What Does Sustainability Mean?

cropped-bob-shapiro.jpg   By Bob Shapiro

Today’s Sunday Boston Globe carried an “Ideas” piece on Sustainability. Aside from it having become a political buzzword, sustainability makes me cringe every time I hear the word because I haven’t seen a definition which makes sense to me.

From what I can tell, nature isn’t sustainable. It changes constantly on many time frames. A tree grows leaves in the Springtime, and flourishes through summertime. But then, as temperatures drop in the Autumn, the tree loses its leaves, and goes to sleep as Winter’s chill hits.

If drought or flood hits during the growing season, or if temperatures that year are much higher or lower than usual, the tree may not survive. What happens for a single tree easily could happen to a whole forest.

Is a salt marsh just an unsustainable desert? I expect most reasonable people would acknowledge that there are ecosystems that are very different one to the other.


A fire or other “disaster” resets the ecosystem, and it goes through a natural succession of plant and animal types. Is a grassy field not sustainable just because it eventually changes to something else?

What happens to a single plant at the bottom of the food chain affects all organisms which depend on it for food. In nature, natural cycles of increasing numbers followed by decreasing numbers and back to increasing numbers are widespread and well known. There likely are still some cyclical patterns in populations which are not known.

If a seed from a foreign region arrives, it upsets the local balance. Except, there was no balance, but rather only a snapshot of what exists at the moment.

Atlantic fisherman made their livings for hundreds of years, but now the fisheries are said to have become exhausted from overfishing. Overfished perhaps, but by man? Little noticed is that with the banning of seal hunting, seal populations in the Atlantic have soared. Today, seals fish and capture 90% of the ocean’s bounty, while humans take barely 10%. Does this make fishing unsustainable?

The Anasazi Indians, who built a culture in the “4-Corners” region of the US Southwest, survived for 500 years. They built elaborate systems of irrigation and farmed the region extensively. As a result, they raised the water table and had to contend with occasional flooding, as opposed to today’s usual desert conditions.


Was 500 years not enough to be called sustainable? Once again, it is nature which is not sustainable. Natural climate change happened, as it always does. Around 1150, a three hundred year drought began, which eventually wiped out this civilization.

Some people who thought they had built sustainable businesses, in pre-war Germany, in northeast-Iraq, or in Ferguson, MO, have learned that many times their ability to continue on depends on the actions of others.

So what does “Sustainable” really mean? What time frame should we be looking at? Is it a season or a few years? Is it decades, a century, or even a thousand or more years?

Should it be human centric? All living things work to survive and thrive, and that includes humans. Are we less important than any other species?

Who decides? If you get 1000 people in a room, most likely you will get 1000 different meanings for Sustainability. Why is your definition any better than mine?

And, what do we use for data? Data in the Global Warming industry, for example, is hardly reliable. In ClimateGate, we saw a conspiracy to keep views that differed from the “Team” out of professional journals, even if it meant destroying a journal.

We see “official” numbers coming out of GISS, the Goddard Institute for Space Studies, being adjusted over an over, until they are unrecognizable. The adjustments represent about half the observed global warming.

We see climate models being used as if they were actual data. But, if you compare the model projections (they stopped calling them predictions because they were so wrong) to the actual, observed data, even with the adjustments, you can see that the projections are a joke.

We see studies showing butterfly populations being decimated but failing to show conflicting information. We see one Hockey Stick depending on a single magical tree, and another Hockey Stick derived from an algorithm which would produce a Hockey Stick from random numbers.

We see politically motivated – and false – hysteria that the catastrophic results of rising CO2 levels already are apparent, while the reality is – and even the IPCC admits it – that, so far, the higher CO2 levels have been a huge net positive for humanity.

Food Production

We’ve seen horror predictions of the future prove to be very wrong. Malthus predicted mass starvation as the population bumped against the limits of food productivity to feed everyone. Improving technology, and rising CO2, has helped us produce enough food – today – to feed 30 Billion people, if we could stop the 75% waste rate, and if we stop trying to make fuel out of food. Technology will continue to improve in food production, as in  all other areas of commerce.

We’ve seen the predictions of Marx and Engels that the poor would starve under Capitalism, but the reality is that the more a society moves toward the socialism they desired, the worse it is for the poor.

The Globe’s article effectively said that we need to make the definition of Sustainability as vague as possible in order to get as many people as possible under the political tent, allowing us to do something about it.

To the contrary, I think these fear mongers need to be as specific as possible in defining their meaning, and why they think there is a problem that a Free Society, using Free Markets, can’t handle.

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