Enter the keyword “sustainability” into any Internet search and dozens of web pages instantly appear – filled with words used to describe the ambiguous theory. Conservation, egalitarianism, and biodiversity to name just a few. But what does the environmental buzzword really mean? The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Joyce Kryszak was at a recent forum on sustainability in search of a definition, and she spoke with some of the world’s leading ecologists:
Enter the keyword “sustainability” into any Internet search and dozens of web pages instantly appear – filled with words used to describe the ambiguous theory. Conservation, egalitarianism, and biodiversity to name just a few. But what does the environmental buzzword really mean? The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Joyce Kryszak was at a recent forum on sustainability in search of a definition. And she spoke with some of the world’s leading ecologists.
The impressive line-up of speakers included such notables as Jane Goodall, David Suzuki and Paul Hawken, people who certainly need no introduction with environmentalists, and for good reason. These three experts on ecology have more than a century of combined experience. Yet, when asked to define the subject they were invited to talk about – sustainability – their responses were well…less than definitive.
Paul Hawken is a best-selling author on corporate environmental reform, who isn’t usually uncertain with words -especially crucial words about the environment. But Hawken was quick to admit there are simply too many ways to describe sustainability. And, he says even the most commonly used definition falls short.
“As you can tell from my reciting of it, it’s not a definition I warm to at all – because it’s not a definition you wake up in the morning and say, ‘uh, man, I’m so happy to be alive, and what I’m going to do today, is to meet the needs of the current generation in a way that doesn’t compromise future generations. It’s so flat, and non-dynamic.”
Hawken says that sustainability, by its very nature, is a multi-dimensional concept. Which resources get used, and how much, from where, to produce what goods and services, for which people, and then what to do with the waste – and how do we fix what we’ve already ruined? Hawken says the answers to these tough questions require a broad understanding. And he says, in an increasingly more specialized world that makes a clear definition much more difficult to nail down.
“Most of us have been, or are educated, in schools that ask us to specialize and to really focus on one area of knowledge. Sustainability really cuts across all denims – from not just economy and ecology, but biology, sociology, psychology, forestry, geology, chemistry, physics…In a sense to really be conversant in sustainability you have to have a working knowledge of a lot of different subjects.”
Milling about the convention floor we find David Sukuzi, perhaps the most conversant proponent of sustainability. The award winning geneticist and broadcaster stops occasionally, chatting casually about bio diversity, reductionism, or maybe genetic polymorphism. But then, Suzuki is well known for easily making such complex science understandable. So, how does Suzuki define sustainability?
“I don’t know what sustainability means. We’ve changed the world so much that we can’t rely on nature’s abundance and productivity. We’ve already added thirty percent more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere than existed two hundred years ago. We have no idea what that’s going to do. So, we don’t know what is going to compromise or not compromise. We know that we are trashing the natural world on which we ultimately depend.”
Any hope for a definition would seem to be lost. As would be any hope for sustainability itself. But Suzuki says, although there are big question marks, sustainability is the only option.
“We’ve got to pull back. We’ve got to protect as much wild nature as we can where it exists – and keep our fingers crossed.”
Jane Goodall is known for her monumental faith in nature. Forty years of research has earned her a reputation for an unfaltering commitment to social and environmental causes. Goodall admits that as the indigenous peoples of the world have vanished, so too, she says, has the true definition of sustainability – “to make only what is needed to sustain life.” But Goodall says we must not give up on that principle.
“That’s very dangerous for us, if we’re thinking about a sustainable world and a world that will be there for our grandchildren. We mustn’t let up. We must continue to work for the things, which we think, are important. If we have the ability to influence some little area of the community and the environment around us, then that is what we must do.”
And all the experts agree. They say that “urgency” is now the most important word in any definition of sustainability. For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Joyce Kryszak.