on our effects on the environment becomes more publicly accepted/pertinent/politically correct, sustainability continues to be a label that is slapped on the side of another box and fit into another soundbyte with less and less of a care as to how it is defined and ultimately received by the public. While having more people become part of a larger discourse about sustainability is a good thing, if we do not take the time to step back and realize what values and concepts we are trying to instill in the word then we run the risk of confusing and ultimately deterring potential allies and supporters. I thought I would take a stab at a definition for what sustainability has come to mean to me as an architect and a writer thus far.

I recently got into a great comment-conversation over on Randal O’Toole’s blog (Antiplanner) concerning the nature of sustainability. A chap I know only as “ChipDouglas” took what is likely a common stance of skepticism surrounding the topic, but seemed to be a well-informed, educated, American citizen. One of his contentions was:

Despite its immense popularity, sustainability has no fixed meaning, which can probably explain why it won’t go away: it’s nominally attractive and you get to define it.

While I do not think that is true, I think it is a reasonable reaction to draw given the dangerous waters we are wading into concerning a mass-market image of an important concept. I recently gave a talk on sustainability at Milton Academy in Milton, Massachusetts, to students and faculty where I outlined some of my reactions to sustainability and how to zero in on this elusive definition.

The market for sustainability has evolved into a number of consumer items meant to fit seamlessly into our daily, cultural activities. Companies try to make it as easy as possible for people to change as little as possible. Solar Panels, Wind Turbines, CFLs, Hybrid Cars… Using any of these things does not really require us to change very much at all, and this can lead us to believe that the problem is not what we’re doing, but only what we’re doing it with. A potentially dangerous misconception for a culture that has so far to go. It allows us to develop a false sense of security that these “products” are solutions.

Now I am not arguing against buying a Prius or installing low-flow fixtures in your bathroom. If you’re motivated to do those things then by all means, I’m not going to stop you, but these are not “solutions.” Rather, these are a first step from where we are now and are decidedly secondary to the behavior of how we live. For instance, how much are we accomplishing if we install CFLs but still leave the lights on when we leave the room or if stores keep their window displayed illuminated all night long? How much are we helping by installing an efficient heating and cooling system if we still try to keep our homes at 60 degrees in the summer or 80 degrees in the winter? Before we talk about cutting edge buildings with impressive technologies, it is important to remember that sustainability is not a technological fix to supplement a wasteful lifestyle.

I have come to describe sustainability as:

A network of interactions that achieves a consistent sum of resource components to operate and evolve indefinitely without collapse or additional influx of energy.

Now there may be some fancy words in there but what we are talking about is a series of actions that revolve around an idea of balance or stasis—pushing and pulling around a point of equilibrium. So sustainability is not CFLs, it’s designing spaces with more natural light. Sustainability is not driving a hybrid, but rather designing communities around alternative transit and walkability so that people drive less. Sustainability isn’t designing a 5,000 square foot home with more bells and whistles than another 5,000 square foot home—it’s designing a spatially efficient 3,000SF home. These concepts are more than just items we can purchase. They carry with them repercussions for how we decide to live.

In the end, the talk was well received but I was struck by the number of people that came up to me afterwards commenting on how they had never considered sustainability in that light and how much more sense it made. This only underscored for me how our flagrant use of the term has gotten a bit sloppy–perhaps to our detriment. My definition may not be perfect, and I am open to criticisms and reactions, but I think the exercise of trying to holistically define the word and how it relates to our society is important for those of us who subscribe to making it a comprehensive, cultural direction.

33 Responses to “What does “Sustainability” mean anyway?”

  1. My professor, John Ehrenfeld says eloquently that “reducing unsustainability will not create sustainability.” He has some interesting ideas about how to create the mindset of sustainability in his book. I like his framing of sustainability, which revolves around the idea of flourishing; basically, if generations to come can continue to flourish, then we have sustainability. Of course flourishing does not equal consumption. The creation of sustainability will require in the changing of society’s mindset.

    • Thanks for stopping by. I’m not sure exactly what your professor means, unless he is saying that counting on technology to stem unsustainable effects of the practices that we perform anyway will not create sustainability–in which case I would wholeheartedly agree. I also thing that flourish is an odd word choice. To me it sounds too close to “prosper” and which despite being an American, capitalistic ideal, is not necessarily a guaranteed life result of a system that can operate indefinitely. I would argue that we are flourishing now; continuous expansion, a growing population, standard of living rising… yet none of those things actually point to our being on a sustainable path.

      • I did leave out one important idea: that it is not just humans, but the other life forms on Earth that must flourish. I don’t think we are flourishing now; it is easy to see here in America, let alone around the world. Consumption is not flourishing. The increase of the GDP is not flourishing. Ultimately, we do use technology to reduce unsustainability – greening is often framed as “having it all.”

