Sustainable Sustainability

Posted June 12th, 2012 at 6:12 pm (UTC-4)

At least two of my VOA colleagues are all a-tizzy, in a scholarly sort of way, about the “Rio+20” conference coming next week in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

The Rio+20 logo.  (United Nations)

The Rio+20 logo. (United Nations)

It will mark the 20th anniversary of the historic United Nations Conference on Environment and Development — now commonly called the “Earth Summit.”

There, thousands and thousands of people from 172 nations, observed by 10,000 journalists, came together to confront issues of “forest principles,” climate change, and biological diversity.  The Earth Summit put such issues into the international spotlight for the first time and raised the consciousness of at least a few people.

It also thrust the concept of “sustainability” into the everyday lexicon.  These days, that word pops up everywhere, and in every conceivable way.  In the past week alone, I’ve seen stories about, or advertisements for, everything from “sustainable living” to “sustainable recipes” to “sustainable trash bags.”

See: cobra-like growth for sustainability!  Or at least mentions of it.  (Google)

See: cobra-like growth for sustainability! Or at least mentions of it. (Google)

If you look at Google’s “n-gram” site that tracks the appearance of words in English-language books over the years, “sustainability” has risen like a cobra since 1980.  You can’t quantify this or put a percentage gain on it, but it’s clear that lots of people are talking about it.

Understanding it is another story.  I asked three different really smart people who aren’t science writers, “green” activists, or subscribers to environmental magazines to explain sustainability to me.

“Tell me,” I asked one, “What’s a sustainable fishery?”

“What’s sustainable energy?” I asked another.

“What’s sustainable agriculture? I asked the third.

They looked at me as if I had asked them to name the capital of the Seychelle Islands.  They hemmed.  They hawed.  Then they gave me variations of the kind of answer I would have given:

“Well, ‘sustain’ means lasting over a long period of time at pretty much the same level it is right now.  So you want resources to still be available years from now and not depleted by overuse.”

Not bad, though I can hear my science colleagues clucking.

And I’d cluck right back.  Instead of tossing around ecological jargon like it’s a secret code amongst you, how about doing a better job of telling the average Jane and Jose what words like “sustainability” really mean?

Rio+20, for instance, is formally titled, “The United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development.”

Now check out the explanation, right on the first page of the official conference Web site:

“Sustainable development emphasizes a holistic, equitable and far-sighted approach to decision-making at all levels. It emphasizes not just strong economic performance but intragenerational and intergenerational equity.”

There’s a lot of equitable equity there.  A lot of, as I put it in the headline, sustainable sustainability.  But not much clarity.

Images such as this always make me think of the fragility, as well as beauty, of our planet.  Same with you?  (NASA Photo)

Images such as this always make me think of the fragility, as well as beauty, of our planet. Same with you? (NASA Photo)

At this point I’m sure all you “green” readers are all fluffed up that my friends and I just don’t get what is, as we used to say, “as plain as the nose on your face.”

Clear and obvious, in other words.  (You’ve seen my nose.)

Thankfully it is obvious to my friend and former colleague Art Chimes, who’s sustaining his retirement in part by continuing to contribute science stories to the Voice of America.

Think scenes like this are rare around the world?  Think again.  (Alfred Palmer, Wikipedia Commons)

Think scenes like this are rare around the world? Think again. (Alfred Palmer, Wikipedia Commons)

Art rescued me from my puzzlement over intra- and intergenerational equity to explain sustainability in digestible sentences, for which I was grateful:

“A coal-fired power plant depends for fuel on a finite resource,” he began. “There may be a lot of coal in the ground, but there’s only a finite amount  — or more realistically, a finite amount that can be extracted and extracted at a reasonable cost.  Eventually there’s no more fuel left to burn. So over the long haul, it’s not sustainable.”

I got it!  I think I got it!

“Solar power, on the other hand,” he continued patiently, “is ‘sustainable,’ given that the sun delivers energy to our planet every day, and when we harness it, we do not deplete the supply.  Eventually, the sun will sputter out, but that apparently doesn’t count [among the sustainability crowd], possibly because we — not just you and me, but homo sapiens — will be gone by then.”

Let’s hope.

But what about all the damaging “development” that they’ll be talking about in Rio?  And all the consumer products that are part of our lives?  You can’t make those with sun-drenched veggies from your organic garden.

Professor Chimes?

Crocs, which maybe DO bear a slight resemblance to crocodiles.  (Wikipedia Commons)

Crocs, which maybe DO bear a slight resemblance to crocodiles. (Wikipedia Commons)

“Take these cute Crocs [leisure shoes made from some gummy substance] that a nine-year-old might wear:

“Animal rights activists may like them, because no leather was used.  But they’re not sustainable, presumably, since they were made from petrochemicals (it appears) which are made from a finite resource, petroleum, rather than leather, which comes from animals who reproduce ad infinitum.”

I was with him until he said “ad infinitum.”

Actually, it’s clear, even to me, that environmental outrages such as the denuding of tropical forests and ever-expanding human development into what had once been an unspoiled natural world is shrinking animals’ habitat to the point that the Earth’s biological diversity is threatened.

