#FLsustain 2

Sustainable… Before getting deeper into the course, we want to get an idea of what comes to mind when you hear the ‘S’ word.”
If ever there was an open invitation for a page full of bish-whittering, that has to be it!

Take a bell, or a guitar string, or a musical triangle, or pretty much anything that makes a sound, and make it. Listen to the sound… keep listening… keep listening… can you still hear it, just a little bit? Has it gone yet? That’s called sustain; the property of something to keep going. When folk talk about sustainability, in whatever context they use the word they’re talking about the ability to continue. Unless, perhaps, they’re developers or economists. Sustainable eco-systems are those which can live on into a significant future without depleting the resources they rely upon. In terms of a human community, that would have to mean the production of energy, the use of dwelling space, the management of waste would all have to reach a stable state concommitant with continued existence. If that community depletes the energy/food resource, or fails to adequately recycle its waste, or increases its physical footprint then it is not sustainable – it will starve, die of exposure, sink into its own crap, or eventually encounter competing communities and enter alebensraum deathmatch.

Sustainability, then, is that quality that results from meeting the needs of the now without adversely affecting the needs of the future.

Oddly enough, when most I meet the word, it is either paired with -development, or -economy. Development almost invariably means the extension of the built environment into the grown environment, and the worst of the deathmatches that have resulted cross the spectrum of habitat and species extinction and internecine warfare. I am prepared to pick up a planning application that doesn’t, somewhere, express how sustainable it is, but I’m yet to be surprised that way. In part, this insistence on such a wildly inappropriate word comes from our glorious government’s use of the term “sustainable development” in the National Planning Policy Framework, a part of the Localism Act, which indicates a presumption of permission should be made on any application for sustainable development – now every new housing estate, car park, supermarket and airport terminal seems to be sustainable… as if the very word is a magic incantation, which of course it is, if you want to build your housing estate, car park, supermarket or airport terminal…

The other pairing is sustainable economy. In this case it means the protection of the long term future of the economy. But when a good economy is only good if it is expanding, and a recessive economy is the worst thing imaginable, then it must require ever increasing assets. If economic sustainability means operating the assets of a company in order to function profitably over time then more and more assets need to be harvested until none remain – not very sustainable. The only real sustainable economy would be one where the accounts truly balanced; inputs equalled outputs and the economic forecast was stable. Inevitably, to achieve this one would need to balance the inequity between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’ to remove a level of competition. Would such stability lead to stagnation? Humans, perhaps more than most people, tend to thrive only when their circumstances are ‘improving’, and improvement is seldom sustainable.

In astronomic or even geological timeframes of course nothing is sustained… Sol will burn up, burn out, blow apart, and our little planet will end. What is built, grown, developed can be trashed at whim by the rampages of Mother Nature – tidal wave, earthquake, hurricane… So context is important. Sustainable is about relationships. We live on this tiny tiny wet mossy rock, and we still think it is limitless. In our developing period (I’m thinking of the UK Pre-Industrial Period, say three of four hundred years back) everything was huge and there was so much of it. A trip to the local town might take a day. It might take days to walk the breadth of a forest. And there were so few of us, comparatively speaking… we could afford to stretch. Food, though it was hard work farming it, was mostly plentiful, and famines few. In the five decades I’ve been on these feet the world’s population had doubled (and yes, I can remember there being far fewer people / cars / houses), and we’ve crossed the planet in hours and left the world behind (briefly). The planet and it’s resources have not done well on their side of this relationship, and are beginning to look like the battered partner. One planet.

So at the moment, from one perspective, sustainability is pretty much mythos. Was credible once. But we are too many, too greedy, not yet able to increase the resource possibilities through extra-planetary mining. From another and more important perspective, sustainability is an aspiration. Something to seek a way to achieve – and once achieved, held gently.

Waffle terminated. “What comes to mind…” you ask that of this mind? lol.

2 responses to “#FLsustain 2”

  1. Worth noting that the ideas our economic systems are based on pre-date our key understandings of energy systems. We need an overhaul of what we think ‘economics’ means to bring it in line with reality, from which point it might be easier to do the rest of what needs doing. (Yes, I have been reading Molly Scott Cato….)


  2. Helen Whitehead Avatar
    Helen Whitehead

    So glad you have shared your thinking on this S word! Your points are all well made (so is Nimue’s comment). It’s not just about what we think of the definition of the word – something that continues indubitably – but our understanding that it has many and loaded meanings in different contexts.


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