  2. I agree that it’s not just a matter of people changing products to be more environmentally friendly. You nailed it with “wasteful lifestyle.” Until people are thinking about a greater good than just themselves, I’m not sure how far we’ll get. There is a split mentality when it comes to this issue. Lazy is easier, comfort without care is easier. It takes a ton of hard work and dedication by people who do care to hopefully make an impact and share a point of view with those who don’t seem to care. We’ll all slip up, we can’t be perfect with sustainability, but it’s a struggle like anything else worth fighting for.

    • Absolutely, Jourdan. I think changing people’s system of valuation is really one of the most difficult tasks we have in front of us. There will always be smart people trying to come up with more technological discoveries, but really invoking a change of mindset–as you say–is when we can actually start making some progress. It may have to do with really studying costs and how we price items and practices in our economy after taking into account the full range of externalities–environmental costs, health costs, food production costs–to adjust how we set our prices and values.

      Thanks for your comment!

  3. Your definition makes sense… I think. It’s perhaps accurate but not catchy or immediately understandable. I think what you’re saying is that sustainability means creating an environment – a human environment – that can sustain itself through time without drawing more resources than it replaces.
    This often means putting ourselves in harmony with the larger environment, but not strictly so. Sustainability is not environmentalism; however, better environmental stewardship does very often come as an immediate benefit of a more sustainable society. (Fewer resources used by human society = more resources for other living things.)

    • K, Thanks for your comment. I think your interpretation of my definition is correct, and I couldn’t agree more with the distinction between environmentalism and sustainability–two terms that often get lumped together and confused as a result. Certainly, while ecological stewardship is likely a result of a more sustainable society, it is not necessarily the endgame.

      Sustainability in human culture does not have to, and perhaps cannot, operate with a consistent and strict deference to the natural environment in any and all cases. Instead, technology plays a part in achieving that level of balance and more efficient use of resources; in some cases doing nature’s work faster than it can like breaking down food wastes for anaerobic power generation and natural fertilizer production. I do think that the natural environment is obviously the expert in this arena, so we have a lot to learn from its example in operating sustainably.

      Thanks again for stopping by. Hope to see you around more often.

  4. I would add “non-renewable” into your definition before energy. Solar energy is added to every system on the earth every day. :-)

    But I like the overall idea.

    Also, I have on little nit to add. When you live in a place where you spend half the year heating, the issue of lights on and off is moot half the year. When you’re heating anyway, leaving lights on, fluorescent or incandescent, makes no difference because all the wasted energy just goes to heat your house and your heating systems run less. For a home with a cold winter, you’re much better off spending your money on insulating your windows and walls and plugging up drafts.

    A store that’s heating can leave its (interior) lights on all night in the winter and it makes zero difference.

    • Greetings, thanks for stopping by.

      Actually, using bulbs for heating isn’t a great idea and is a common misconception. Fluorescent bulbs do not give off much heat, so leaving them on if they are not lighting something is fairly wasteful. Incandescent bulbs do produce heat, in fact the majority of the energy they use leaves them as heat rather than illumination, but they are not efficient “heaters” of space. In the end, the energy you would save by switching to CFLs is usually more than the energy it takes for an efficient heating system, like propane, natural gas or even a good wood burning stove, to heat a home. This is a much more in depth article making the comparison.


      Ultimately, just use lights for lighting and even then we should be migrating towards LED fixtures to get the most light for the least amount of energy.

      • arcadianadventures December 17, 2010 at 12:01 pm

        Thanks for the link to the The Star article. It was most … illuminating. But the way I read it supports my argument. Mucking about with light bulbs may or may not save carbon emissions, depending on where you live and how the electricity is produced in your area. (I live in a condo where my only choice for heating is electricity, so it really truly makes no difference.)

        I still maintain that rather than worrying about leaving a light on, worry about the amount of heat leaving your house because of drafty door and windows, and instead of $20 worth of bulbs, buy yourself a nice warm undershirt that you wear around the house. :-) Or take your money and give it to Bullfrog Power and save carbon emissions no matter how you slice it or where you live.

  5. While I think your definition is one of the best that I have seen for sustainability I still think it fails in communicating the point to those that you mention are, let’s say, sluggish to change. It is very ideological and should be the ultimate goal, but I think it is too lofty for the common man, perhaps not holistic enough.

    The hybrid tech, solar panels, low-flow fixtures, and every other new tech or method of conserving energy, is actually the path toward sustainability. The concepts you mention of better space planning and building design are still concepts confined to a small portion of the population.

    Sustainability should then be all of these concepts rolled into a single definition because for us to really become a sustainable world we need to use all of our resources to affect change. Especially if we are to wean ourselves off of oil, coal and natural gas. Without these new, and rapidly changing technologies, change would be even more stagnant because all of these ideas would remain in the hands of the few as opposed to being brought to the masses. The first step, I think we are still in, is getting the idea of sustainability (reducing our reliance on nonrenewables) in the minds of the common citizen. This is what these technologies allow, the trickle of sustainability concepts to enter the minds of common citizens.
    I better stop there, I could keep rambling on and on.


