A certain unsustainable lack of definition

ancient farmhouse

They can’t define WHAT?


Lots of people think “sustainable” is most difficult to define. I disagree: it isn’t hard to define – the word is in the dictionary. I looked it up.

Now I will tell you what it means: “sustainable” means supportable; maintainable.

“Sure, you can quote me – and it was the Shorter Oxford… No, I’m not a hero, just an ordinary bloke, anyone else would have done the same in that situation… I don’t know what the fuss is about… Yes, at the back, do you have a question?”

During the Helengrad era in New Zealand, almost every press release emanating from the Beehive was liberally sprinkled with the word “sustainable”. Meaningless bureaucratese or “apparatchik-speak” such as this usually has a short life, but “sustainable” is clinging on – much used, for example, in Phil O’Reilly’s just-published 2012 report of the Green Growth Advisory Group, which mentions some form of the word “sustainable” 67 times. And we still don’t know what the word means.

The report shows an appalling mish-mash of meanings being pressed on the rather ordinary word “sustainable”, used (along with “sustainability”) to qualify words like “development”, “business”, “production”, “performance”, “standards”, “principle”, “wine” and others, mostly connected with the natural environment and usually concerned with preventing either its despoiling or the use of its resources.

Those two concepts are distressingly distant when we encounter in the report the phrase “as global markets sharpen their focus on sustainability and environmental performance in the practices, technologies, products and services of this country,” for it sounds like mere threatening talk and there is no evidence of any market shunning us on those grounds.

Sustainability was originally a UN term from the 1987 Brundtland Commission “Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development,” General Assembly Resolution 42/187, 11 December 1987, requiring that the “needs of future generations” be considered. But how many generations? And how can we possibly divine what their needs will be? Everybody has a different crystal ball. Perhaps future people might prefer inherited wealth, so they can make their own decisions on how to use it?

One lobby group – the New Zealand Business Council for Sustainable Development – has even incorporated the word into its name, and they spend a whole page on their website struggling to define it. Their solution is remarkably similar to the nursery-rhyme definition of “girls” – “sugar and spice and all things nice”. Using a scattergun technique, they present at least four definitions or flavours for us to choose between (they seem unable to choose):


The World Business Council for Sustainable Development has noted that while the classic definition of sustainable development: “Meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” expresses the idea, it has proven hard to put into practice and communicate to the general public. Sustainable development is a holistic concept, a strategy that requires the integration of economic growth, social equity, and environmental management. Sustainable development aims to make global society not just better off, but better altogether.

One definition of sustainable development that appears to have more resonance with the general public is that used by the United Kingdom government: “Sustainable development is about ensuring a better quality of life for everyone, now and for generations to come.” This focus of sustainable development on improving quality of life is becoming more widely accepted by government, companies, civil society organisations, and others. A quality of life focus makes the concept more aspirational, and it changes the tone and content of the sustainable development debate so that the emphasis is more on solutions than problems.

It’s obvious that the “difficulty” of these definitions is created solely because they’re trying to load a conglomeration of social aspirations into a single code word to redefine most human activities. Even sports clubs are expected to become devotees of this new form of religion. But the word “sustainability” is being asked to do far too much work.

That, in turn, is caused by trying to obscure what they’re up to. Sensitive by now to the resistance in educated people to having their activities constrained without good reason, the despots disguised as environmental leaders formulate the new social constructs in terms of the planet. Because what is good for the planet is the modern sense of godly. Nobody dares to disagree for fear of the cascade of pious reproach.

Take a lump of coal from the mountain and earn their wrath. Even if the planet doesn’t notice.

The absence of a clear, or even a single, definition of sustainable has been no barrier to the word being incorporated happily in prestigious documents. In the latest incarnation of Auckland governance, the city, the zoo and the airport are among the bodies that have sustainability enthroned in the core of their business. So they all talk about it even though none of them knows what it means.

The matter becomes stranger when one considers how, in times gone by, people instinctively knew what was sustainable in many situations and strove to achieve sensible solutions that would continue for as long as possible. The term used to describe this approach was “conservative”. The conservation of resources was a central element of conservatism, and conservatives were to be relied upon for long-term stability and good sense.

The alternative, of course, were fire-brands and hell-raisers unconcerned for tomorrow, wastrels with no thought for the future.

Conservation – or, now, sustainability – is far from being a new concept.

