What Does “Sustainable” Mean?

Lately I’ve noticed a bewildering increase in the use of the term “sustainable.” You know you’re in trouble when soft drink makers start claiming they’re acting in a sustainable way. So what do we mean when we say a habit, or a neighborhood, or a product, or a practice, is “sustainable”?

In its simplest terms, we mean we can keep doing it this way. For how long? I would say a millennium – 1,000 years – is a good starting point. Can we and all others similarly situated keep using these amounts of energy and other  resources, and producing and emitting these amounts and intensities of pollutants, for 1,000 more years without compromising the living conditions of plants, fungi, animals, or people?

So let’s apply that definition to the soft drink manufacturers. The most obvious facet of soft drink makers’ practices that is clearly unsustainable is their prodigious consumption of energy, in the form of electricity at the plant and liquid fuel for transportation. Let’s put the electricity consumption at the plant on the shelf for a moment; the soft drink makers’ suggestion for how to make their transport “sustainable” is for retailers to allow them to deliver more soft drinks at a time and for the government to allow them to travel on the roads with heavier loads. Read that, we’re happy for sacrifices to be made in the name of sustainability as long as the sacrifices are made by others, not us.

And therein lies a part of the problem. The economic growth that nearly everyone assumes will continue forever depends on increases in profitability from every company. The soft drink makers are happy to improve the environmental soundness of their practices but only if the changes affect others’ profits, not theirs. Every company says “I’m happy to be sustainable, but my profits must keep growing, whatever else happens.”

But the lion’s share of the problem, the real elephant in the room, is that when the soft drink makers use the term “sustainable” they mean “a little better than what we’re doing now.” So the soft drink manufacturers proudly proclaim their intention to reduce water use by 20%. If our present practices were almost sustainable and needed only minor tweaking, that kind of approach might be sound. Our present practices are not. They are dramatically, grossly wrong, and the survival of our race depends not on incremental tweaking but on nothing short of a revolution in the way we interact with each other and with the planet.

“Unsustainable” doesn’t mean “we wish it were a little better” or “not quite what we would like” or “we probably need to change at some point in the future.” Unsustainable means we will stop doing it this way. Not always but usually, it also means that the longer we keep doing it this way, the harder it’s going to be to do it in a sustainable way later.

So much of what we modern westerners do is unsustainable, and so dramatically, that we’ve stopped noticing how out of control our society has become. We’ve become so accustomed to urinating and defecating in our own drinking water, carrying around two tons of steel and plastic with us everywhere we travel, and consuming 10 calories of fossil fuel energy for every calorie of food energy we take in, that it seems natural to do so. “What’s the big deal? This is the way it’s supposed to be.” The answer, of course, is that the big deal is that these practices are not at all the way it’s supposed to be; they are distortions caused by the ready availability of cheap fossil fuels whose use must now begin to decline. And when fossil fuel use begins to decline overall while rich and powerful people resist any cut that affects them, the vast milieu of humanity – that’s you and I, friend – will make do with a lot less. That means dramatic price increases, of course, but it also means considerable periods when gasoline, or diesel, or kerosene, or propane, or natural gas, is unavailable at any price that matters to any but the richest and most powerful.

So now we can begin to fashion a revised, and easier to defend, definition of “sustainable.” It basically means we have to do it without the use of fossil fuels. Period. If it takes a gasoline engine to make it, or coal to generate the electricity to package it, or a truck to deliver it, it’s not sustainable and will change.

Here at Longleaf Breeze, that means we get a mixed review. We’re growing crops with human power, so that’s good. But we’re irrigating them using electricity generated by Central Alabama Electric Coop using fossil fuels. We use a wood stove rather than fossil fuels for heating, so that’s good. But we use a gasoline-powered chain saw to cut the wood, a diesel tractor to move the wood, and a gasoline-powered hydraulic splitter to split the wood into the size pieces that burn most easily in the stove. We don’t need to commute anywhere on a daily basis, so that’s good. But we use an internal combustion engine regularly to travel the 12 miles to and from Tallassee to pick up supplies, to go to church, and to check our PO box.

Like many others, we will change, not because we think it’s more responsible, or cooler, or even more moral. We will change because we cannot keep doing it this way. And like many others, the sooner we change, the better.

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