Hands up! This is a sustain!

What does the word ‘sustainability’ mean to you? It’s one that crops up pretty much everywhere these days to the extent that its meaning has been forgotten. It’s become a cliché.

I should say at the start that this thought wasn’t prompted by Roger’s comment yesterday, but by the new planning reforms issued by the government today.

In the reports I listened to while mowing the lawn, the words ‘sustainable’ and ‘sustainability’ littered every other sentence, but no-one seemed able to explain what this meant in practice, and believe me, the interviewers kept asking the question.

We tend to associate the word with the environment and green policies, so ‘sustainable’ has become jargon for something laudable and good (which is why politicians use it so much), but like other buzz words, it takes on its own meaning depending who’s using it.

Without trying too hard, I came across the Sustainable Restaurant Association, sustainability at the 2012 Olympics, sustainable investment and finance (UKSIF) and a consultancy in US that specialises in the subject that actually calls itself SustainAbility.

It would be interesting to get representatives of each together and compare their definitions of the word.

There will be similarities of course, although I suspect that where there is an overlap, it won’t really be anything of substance that might aid comprehension. ‘Sustainability’ is a good thing that brooks no argument. We’d be more likely to get statements like the one below that comes from the consultancy mentioned above:

We work with diverse clients and partners to create value through development of innovative solutions to environmental, social and governance challenges.

See what I mean? Or rather what they think they mean, but can’t express it without the comfort of cant.

So let’s get back to basics (another politician’s favourite). Sustain comes from the Latin, sustinere, meaning to hold up. It has both good and bad connotations. For example, you can sustain someone with nourishment or support their spirits. On the other hand, they could sustain an injury.

There isn’t much there to recognise in the modern meaning is there? It’s as if the child ‘sustainability’ has left home and become a grown-up word in its own right. And disowned its parents, ‘sustain’ and ‘sustenance’.

Nobody’s prefect. If you find any spelling mistakes or other errors in this post, please let me know by highlighting the text and pressing Ctrl+Enter.

5 comments… Add yours
  • Thicko Pudding 28th March 2012

    This is all too highbrow for me old chap, though regarding your lawn mowing, you should have remembered this famous rhyme that has been well-sustained through the ages:-
    Ne’er mow your lawn
    Till March has gorn!

  • Mr Parrot 28th March 2012

    I tried that old adage on Mrs P, but it didn’t cut any ice. Or grass for that matter.

  • Owl Wood 28th March 2012

    Intelligence in Public office has now fallen to sustainable levels.

  • Francisca 1st April 2012

    This post gave me a chuckle, Shooting Parrot! (Actually, most of your posts that I have the pleasure to read do.) I am sitting in a Scrap City (drop the S for how it really is) in southern Guangdong, China, working as a consultant with an outfit that is developing a recycling resources industrial park. The industry and government lingo used in the planning paperwork is stupendously complicated, obfuscating all intentions and meanings (admittedly that is so everywhere). But central to the plan is indeed GREEN and sustainability, and I am trying to show them how to include people and planet, along with profits. It’s an uphill battle, considering I speak only conversational Mandarin and am surrounded by Cantonese speakers! 🙂

  • Mr Parrot 1st April 2012

    Crap City or not, I’m quite jealous. China is a country I’d like to experience one day and at least you are with the people who actually live there.

    I don’t have a problem with either ‘green’ or’ sustainability’ which make perfect sense to me. I don’t know if it’s a generational thing, but I don’t like to throw anything away because you never know when it will come in handy. I’d rather we went back to reusable glass bottles and built-in obsolescence is a complete anathma.

    But as I tried to explain, word like ‘green’ and ‘sustainability’ have become meaningless jargon for ordinary people. They may be worthy ideals, but no-one explains whatb sustainable development or green transport policies mean in practice or what’s in it for us.

    I do wish you well with your work in China. The reality is, if they don’t get it then nothing we do in the west is going to make much difference.


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