Views: 73

15 Thoughts on “A certain unsustainable lack of definition

  1. Mike Jowsey on 31/03/2012 at 8:45 am said:

    Sustainable development is a holistic concept, a strategy that requires the integration of economic growth, social equity, and environmental management.

    So, ‘sustainability’ involves the concept of ‘social equity’? Yikes. Isn’t that communism by another name?

    Here’s how I understand sustainability. In any discreet system, the subtraction of a resource should be matched by the addition of a replacement resource so that the system is not degraded. For example, a flock of sheep has a breeding stock which must be maintained (even improved) if future years are to produce sheep meat in equal or greater quantities. If you send your breeding ewes to the works, next year you will have no lambs. Unsustainable. For another example, a potato grower who sells his seed potato stock is bound for disaster. For another example, a government that continues to borrow $380m per week to prop up a bloated bureaucracy without increasing GDP or reducing government spending is unsustainable.

    Gosh, could these be the views of a conservative?

    You’re right, RT, this is an old concept handed down to us from many past generations of pioneers, settlers and traders. It’s not rocket science. It’s simply common sense. But common sense is not a buzz-word these days, so the concept must morph into ‘sustainable-this and sustainable-that’.

    What I would like to see, before any other sustainability, is a sustainable economic formula which must include a cap on local and national government spending, pegged to GDP. Maybe even a law which prohibits government borrowing (unless sanctioned by a referendum). That is something I would consider beneficial to future generations before anything else, carbon footprints included. Otherwise our children’s children are shackled to debt incurred by past reckless governments, debt held by powerful international banking cartels. In effect, they are born into slavery. Or are we there already?


    • I largely agree, Mike. I strongly agree about the importance of wise fiscal measures for the good of future generations – but first and foremost, for the present generation. However, perhaps surprisingly, I would rather not curtail government spending. By and large, and always supposing good checks and balances are in place to avoid stupidity and waste, and with a firm and independent Auditor-General, the government will spend money on necessary or helpful projects. I would not like to be the one to tell them which projects should not proceed.

      It would be more beneficial to attack the other side of the equation, the factor few mention — we should increase the government’s income. Or, better expressed, increase their potential income so what they actually take from the taxpayer is not felt as a burden but is paid cheerfully. What this means is increasing national output and raising real wages. Why is personal income right now not higher? That question needs to stay in our minds.

      If you doubt that our output could be raised, just imagine the result of returning the unemployed to productive work. That would be without factoring in any improvement in motivation, or morale, which is bound to occur when conditions lighten.

      Our inquiry needs to stop at nothing, not even the appearance of a reasonable answer, but to drill down until fundamental principles are uncovered.

      That economic principles exist is certain. If you need proof of that, observe that for about two hundred years (??) past, we have suffered cycles of boom and bust which challenge our equanimity, make the rich poor, starve the poor and damage development. That tells me we’re doing the same things, so the economic principles guarantee that the results will be the same. Yet our productivity is prodigious. Even the quick-fire calamities of two world wars failed to quench our enthusiasm for work, ingenuity and invention. While we still had families and fed them.

      I’m firmly of the opinion that no known, living economist knows what’s happening and that what’s happening ain’t natural. Who will fix it but we?

      The inquiry should begin soon. Time may not be running out, but it is passing.

    • Andy on 31/03/2012 at 3:51 pm said:

      The debate between J.M. Keynes and F.A. Hayek, both living and teaching in Britain in the 1930s, was one of the great debates of the century. Sadly, the charming globetrotter Keynes had the podium and the audience, to the point of influencing policy the world over even to the present day. Meanwhile, the quiet and studious Hayek never really did gain an audience. Like his colleague and mentor Mises, Hayek wrote in scholarly journals and was heard only by those with skeptical minds, people who doubted the theoretical and policy conventions and looked beneath the surface.

      Does this sounds familiar?


      By the way, the boom and bust rap video embedded in the above article is well worth the watch, even if you don’t like rap!

  2. Richard C (NZ) on 31/03/2012 at 2:46 pm said:

    In terms of resources I think it’s helpful to investigate what is unsustainable to arrive at what is sustainable. NZ is replete with examples: kauri milling with no replanting; use of arsenic baths for gold extraction (Karangahape River was white and dead); deforestation of hillsides for farming with resulting erosion and harbour sedimentation; overfishing etc.

