Thursday, July 08, 2010

The greater meaning of "Sustainability"

“Sustainability,” like all words, has a life of its own. I happen to have a 1980 edition of the Oxford American Dictionary, and in it “sustainability” has no life at all.

The word isn’t listed. It literally hadn’t yet been born. More on that in a second . . . .

But “sustain” and “sustainable” were alive and well.

Thirty years ago, the dictionary’s editors attributed six meanings to “sustain,” starting with (1) “to support.” Back then you could and did, for instance, “sustain your friendship.”

“Sustain” could also mean (2) “to keep alive” and (3) “to keep going continuously,” as in sustaining “a sound or an effort.”

Finally, the last three listed are worth noting because they illustrative the pliability of words: (4) “to undergo” as in “sustain defeat;” (5) “to endure without giving way” as in “to sustain an attack;” and a legal term (6) “to confirm or uphold the validity of,” as in “sustain an objection.”

So what about the birth and meaning of “sustainability”? Several web sites are helpful on the subject. Take a look at wikipedia’s, for instance.

The entry makes some reference to the above meanings of “sustain” but then offers this:

“Since the 1980s sustainability has been used more in the sense of human sustainability on planet Earth and this has resulted in the most widely quoted definition of sustainability and sustainable development, that of the Brundtland Commission of the United Nations on March 20, 1987: “sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

That seems like a broad enough definition, but I’m finding that in my own community work, the new word can blind us to earlier meanings that are equally vital.

For instance, I’m involved in the Hillsdale Main Street effort, which is supposed to emphasize “sustainability” as it goes about revitalizing our local economy. My sense is that we are supposed to think of solar panels, recycling and energy-efficient light bulbs. That’s well and good, but those “old” meanings still resonate with me.

To me, sustainability means being prepared for disasters (earthquakes, terrorists attacks, floods), educating the young to prepare them for the future, having active and open forums for communication, providing food, shelter and health care, and assuring a just and fair relationship between its members.

As I embark on this “Main Street” effort in Hillsdale, I’m adhering to old, as well as new, definitions of “sustain” and how they apply to our community’s “sustainability.”

P.S. As we consider the global "community" and Earth itself, isn't war, particularly nuclear war, a sustainability issue? The same effort we use to end our reliance on fossil fuels should be used to ban weapons and shut down the arms trade.

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