A Placemaking Journal

Sustainability: What’s in a word?

The places we inhabit are rarely if ever arbitrary. They’re the products of intention. Personal. Economic. Environmental. Religious. We choose for ourselves, individually and collectively, the kind of places we want and — through leadership, policy, investment, advocacy, action and, at times, inaction — those places begin to take form.

It’s a complicated dance of complementary and competing interests. Making it something that happens for us, rather than something that happens to us, requires, perhaps more than anything, a shared understanding of exactly what it is we’re talking about. A common language.

Such common language provides a context in which people of different opinions and values can work together. It doesn’t necessarily make things any easier (that’s dependent on the amount of common ground that exists between views) but it does make them more rational and productive.

I communicate for a living, which is why I spend a lot of time thinking about ways to simplify concepts, distill big ideas into smaller, more digestible ones, and connect them with things people care about. Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of sustainability and wondering if we’ll ever find a way to depoliticized it.

If we could, we’d begin to see that, in concept, it’s an equal opportunity proposition with applicability across the political spectrum.

Political, ideological, nonsensical

First off, sustainability’s not an action. It’s not something you do in support of a political agenda. It’s an underlying value — a driver of actions — to be considered on its own merits. But that consideration requires agreement on its definition.

When we speak of sustainability, what are we even talking about?

My most simplified version is ensuring our ability to keep on keepin’ on, which I adapted from Original Green originator Steve Mouzon, who defines it as “keeping things going in a healthy way long into an uncertain future.”

Perhaps the most commonly cited definition is “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

Not a new idea: So that's where my laundry detergent got its name!

Not a new idea: So that’s where my laundry detergent got its name!

Whichever definition connects with you, you see the common threads: endurance, durability, resilience, responsibility and, yes, an acknowledgement that future generations will, in some ways, thrive or suffer based on choices we make today.

That’s not ideology. It’s humility.

It’s not new, either. Steve Mouzon asserts that, historically speaking, we’ve always lived sustainably because, until the industrial “Thermostat Age,” we had no other choice. It’s only our present levels of comfort that have given us the temporary luxury of viewing such behaviors as optional.

Finally, it’s not something reserved for any particular culture. The Iroquois Indians, for example, had their own version, one that pinned their actions to outcomes seven generations down the line. In weighing their decisions, they placed high emphasis on how such actions might impact their kids, and their kids’ kids, and so on, looking roughly a century and a half out.

Simplify and maybe we can get somewhere

If that’s what sustainability’s all about then let the conversation be about that. Let communities begin by asking themselves a simple question: Should we concern ourselves solely with getting through today or should we also consider and prepare for what’s in store tomorrow? And the day after that?

That’s the crux of it. Nothing about one-world government forcing people to live in high-density downtown tenements. No Agenda 21 conspiracies. No Birkenstocks required. Just a simple question getting at the heart of what a community does or doesn’t value.

If it takes not uttering the word to get there, so be it. It really doesn’t matter what you call it. What matters is the answer. If you can get to that, to a point where your community genuinely agrees on its connection with, and responsibility to, those yet to come, you can get to the hard work of determining exactly which economic, social and environmental policies and initiatives — across the political spectrum — best put that agreement into practice.

What’s been your experience? Have you found ways to strip away sustainability’s all too common ideological baggage and arrive at a meaningful, non-partisan community conversation? Do tell.

Scott Doyon

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