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Sustainability is not sustainable

Over the last few weeks I’ve been offering up a weekly writing prompt and this week is no different. The challenge is to expand our vocabulary and think about what words mean to us. The one I’ve chosen this month is ‘sustainable‘, mostly because I’ve noticed its definition seems to work against what I think of its real meaning.

When I looked for a definition online it appears sustainable is connected to the idea of constant economic growth. For example, Merriam Webster tells us it means: “able to be used without being completely used up or destroyed” or able to last or continue for a long time“.

Alternatively, The Cambridge Dictionary tells us it means “able to continue over a period of time: or causing, or made in a way that causes, little or no damage to the environment and therefore able to continue for a long time“.

In both cases, the implication is it’s just a matter of time before what we’re using runs out! That doesn’t seem very sustainable to me!

Of course, I accept that language changes over time and words come to have different meanings. But this feels like a word has been hijacked to meet a particular agenda.

To try to get a sense of what has changed I turned to my old paper dictionary, the Oxford English Dictionary, and an edition published just a decade ago. There I found what I feel is right: “able to continue or be sustained“. Going one step further I looked at sustain in the same dictionary and was treated to: “support someone physically or mentally, keep something going over time or continuously, suffer something unpleasant, decide that a claim is valid, bear the weight of an object“. Neither of these definitions has economic growth sitting in the background dictating meaning.

These older meanings are no longer reflected in the definition of sustainability now. Instead of enduring, it’s something transient; instead of continuing, it’s something that will stop.

Other words that mean the same thing to me are:

  • Endure
  • Continue
  • Stay
  • Strengthen
  • Support
  • Preserve

Now it’s your turn. What does sustainability mean to you? Have I got it wrong? Am I missing something important? Do you agree with me? Let’s open up a debate about the language we’re harnessing right now. So share your thoughts and your alternative words below as I’d love to know what you think.

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2 Comments

  1. Sustainable means to me resist chocs, or a remain a pumkin. Forget Yo,Yo scales. Stay pleasant be smart.x