What does ‘sustainability’ really mean?

Pyke, Graham H. | January 9, 2014 | Leave a Comment

The Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory

Ever wondered what the words ‘sustainability’ and ‘sustainable’ really mean, especially in the context of whether or not humanity can or cannot be judged to be sustainable? Some say the words are overused, mis-used, outdated, no longer meaningful, and so on. To me, sustainability is a most useful word, possibly the most important word of all. I shall try to indicate this through a story, recounted below.

Like all good stories, mine begins a long time ago, in a land far away! Well it actually commences in 1972, which is not all that long ago. And it takes place in Colorado, USA, which is not really a distant land, especially if you live or visit there. Besides, I am happy to have an excuse to explain how I come to know Paul and Anne Ehrlich, and to show a few cool photos.

In 1972 I began to carry out research, on bumblebees, hummingbirds and the plants they visit, in the vicinity of the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory (hereafter RMBL), a field station located at about 3,000m elevation in the Colorado mountains. Here I met Paul and Anne, whom I have known ever since. I may describe some of the things we have done together in a future post. Right now my subject is really ‘sustainability’.

Through RMBL flows the East River, a river that is fed by snowmelt from nearby mountains, many of which get to 4,000m elevation and above. The area gets about 10m of snowfall per year, so there is plenty to melt as winter progresses to summer.

Just below RMBL, the river picks up steam. Here two drainage lines converge and the channel narrows. So the depth and rate of flow both pick up, especially in June, near the beginning of summer, when the rate of snowmelt is greatest.

A section of the river, starting at about this point, attracts people in kayaks who paddle downstream. A road, with a bridge crossing the river, provides a convenient launch sites. From various subsequent exit points, it is possible to access a dirt road that returns to near the bridge. So people can drive to the river, kayaks typically on the roof, ride it downstream a ways, carry their kayaks back to their car, and repeat the adventure, or return home. Sounds like fun?

Well, actually there is a waterfall along this section of river that would make this adventure more exciting or terrifying, depending on your perspective.  Over a short length of the river, it plunges about 30m, in three very steep sections, one immediately after the other. If you saw this waterfall (see photo) you could be forgiven for thinking that someone would have to be crazy or insane to attempt to go down it in a kayak, and it is no doubt for that reason that it is known, at least in the kayaking world, as ‘Stupid Falls’. But amazingly, that is exactly what some people do!

Click the image above for video of the kayaking

One day, I thought I would learn first-hand something about the kinds of people who engage in this particular form of ‘extreme’ sport and what the experience is like. I was walking along the dirt track not far from the falls, when I encountered three guys with wet-suits and helmets, and carrying kayaks. Seizing the opportunity, I inquired “Did you guys go down The Falls? What was it like?”

I was surprised by the answer I received, which was ‘No, we believe in sustainable kayaking!’

Feeling somewhat puzzled, I further inquired “What do you mean?”

In response to this, the same guy quickly said ‘It’s really pretty simple, sustainable kayaking is kayaking today so that we can still kayak tomorrow and the next day. That’s why we exited the river just above the falls!’

Then the proverbial penny dropped, and I realized exactly what ‘sustainability’ really means. It simply means “doing the things we do today, so that we can continue to do them tomorrow, and into the future”. If we include amongst the “things we do”, all our activities, including those that affect the environment, as well as our economics, society and health, and take the “we” to include ourselves, our kids, our grandkids, and subsequent generations, then we have a simple definition of sustainability for humanity.

What sustainability now means to me is therefore:

“Sustainability is doing (all) the things we do today, in ways such that we (including future generations) can continue to do them tomorrow, and into the future”.

By this definition, kayaking down Stupid Falls is probably not sustainable!

MAHB-UTS Blogs are a joint venture between the University of Technology Sydney and the Millennium Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere. Questions should be directed to joan@mahbonline.org.

MAHB Blog: https://mahb.stanford.edu/blog/what-does-sustainability-really-mean/

View as PDF

Email this to someoneTweet about this on TwitterShare on FacebookShare on LinkedIn
The views and opinions expressed through the MAHB Website are those of the contributing authors and do not necessarily reflect an official position of the MAHB. The MAHB aims to share a range of perspectives and welcomes the discussions that they prompt.
  • William (Bill) Lidicker

    Per Inge Oestmoen makes several good points in responding to my comments about Graham Pyke’s blog on the meaning of sustainability. My remarks were not intended to imply that acting sustainably was about avoiding risks or innovations. On the contrary, adapting our behavior as circumstances change is absolutely essential for any chance humanity might have for achieving sustainability. Taking risks, adaptive management of resources, scientific progress, social innovations, etc, are all going to be critical components of any successful strategy. In fact, this is why democratic political and social structures, with their shared governance, cooperative ethic, and educated citizenry are much more likely to lead to successful adaptations for future changes. They are able to deal rationally and creatively with the human predicament, in contrast to autocratic societies with their rigidity and ideological basis for decision making.
    My reference to navigating “Stupid Falls” by kayak was also a poor choice of example for sustainability. I was merely trying to link my remarks to those of Pyke. This example confuses survival of a single human with that of humanity as a whole. It does, however, make the point that sustainability can be viewed on various levels of complexity. Obviously, the global level trumps those of more limited applicability.

  • William (Bill) Lidicker

    Graham Pyke’s definition of sustainability (“Sustainability is doing (all) the things we do today, in ways such that we (including future generations) can continue to do them tomorrow and into the future.”) is inadequate for the task at hand. The problem is that some of the things we do today will, if continued into the future, make other things we do today not sustainable. Therefore the “all” (whether implied or explicit) in Pyke’s definition is not appropriate. Moreover, his definition seems to make the assumption that everything we do today is in principle all together sustainable. This is not true. The context for sustainability is usually doing things that allow humans to survive and thrive into the indefinite future. Therefore, I suggest a modification of Pyke’s definition, namely, “Sustainability is doing things today in such a way that humans can survive and thrive into the indefinite future.” Using Pyke’s example of “Stupid Falls,” kayakers who risk riding this torrent are indeed not acting sustainably, nor is continuing today’s population growth rate sustainable.

    • Per Inge Oestmoen

      Defining what is “sustainable” with reference to other things than the destruction, depletion or preserving of and harmonizing with natural environments and resources means entering the realm of human culturally determined standards of behavior. What is or is not considered socially acceptable or approved behavior is all too often about political correctness and prevailing ideologies. Therefore, I propose that we keep strictly to definitions of “sustainability” that pertain to the natural environment and its sustainability.

      I am not entitled to judge that kayaking down a potentially risky route should not be socially unacceptable unless we are talking about behavior that demonstrably damages the natural environment, and nor is anyone else. Rather, I would tend to support the so-called “risk takers.” To break out of the limit of society’s norms is necessary to create a new awareness, and people who want to do things that may be dangerous should be allowed to.

      A society where “zero visions” are the general rule, is a society that has grave problems with relating to a natural environment – where natural dangers have been and will always be part of life. Risks are part of life, and acceptance of Nature entails conscious acceptance of that fact.