Is this more “save the whales” talk? you’re wondering.

“Human actions are dismantling Earth’s natural ecosystems, resulting in species extinctions at rates several orders of magnitude faster than observed in the fossil record,” wrote 17 prominent ecologists in a paper prepared for Rio+20.

In other words, extinctions of whole species — including some cute ones and not just creepy bugs and ugly bats — are occurring about 1,000 times faster than they did in antiquity.

Deforestation for agriculture.  (Jami Dwyer, Wikipedia Commons)

Deforestation for agriculture. (Jami Dwyer, Wikipedia Commons)

No doubt about it: that doesn’t sound good.  But we keep merrily ripping up meadows and building housing subdivisions, chopping down virgin forests to build them, and pumping out petrochemicals to make Crocs.

And even I know we’re depleting fishing grounds with a damn-the-future, full-speed-to-market disregard for its effect on the planet.  It’s pretty clear that such practices aren’t sustainable if we want future generations to have fish on the table.

As I’m sure some of the learned delegates will point out in Rio next week, this doesn’t mean we have to leave the oceans or forests or fields unsullied by the footprint of man.  (I know, it’s hard to leave footprints on oceans.  It’s a metaphor.)

Mackerel by the thousands, caught in a seine net off Chile.  (NASA Photo)

Mackerel by the thousands, caught in a seine net off Chile. (NASA Photo)

We can, as fishery science professor Ray Hilborn and his wife, Ulrike Hilborn, a retired organic farmer, wrote in the New York Times in May, continue to “harvest a certain fraction of a fish population that has been overfished, if we allow for the natural processes of birth and growth to replace what we take from the ocean and to rebuild the stock.”

For the whole world, that’s the sort of “sustainable solution” — another term that’s all over the Web these days — that organizers no doubt hope will come from Rio+20.

“Good luck with that,” you and I might say, looking at the waste and greed and reckless extravagance around us — and not just in the developed world any longer.

When you get to thinking all hope is lost when it comes to world cooperation on measures that will, to use a tired catchphrase, “save the planet,” remember that cobra-like upward thrust of the use of “sustainability” as a word in just 30 years.  People are writing a lot about this stuff.  Presumably more and more people, though obviously not I in much depth, are reading them.

Not too far from VOA headquarters, at American University’s Kogod School of Business, you can get a master’s degree in “sustainability management.”

Imagine that.  The concept has come so far, so fast, that you can make a living at it.

Given the awakening around the world to the promise of — and perhaps the profit to be made from — sustainability, I’m guessing the American University program and ones like it are mighty popular.

By the way, the capital of the island Republic of Seychelles in the Indian Ocean is Victoria.

The logo of the U.S. Government's "" sustainability initiative.  (photologue_np, Flickr Creative Commons)

The logo of the U.S. Government's sustainability initiative. (photologue_np, Flickr Creative Commons)

Ted's Wild Words

These are a few words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I'll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of "Ted's Wild Words" in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there's another word that you'd like me to explain, just ask!

Hem and haw. To hesitate, especially when one is uncertain about how to answer a question, sometimes while making little noises such as “um” and “uh.” The term is said to be an “echoic” phrase, mirroring the sounds one makes while stammering.

3 responses to “Sustainable Sustainability”

  1. Sue B. says:

    I would say that the word is thrown around more often than it should be. Sustainability is not just about going green. It is about being better corporate citizen which in the end could save your firm more or increase profits. It is also about providing a better way of life for employees such as via a safe workplace. SAP’s new survey, “Sustainability Nears a Tipping Point – Why Companies are Profiting” ( ) identifies how sustainability has changed the way your firms do business and therefore moved the needle on your revenues.

  2. tland says:

    Dear Sue,

    Interesting and valuable perspective. Thanks for it.


  3. james harper says:

    Omitted from the tale is the decision by the folks at the U.N.’s Rio+20 to adopt “Sustainable Development” as the enviro radical new, overhauled, improved and completely vague replacement for their Global Cooling/Warming/Climate/Change positioning platform for wealth transformation. That is, removing your wealth from your pocket through Obama-style Green investments, and giving it to the friends of the U.N. You are not one of their friends. And it matters not a whit these investments are financial failures. This process is almost sustainable, as the bleeding will take place gradually (frog in boiling water concept) and could last several generations before all those with any money have been deprived of it so they become the equal of those to whom the money was supposed to go, those who have less money. Kind of a Sustainable First/Second/Third World We are One concept. And as the writer reports, the phrase is ripe for eco-exploitation, as many are called, but few understand.

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Ted Landphair


This is a far-ranging exploration of American life by a veteran Voice of America “Americana” reporter and essayist.

Ted writes about the thousands of places he has visited and written about as a broadcaster and book author. Ted Landphair’s America often showcases the work of his wife and traveling companion, renowned American photographer Carol M. Highsmith.

Ted welcomes feedback, questions, and ideas. View Ted’s profile. Watch a video about Ted and Carol by VOA’s Nico Colombant.

Photos by Carol M. Highsmith


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