sustainability: "forms of progress that meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs."
- World Commission on Environment and Development (source)
unsustainability: "a practice or process that can't go on indefinitely because it is destroying the very conditions on which it depends."
- Michael Pollen (source)
I have a problem with sustainability, not as a word or a concept, but as a guiding philosophy by which to run society. Sustainability is often used in this sense today, as a frame for a world view that implies we are in deep trouble. For example, the above definition of sustainability implies that there is a real problem that the (undefined and unknown) needs of future generations will not be met because of the thoughtless or selfish acts of our current generation.
For more about framing see Lakoff
I would counterpose "no construction, without destruction" as a more useful guiding philosophy. The unsustainability definition fits the way things have always developed and will continue to develop.
A good example would be the transition from hunter-gather to agricultural society as elaborated in The Economist article Hunter-gatherers: Noble or savages? See my recent blog about this, agriculture developed in desperate times Another good example would be the industrial revolution, which is also touched upon in the Economist article:
Notice a close parallel with the industrial revolution. When rural peasants swapped their hovels for the textile mills of Lancashire, did it feel like an improvement? The Dickensian view is that factories replaced a rural idyll with urban misery, poverty, pollution and illness. Factories were indeed miserable and the urban poor were overworked and underfed. But they had flocked to take the jobs in factories often to get away from the cold, muddy, starving rural hell of their birthBoth the transition from hunter-gatherer to agriculture and from feudalism to capitalism were marked by unsustainability where development undermined and transformed ecologies and the old processes did destroy the very conditions on which they depended. For example, big game such as rhinoceros were hunted to the point of extinction not recently but 17 thousand years ago. I would argue that future progress will occur through struggles that will undermine and destroy existing ecologies too. Unity is conditional, struggle is absolute. The world - both natural and human - has always developed in this way.
The sustainability world outlook can obscure the historical fact that when new things are created old things are destroyed.
At the very least, three difficult questions must be asked before any discussion of sustainability is undertaken in any group. What is being sustained? How long is it being sustained? In who’s interest is what being sustained?
- The Unsustainability of Sustainability by Bill Devall (despite the title this article is pro sustainability but it does contain some important points and references)