If I took a survey on the word sustainable—if I called a thousand households and asked them for their reaction to the word, a phrase, a definition, an image it brings to their mind, I wonder what exactly I’d get. I’m sure I’d get a full range of responses, including hang ups. With no context, it might very well be an unremarkable word for many.
As a reader of this blog, though, I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that a whole range of well-established images come to mind for you at the very site of those eleven letters. Nature. Solar panels. Recycling. It also brings to mind the things that aren’t sustainable—using our resources carelessly until we run out of them; making our planet suffer in the long term for extremely short term gains. And all that makes perfect sense. It’s a definition and a context many have worked very hard to establish.
I think the idea of sustainability can be more, and that being more will enhance its value as a concept, its value to the green movement and to industry alike.
After all, there are lots of things that need to be sustained. The planet is, for reasons that I hope are obvious, chief among them. But how about civilization? How about democracy? And, yes, how about the businesses for whom most of us toil to earn our daily bread? There are people on both sides of the sustainability debate that believe those two lists, our natural resources and environment on the one hand and our industry and society on the other, are inherently in opposition. That’s too bad, because neither side is going to get far without the other.
We like binary thinking. Republican/Democrat. Left/Right. For/Against. The truth is that all of us have gotten this far together. If you’re concerned about the environment, consider your context. Consider how you came to have the opportunity to focus your energy on that topic. And if you aren’t, consider where you might be if no one cared at all. If you’re struggling, think about the smoke and pollution filled cities of the 19th century. If you don’t think about the environment, it’s because somebody did a lot of thinking and struggling already.
There’s nothing wrong with reaching out to your fellows, with attempting to bring them to your point of view. But I submit to both sides—maybe, instead of planting our feet and playing tug of war, we should walk together into a future where everything we love is sustainable. That sounds better than the same old fight. It sounds like a Refreshing Alternative.