“Sustainable” is an old word, which once referred negatively to an emotional burden one could endure; it also enjoyed popularity as a synonym of “provable,” in a legal sense. These now-obsolete usages gave way to the more general modern meaning, as “capable of being maintained or continued at a certain rate or level.”
For this contemporary definition the Oxford English Dictionary gives mostly economic examples, and indeed “sustainable” was until quite recently used to refer to “steady” growth, with none of the ethical or environmental meanings we now associate with the term. “The Big Three’ s first-quarter production plans look more sustainable now than they did a month ago,” wrote the Wall Street Journal in 1986, referring only to car sales projections, not gas mileage or carbon footprints.
Since the turn of the last century, the word has been used to mean “capable of being maintained” with the implied adverb “environmentally.” As a marketing term [do not click on this link, I am warning you]—and it is ubiquitous as a marketing term— “sustainable” is roughly synonymous with “smart,” suggestive of technological innovation along with a sense of moral conscientiousness and forward thinking. (Moral improvement is deeply embedded in the ideology of “innovation,” as well, as we saw in that keyword essay). “Sustainable” is the cornerstone of what a wince-inducing urbanist blog calls the “New Artisan Economy”: “By producing small quantities of artisanal products in an environmentally friendly way,” this author writes, “the overall economy becomes more sustainable which is a benefit for everyone” [sic].
The contemporary ethical-conservationist meaning of the word “sustainable” tracks with the rise of the noun form “sustainability,” a word almost unknown before the 1980s. BYU’s Corpus of Historical American English, which tracks word usage in popular written media, shows no uses of the term before the 1980s. Google’s ngram offers just a handful, mostly Defense Department memos and other bureaucratic documents lacking public circulation.
https://books.google.com/ngrams/interactive_chart?content=sustainability&year_start=1800&year_end=2000&corpus=15&smoothing=3&share=&direct_url=t1%3B%2Csustainability%3B%2Cc0The coinage of “sustainability” correlates with the rise of “sustainable development,” a conservationist critique of development economics that emphasizes the frailty of nature—which the World Bank lovingly calls “natural capital.” Where mid-20th century development theory once advanced economic growth as its ideal, sustainable development offers “sustainability.” Interestingly, this move from “growth” to “sustainability” can be seen in the changes in popular uses of the word “sustainable” itself, from the Wall Street Journal’s 1987 usage to today.
The United Nations has helped define and popularize the concept in various summits and proclamations: the 1987 Brundtland Report defined “sustainable development” as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” The word came into broader circulation in the 1990s, when it was the focus of the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, which made “sustainable” a byword of developmentalist ethics and official environmental policy-making. From the Summit’s report, called Agenda 21:
Principle 1: Human beings are at the centre of concerns for sustainable development. They are entitled to a healthy and productive life in harmony with nature.[…]
Principle 8: To achieve sustainable development and a higher quality of life for all people, States should reduce and eliminate unsustainable patterns of production and consumption and promote appropriate demographic policies.
“Sustainable” has the advantage of being unambiguously good—who wants to be exhaustible?—and invitingly vague. It can accommodate Marxist critics of capitalism and neo-Malthusian doomsday cranks. Mining companies love it. And as you might expect, BP is totally committed to “sustainability,” and has a website to prove it. (In a happy coincidence, sustaining Earth’s ecology and sustaining BP’s shareholder dividends are two sides of the same sustainable coin: “The best way for BP to achieve sustainable success as a company,” their website cheers, “is to act in the long-term interests of our shareholders, our partners and society.”) This combination of ethical straightforwardness in theory—we must be responsible stewards of natural resources for future generations, yes, yes, we all agree—and subjective imprecision in practice is the source of much of its popularity, as scholars have pointed out. And then there is also the temporal lag of counter-evidence: the final proof that our current practices are in fact unsustainable will not come until after we are dead.
So “sustainability,” like “innovation,” combines literal vagueness with moral certainty. As Keith Douglass Warner and David DeCosse point out in a blog post, “sustainability, much like “efficiency,” does not have an intrinsic meaning.” The question, as they argue, is sustainable for whom, and for how long? One will not get a clear answer by surveying the uses of the word. Duke Energy loves to tweet about “sustainability,” as does McDonalds; McMansions can be “stunning and sustainable.” The Sotheby’s primer on “sustainable eco-mansions” reassures buyers that “making a home sustainable is a scalable effort.” What this means is that the imprimatur of “sustainability” can be bought cheaply or dearly, as one wishes: Energy-star appliances and native-plant gardens at the low end, solar panels and reclaimed barn-lumber siding at the higher price point.
The marketing of “sustainability” exemplifies the framing of structural problems as individual ones, and of practices of citizenship as ones of consumption. Thus the inevitable “sustainability apps.” As used by the self-described “urban sustainability consultant” Warren Karlenzig, writing on the website Sustainable Cities Collective, “sustainability” is a libertarian notion of social change, but one in which the anti-social nihilism of “disruption” is softened by a green touch:
Open data will reduce urban traffic congestion: no longer must cars circle downtown blocks as real-time parking rates and open spaces become transparent. Even more sustainable are those who are deciding to telecommute or use public transit on days when they know that parking costs are spiking or when spaces are unavailable.
Built around a labored, confusing metaphor of cities as beehives, and developers and end users as “swarms” of bees, Karlenzig’s thesis is that a “sustainable” city will be spawned by technological expertise and venture capital: “Our pollen dance,” he writes, “will be our testimonials, use patterns, geo-location, and referrals.”
As a lifestyle and marketing term, “sustainable” can paradoxically express the same capitalist triumphalism—of an ever-expanding horizon of goods and services, of “growth” without consequences—that the conservationist concept was once meant to critique. “Sustainable development,” fuzzy as it is, was intended to remind us of the limited supply and unequal exploitation of natural resources. But if “sustainable” most literally means an ability to keep on doing something, its popularity as a consumerist value suggests that there is a fine line between “sustainable” and “complacent.” We can “sustain” grossly unequal cities—that is, they won’t fall apart utterly—with Lyft and Airbnb, rather than mass transit and affordable housing. For a while, anyway. Whether we will sustain our desire to live in them is another question.