    But in the modern corporate context it’s a whole different ballgame and as a case study I can think of none better than Invensys Plc (£2,486m revenue, 20,664 employees). I studied them as part of an NZIM paper. Have a look at who they work with and what they enable:-


    E.g. 64% of the world’s liquefied natural gas production, 36% of the world’s nuclear energy generation.

    In mgt jargon, sustainability is “triple bottom line” (financial, social, environmental) and you can see how Invensys deploys the concept as an all-encompassing company culture in the ‘About us’ page, see ‘Values’ and ‘Corporate Responsibility’ (obviously they take CO2 emissions seriously):-


    Their 2011 Sustainability Report is here:-


    See page 8 ‘Our Approach to Sustainability’

    “Sustainability is intrinsic to our operations and value propositions: it is important to our customers,
    communities, employees and shareholders.”

    Executing our sustainability strategy

    Reducing our environmental footprint

    Caring for the well-being of employees and communities

    Communicating our sustainability performance

    For them, sustainability is a business proposition with opportunities to profit both for themselves and their customers especially by efficient operations however it’s strictly PC at Invensys (page 30):-

    Precautionary Approach
    Invensys fully subscribes to the
    Precautionary Approach advanced in
    Article 15 of the Rio Principles, which
    states, “Where there are threats of serious
    or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific
    certainty shall not be used as a reason for
    postponing cost-effective measures to
    prevent environmental degradation.”
    Invensys does not knowingly operate in a
    manner, or advance a product or service,
    that poses a threat of serious or irreversible
    damage to the environment.

    You can also view their Sustainability Report 2011 web page here:-


    Obviously given the arena of operations, this company wants to be as squeaky clean sustainably as they can be under those constraints for the future of the company and I don’t think you will find much bigger commitments to the concept anywhere but I would be interested in cases if they do exist.

  3. Australis on 31/03/2012 at 4:24 pm said:

    Now that the word has been colonized by green-speak it can never be defined. It’s a code for all things that seem utopian or politically correct, which recognizes none of the trade-offs or costs that populate the real world.

    The “precautionary principle” is equally meaningless, but also bad advice. It counsels against evidence-based or consequence-based decisions.

    Should one take a coal from the mountain? It’s obviously not sustainable if we assume a 28th-century person might want to use it as a computer. And it’s irreversible if one burns it. As there will never be full scientific certainty, it would be more cost-effective to leave the coal in situ and remain shivering in the dark.

    • Richard C (NZ) on 31/03/2012 at 5:39 pm said:

      In the vocabulary of the Green/Left sustainability becomes a chameleon like climate change but in the corporate world sustainability failures are easily recognizable: Enron’s business model and corporate culture was unsustainable; Ports of Auckland staffing policy is unsustainable and maybe even their continued existence as a major port. Clearly if you want to stay afloat as a corporate entity some attention to what is sustainable and what is not is a worthwhile exercise.

      In respect to coal, the Green/Left want to “leave the coal in hole” as if that is some kind of sustainability measure (CO2 a “pollutant”) but the concept cannot be applied to something that is not being utilized. The US EPA is going rogue right now in this regard. I’ve seen Hansen’s “trains of death” in the US Midwest, there can be two or three different tracks going in different directions and they seem to stretch from horizon to horizon. Obviously the US as we know it is unsustainable without that fuel source.

      Sustainability comes in by judicious regulation and management of the resource (coal wouldn’t be a “resource” if it wasn’t a fuel). NZOG (Pike River’s owner) discovered that their subsidiary’s mining practices were unsustainable in that particular environment.

      I think Green push back against miners is a good thing because it imposes discipline that would not otherwise be in place but to NOT utilize the resource has nothing to do with sustainability. The sooner we can get through their thick skulls that CO2 just isn’t having the effect it is purported to have the better and we can concentrate on pragmatic sustainability practices IMO.

      And the UN should just butt out, where is their mandate to meddle and control in this arena?

    • Richard C (NZ) on 31/03/2012 at 6:00 pm said:

      Wiki tells us:-

      The United Nations (UN) is an international organization whose stated aims are facilitating cooperation in international law, international security, economic development, social progress, human rights, and achievement of world peace. The UN was founded in 1945 after World War II to replace the League of Nations, to stop wars between countries, and to provide a platform for dialogue.

