Why "Is It Sustainable?" Is a Meaningless Question

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Image credit: h.koppdelaney, used under Creative Commons license.

Earlier today I posted about a dairy farm that lets cows retire. I found myself asking a question that I am coming to loath: Is it sustainable? I've already written about the debate over whether something can be "more sustainable"—the counter argument being that something either can or cannot be sustained. But in a world where almost nothing is sustainable, does it make sense to use the term at all?

Daunting Global Challenges
The fact is that, as human beings, we are facing an astounding range of complex, daunting challenges. From Global climate change to peak oil, it's hard not to get despondent at the mountains we have to climb. And while we can easily argue that energy conservation beats mountaintop removal when it comes to sustainability, it's much harder to pinpoint any business, town, or even individual in the Western World who is truly living within the carrying capacity of the Earth's resources. The dairy farm I mention above may be managing grazing carefully, producing its own energy, and promoting soil health and conservation—but I'd be willing to bet it still uses some fossil fuels and other non-renewable resources.

An Achievable Model For Sustainability Does Not Exist Yet
Given that residents of the pioneering London-based BedZED ecovillage still need many Earths to support their lifestyle (BedZED was famously designed for "one planet living"), it becomes evident that asking if something is "truly sustainable" is, at best, a question that just begs to be answered "no" ninety nine times out of a hundred.

I don't say this to be defeatist, or depressing (though recent headlines about CO2 emissions continuing to rise are indeed disheartening), but rather to remind myself—and others—that none of us have the answers and that no single solution is going to get us where we need to go.

Getting the Question Right
There are practices that are less damaging, practices that are more damaging, and there are even practices that can be restorative and boost the Earth's capacity to support our lifestyles. (Mass reforestation and urban beekeeping being two of my current favorites.) But instead of asking whether something is sustainable, we might be better off asking "is it better than what we do now?", and then "what can we do next that's even better?"

More on Sustainability, Strategy and Practice
Sustainability Is Not Black and White: More Sustainable Is Possible
To Win, the Green Movement Must Understand Leverage, Not Just Footprints
Environmentalists Need Strategy

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