I think we can all agree, the word sustainability and sustainable, these are pretty confusing topics. Everyone has a definition. There are some very good technical definitions of them. Unfortunately, if you start to look at them, they kind of all start to conflict. So it’s a legitimate question. What do we mean by sustainability?
Let’s start with the grand scale. From the standpoint of a physicist, somebody who studies the universe as this massive, all encompassing system, the question of sustainability is not really very easy to settle. Is the universe sustainable—the universe as a whole? Well, the answer is, it either is or it isn’t, and that depends entirely on certain, very complicated conditions that existed at the beginning of the universe. Is it going to expand into this cold, unorganized nothing? That’s one possibility. Is it going to collapse in on itself and into an extremely hot compressed nothing? That’s another possibility. Either way, anything between the very beginning and the very end seems to be kind of determined. Right? It’s an interesting question if you’re a physicist or a cosmologist to point out that probably the universe isn’t sustainable. It’s at least going to change over vast scales of time.
I haven’t noticed that most people who are concerned about sustainability in their own lives and societies, worry too much about what will happen 2 billion years from now. That’s not part of the concern. We’re really talking about sustainability that we can affect. We can’t affect the sustainability of the entire cosmos; not that I know of. But we can affect the sustainability of the things that constitute our own lives; our communities, our families, how do I make a living. Those are things that are in our control and they can be legitimately considered more or less sustainable. That’s what we’re really talking about here.
The word sustainability implies that we’re talking about sustainability in the context of human aims and desires and efforts. I think scientists call this the anthropomorphic aspect of certain kinds of thinkings. Anthropomorphic just means humans are a part of the picture. Sustainable means, for us, we humans, sustainable for us humans.
Having said that, what does it mean for something to be sustainable? Well, think of the common sense use. This word has been around for a long time. If I’m juggling working overtime, trying to keep the relationship with my wife going, taking care of the kids and all their activities, I may find that I’m not getting as much sleep as I need to function. And I may wake up one morning after 3 hours of sleep, think about all the things I’ve got to do and say, man, I can’t keep doing this. It’s not sustainable. In the context of my life, at the small scale, what I’m doing, I know I can’t continue doing it, whatever the rewards may be. That’s really the common sense notion of sustainability. If we extend that out to the level of the society, of the city, of the town, of the business, it really means about the same thing. Can we continue to do what we’re doing? If the answer is yes, then it’s sustainable. If the answer is no, not for really as long as we’d like to, then it’s not sustainable.
The area where this gets probably the most prominent use is when it comes to energy use. So sustainable energy—can we continue to consumer and use energy at the rate and in the ways that we consumer it now? Can we continue to do that for as long as we might like to? That’s the question. We know that fossil fuels are finite in supply. All right? There’s a lot of argument and debate among experts about exactly how extensive the supply of coal and oil and natural gas are, but no one claims they’re infinite. Right? So we know that somewhere out there is a limit to the sustainable use of these resources. The question, how do respond to that finite supply, is a political and social question. All right? It has to do with what we decide we need to sustain. And that’s not for any one person to determine. It’s not for us to determine entirely for future generations. We have to kind of muddle through this, to be honest. We have to make some decisions. What are our priorities? That’s going to tell us what we need to do.