    • JWM, thanks for stopping by!

      I agree completely that individual technologies are, as you put it, part of the path towards sustainability. Certainly any of the individual practices that any one of us can partake in are small steps in a positive direction. I think my biggest worry is that if we label these as “sustainability” too strongly then too many people could find too much comfort in a few technological solutions that do not really address the core problems–like lifestyle inefficiency or plain old excess.

      I will certainly grant you that my definition puts the concept at its purest form, arguably even beyond the realm of humanity’s realization. Other than natural systems, we have little evidence that our society can operate at a true equilibrium with no real waste.

      On the other hand, I think it’s important to break down concepts like this into their simplest, purest parts while acknowledging them as just that, conceptual truths that may be unattainable. We have plenty of examples of that: democracy, free market, capitalism. We can define all of these things while recognizing that countries like the U.S. are not complete democracies or totally free markets. These idealized notions provide direction, but not absolute realities.

      As a culture, we are definitely still in the first steps of moving towards sustainability, but in light of that, we should make sure that all of our steps are in the same direction towards a common goal (even if we may never reach it).

      Hope to hear from you again. This is a place for sustainable rambling!

      • True, when put that way I can see the use for that ideology.

        I guess I am too practical or perhaps too optimistic to be pigeonholed to that definition though. I do strongly believe that we can and eventually will be fully sustainable, most likely not in my lifetime, perhaps not even in my kids lifetime, but hopefully in my grandkids lifetime. (I don’t have kids actually!) This optimism comes from being older, in my 30s, and being an undergraduate again, going to school with kids 18-21. They actually give me hope for the future in that living sustainably has already been ingrained in them. Interacting with these kids, knowing that there is just no way we will be able to survive on non-renewables, given the current innovations that are happening almost every day, and realizing that there are forces outside of human control (the climate) that will force us to change regardless, the only possible solution is we absolutely must become a sustainable society, globally. It is the only logical conclusion; I don’t really buy into the whole doom and gloom that we will eradicate ourselves. We might lose a huge portion of the world’s population, but the extinction of the human race I just don’t see happening. Barring any cataclysmic event that is!

  6. “…what we are talking about is a series of actions that revolve around an idea of balance or stasis—pushing and pulling around a point of equilibrium.”

    This notion of homeostatic equilibrium is central to cybernetics. A few years ago I did an independent research project into a bit of cybernetic common-sense known as “The Good-Regulator Theorem”, also, the Conant-Ashby theorem. It can be paraphrased in various ways, the most famous coming from the title of the original Conant-Ashby paper “Every Good Regulator Of A System Must Be A Model Of That System” (the paper is available on line at, for example, http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=

    After mulling over this theorem for a very long time (and posting the written results of that mulling on http://www.goodregulatorproject.org), one implication of it that I eventually recognized (I think) is that in the limit, when (if) we will have achieved a maximally stable equilibrium, there will be absolutely no innovation whatsoever.

    When (if) that ever happens, the biggest problem we will face is the threat of a global pandemic of boredom.

    Of course, if we have been truly successful in causing this sort of ingenuity-free stability, I suppose it will simply also have to be the case that we will have found a solution for this boredom problem as well.

    Another thought I had was just how much does boredom currently drive all of this destabilizing ingenuity that we currently see all around us?

    I guess I should stress that this is all how it looks to me, for now, and based almost solely on my own enthusiastic unpacking of a mathematical theorem, and really my question to you is, how does it look to you? Do you agree that the boredom problem is having/could have/will have a serious impact on the achievement of sustainability? Disagree?

    • Daniel, great comment and thanks for stopping by. I’m not familiar with the “Good Regulator Theorem” and I haven’t had a chance to read the paper you mentioned yet (but I’d like to give it a look). That being said, your question reminds me of a conversation I’ve been having more often around this topic.

      I’ve been in some exchanges where someone offers that the balance or equilibrium definition of sustainability in its relation to nature is flawed because natural systems are not static. To this, I completely agree. There is a big difference between “stasis” and “static”, and it’s important to any hope of achieving a society that is even remotely sustainable.

      “Static” is fixed in place, “not active or moving; stationary.” I agree, that’s not what we want, but the truth is that nature isn’t static either. Change is inevitable. “Stasis,” on the other hand, is an idea of balance, “A state of stability, in which all forces are equal and opposing.” I think the latter is about a constant ebb and flow, push and pull, of forces that ends up at equilibrium. When a new force arrives, others correct to help the system return to an oscillation around a balanced state.

      It seems like the boredom analogy would make sense in a static society where innovation is no longer encouraged, but I can envision a sustainable society where the push of innovation is offset by the pull of conservation; where new consumption is offset by new efficiency.

      Maybe innovation may only be destabilizing to a society that refuses to evolve? Interested in your thoughts.


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