Pondering Sustainability

By Angelo F. Bardales, Green Teams Coordinator

From the onset of our internships at IUOS, we are encouraged to start thinking about what sustainability means to us, to form our own definition on a personal level—if we hadn’t already started doing so beforehand. In our first reading from A Conservationist Manifesto, we encounter an etymological approach to such words as growth, wealth, and patriotism. While we do not need to take such a detailed approach right off the bat, we can use it as a starting point.


When we think of the word sustainability, the first thing to cross our paths is the word sustain. What kind of meaning do we take from it? To endure? To keep alive? To hold steadfast? Perhaps the most fundamental reason for such diverse approaches to sustainability as we see in our daily lives is that the root word has such diverse interpretations. Each one holds some validity, some grasp of the essence. We’re comfortable with thinking of a certain level that we might want—whether the status quo or some other level that we deem acceptable, or at least acceptable enough. Take carbon dioxide as an example, with a 350ppm threshold arguably considered safe enough and achievable enough for a human-inhabited world. It’s certainly better than the current level, and much better than levels we’re projected to approach, if not surpass, in the next century.

Then we come across the word ability. Nothing is needed to connect these two words to each other. Nor do we even need to extract the words from a root or other linguistic element—they are simply there next to each other, and read in their whole, one after the other. Sustain ability. Taken together, a straightforward interpretation of the word could be as a measure of how well or to what extent we can maintain something, to keep it together, in existence, alive. It seems simple enough, and they say that you don’t need to make things complicated—often the simplest answer is the best one, the right one. Yet in this case, such a position feels incomplete, and almost dangerously so, for it leaves out any room for that which is new. Newness represents growth, progress, development. Its absence leads to stagnation and retreat. In with the new, out with the old. Well, we don’t want to get to this point either, for much can be gained from the experience of the old. It is the balance of the two that holds the most promise—indeed we find that balance is key to many a thing.

Therefore, jumping to think of sustainability as that tool which lets us keep the status quo or simply hold on to what we observe to be in existence may mean leaving out an important part of the meaning. True, we should strive to conserve precious natural resources and preserve wilderness and other beauties of the world—this work fuels the human spirit and keeps us in touch with our planet. But we should also realize that part of sustaining something we can see, or at least know to be there, is to allow for the possibility of something else coming to fruition. It may even come to hold a pivotal role in maintaining what was already there. To sustain can mean to endure, to keep alive, to hold steadfast, among other possibilities. Part of enduring, keeping alive, being steadfast, is growing and learning along the way—acknowledging a new possibility. When the jab is thrown from the left, the next time we swerve right. When we leap at the hurdle and instead fall flat on our face, we get back up and jump even higher the next time. When we set a threshold for carbon dioxide, we remember to mention that it also represents an awareness and action of what sustainability is really all about.


4 thoughts on “Pondering Sustainability

  1. Working at the City of Bloomington Parks Department, I often heard the word sustainability come up whenever employees pitched new programs and services. Government officials often have to consider whether a program is sustainable from a financial management perspective. For instance, after grant funding runs out for a particular service, constituents may continue to expect that service.

  2. As you mentioned, I believe it is very necessary to realize that enacting sustainability or living a sustainable lifestyle is a balancing act. One can’t put off a habit without pick up another. Sustainable “change” and “progress” isn’t just a process of eliminating bad habits but putting on new ones as well.

  3. Your connection of “sustain” and “ability” is uplifting. I think behaviors will change when people understand the word like you detail. Instead of seeing sustainability as a series of inconveniences to business, why not see it as a platform to protect our species?

    I think one of the key barriers to sustainability is how people perceive sustainability word on a personal level. Many opponents of the green movement lack the lens to view the situation in a positive light and often forget whats really at stake. They base their arguments on the negative impacts that come from regulations or their freedom to consume. Sanders has a good quote in the preface which illuminates this fundamental understanding of sustainability.

    “Over the past five years, my wife and I have become grandparents three times over, through the births of Elizabeth Rachel Allen, and Margaret Lys Allen to our daughter, Eva, and her husband, Matthew, and through the birth of Anna Katharine Sanders to our son, Jesse, and his wife Carrie. If I were ever in danger of forgetting why we should perserve Earth’s bounty and beauty, these children remind me.”

  4. Your post provides me with a refreshing viewpoint of sustainability, especially in your description of sustainability as a learning process. Not all of our attempts to live a more sustainable lifestyle will be successful, but it is important that we do not get discouraged when we are unsuccessful in order to form better habits.

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