      “Facilitating cooperation” and a “platform for dialogue”, no more, no less.

    • Australis:

      Yes, I hadn’t thought of that. As a code, the definition is irrelevant; it stands for whatever link to Gaia, Earth, the environment, heaven or paradise fits the context.

      Your remarks on the precautionary principle are startling. But cost-effective to remain shivering with cold? It could never be cost-effective to die of cold-related maladies using one’s own valuations. Only the valuations of eco-mentalists would support that outcome.

  4. Andy on 31/03/2012 at 5:02 pm said:

    In Christchurch, it is illegal to put a wood burner in a new home (even an earthquake rebuild).

    A wood burner is arguably the most sustainable way to heat a house (clean burners create little soot or smog).

    • Andy,

      Do we know the performance of modern clean wood burners in large numbers together?

    • Andy on 31/03/2012 at 8:21 pm said:

      No, but burning wood is “carbon neutral”, beyond the initial installation part. It completely decouples you from energy dependency from a central grid.

      A lot of people living in the South Island say there is no substitute for a good wood burning stove on a cold winters night.

      I guess our future is putting on the heat pump on the rare occasions the wind turbines are turning in winter

      Just as well we have abandoned living in ChCh

    • I thought perhaps the bureaucrats might have a reason for refusal of wood-burning stoves based on polluting emissions. But if not, it’s quite discouraging that you’re restricted by the imaginary global warming threat. Makes it hard to fight.

  5. Richard C (NZ) on 31/03/2012 at 7:10 pm said:

    ‘State of the Planet Declaration’. The opening paragraphs:-

    1. Research now demonstrates that the continued functioning of the Earth system as it has supported the well-being of human civilization in recent centuries is at risk. Without urgent action, we could face threats to water, food, biodiversity and other critical resources: these threats risk intensifying economic, ecological and social crises, creating the potential for a humanitarian emergency on a global scale.

    2. In one lifetime our increasingly interconnected and interdependent economic, social, cultural and political systems have come to place pressures on the environment that may cause fundamental changes in the Earth system and move us beyond safe natural boundaries. But the same interconnectedness provides the potential for solutions: new ideas can form and spread quickly, creating the momentum for the major transformation required for a truly sustainable planet.

    3. The defining challenge of our age is to safeguard Earth’s natural processes to ensure the well-being of civilization while eradicating poverty, reducing conflict over resources, and supporting human and ecosystem health.

    4. As consumption accelerates everywhere and world population rises, it is no longer sufficient to work towards a distant ideal of sustainable development. Global sustainability must become a foundation of society. It can and must be part of the bedrock of nation states and the fabric of societies.


    6. Humanity has taken a huge leap and become a planetary-scale force. Significant changes have occurred since the 1950s, and the rate of change is accelerating. Researchers observe unsafe levels of pollution, ecological change and resource demand, with potentially catastrophic consequences for our global civilisation.


    Now where have we heard this language before?

  6. Richard C:

    I agree with you that “sustainability” has some useful facets. But when the definitions either multiply or disappear the usefulness sharply declines. The presence of the useful facets leads us to suppose a helpful message even when they’re absent. So we’re kept captive. It’s insidious and deliberate and we must oppose it. If someone mentions sustainability we should find a moment to ask: “what do you mean?”

  7. Alexander K on 05/04/2012 at 9:56 am said:

    Five years ago, I discovered that a different reality applies to builders in London, UK. My wife was managing a large infant department in a big primary school there. Builders moved in to (incredibly slowly) create a new Infant classroom Block. the paint was barely dry on the plaster walls of the new block when alarming-looking cracks began appearing in said walls. My wife called in the Project Manager to report this and was told
    “Thee allus has to wait for the foundations to settle, then plaster over the cracks – that’s how we allus do it her in Lunnon, innit!” The same Project Manager could not understand why my wife was a little annoyed that he forgot to ensure that sinks and water connections as per the plan were installed in the new classrooms!
    It is a joke in London among itinerant antipodean tradesmen that none of the houses there will fall down as nothing holds them up – we discovered this to be true when a whirlwind hit and demolished the end of a row of ‘two up two down’ late Victorian terraced houses not far from where we were living – no diagonal bracing anywhere, no wire or special nails to hold the roof down in high winds, and the brick walls were built directly onto levelled clay sites without foundations of any kind.

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