“Sustainability” vs. Sustainable Ambiguity

sustainable_developmentHave you noticed the proliferation of phrases like “sustainable product” or “sustainable business” or “the sustainable university”?

It seems everyone and everything nowadays is aiming to sustain itself as if it were intrinsically a good thing to be sustainable.

But “being sustainable” is not necessarily the same as “promoting sustainability.”

In this post, I discuss the way in which the overuse of the simple word  “sustainable” without the “-ity” at the end can be dangerously ambiguous  and can actually hinder sustainability-thinking, sustainability education, and the  sustainability movement.

This rhetorical practice may, in fact, promote sustainable ambiguity.

“Sustainability” vs. Sustainable Ambiguity

“Sustainable X.”

What is being sustained, X or the larger context of X? It’s ambiguous.

The “sustainable X” phrase is being used so frequently in connection with claims (or implied claims) about sustaining the environment that it seems to imply that efforts toward self-sustenance somehow result naturally in sustaining the earth and everything else good and happy.

This leads to fallacious cause-and-effect reasoning.  If I create or buy a product that is “sustainable” in the sense of “enduring for a long time”  or make every effort to sustain an institution or practice, it may actually harm the social and/or physical environment around me.

It’s amazing what a big difference the suffix “-ity” can make in terms of removing a lot of potential ambiguity.  It’s like the “-ism” ending of “conservatism” which denotes a political ideology that is more specific than the related term “conservative.” 

In the context of ecology, environment, and community development discourse, the “-ity” suffix at the end of the word “sustainability” tends to more frequently signal the complexity of the larger, holistic idea of “sustainable development” in the UNESCO / United Nations meaning of the concept.

What is at stake in a word ending?

  • Using the word “sustainable” ambiguously may contribute to the sustenance of a lot of practices, institutions and products that should not be sustained in their current form.
  • Using the word “sustainable” ambiguously potentially waters down the holistic and complex meaning of sustainability.
  • Using the word “sustainable” ambiguously can also lead to misunderstandings and logic problems, and may also contribute to intentional ambiguity and greenwashing.

Let’s examine a few contrasting examples of usage, and you’ll see what I mean!

  • Sustainability initiatives (this means the initiatives promote or relate to sustainability concepts or goals.  )
  • Sustainable initiatives (this means the initiatives can be sustained over a long period of time, regardless of whether or not the initiatives relate to sustainability concepts or goals.  This is not always a good thing. What if the initiative is “genocide” or “racial discrimination”?)

More examples:

  • Sustainability concepts (this means a group of theories, understandings, philosophies that enable us to communicate and learn about sustainable development)
  • Sustainable concepts (this just does not make logical sense.  Concepts are abstract entities like mathematical formulae, and they don’t depend on people or things for their existence.)

This example illustrates through absurdity:

  • The University of Calgary Office of Sustainability (this office actually exists at the University of Calgary)
    The Sustainable Office at the University of Calgary (This sounds like a campaign to save paper and energy in our offices.  Taken too literally, it might just mean “the office that can exist perpetually”)

Usage tips

The English word “sustainability/sustainable” is currently ambiguous and there is not much we can do about it except use the word in ways that limit the ambiguity, or use a more precise term or phrase altogether.
See http://encarta.msn.com/thesaurus_561589820/sustainable.html

Better safe than sorry — use the term “sustainability” as the default if you are referring to holistic approaches to sustainability.

Only use “sustainable,” a synonym of “viable/ maintainable,” when you are talking about the ability for something to continue.

However, there are exceptions.  There is class of words that “sustainable” can modify and still carry the richer, holistic concept of “sustainability”:

  • Sustainable development
  • Sustainable environment, economy and society
  • Sustainable communities
  • etc.

This is because in order to sustain these huge and complex entities or interrelationships, you need to acknowledge a complex set of environmental, economic and social factors that requires “sustainability thinking” (notice that I did not say “sustainable thinking”).

Ambiguity & Greenwashing

The phrase “sustainable X,” where X is a business or a product, is often a way of participating in the suspect marketing practice of greenwashing in which rhetorical sleight of hand creates the “impression” of being holistically sustainable, when in fact, grammatically and logically, it does not necessarily make that claim.

For example, there seems to be a play on words, a poetic ambiguity, in the University of Calgary 2009-2012 Business Plan‘s subtitle:  “Building a Sustainable University” — it seems to denote that perhaps the university aims to become be a “greener” or more environmentally-friendly university.  More likely, given the contents, it means that it articulates the vision of an economically viable university.  It seems to advocate being environmentally friendly mainly in ways that save money, time, energy and materials, and which attract top quality students and staff to contribute their tuition and expertise.

There is nothing intrinsically wrong with wanting to sustain a university through efficiency and wealth.  But in the phrase in question,  the emphasis is on the viability of the university institution as a business.  The subtitle  “Building a sustainable university” is quite different from the subtitle “Building a sustainable society, environment and economy” — the latter would seem to claim that the university is actually aiming to put its resources in the service of the larger society, environment and economy.

Test: would the university place a priority on social and environmental health if it resulted in a net loss to institution’s money, time or effort?  If so, to what degree, and in what situations?

Let’s not misuse language to deceive people that we value something when we are unwilling to make sacrifices for it.

Let’s think critically about what is being sustained and at whose expense or for whose benefit.

Let’s not worship sustenance for its own sake.


4 thoughts on ““Sustainability” vs. Sustainable Ambiguity

  1. Thank you for the clarity around these often overused and carelessly used words.

  2. We are typically careful about using the term social sustainability in relation to an exhibition project our company is working on, but hadn’t given this much thought to the importance of the “ity” . Found you through the graphic via Google and about to pin it. Thanks for this interesting post!

  3. Pingback: What does it mean by Sustainability? - Sustups

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