What is sustainability?

What is sustainability is a question that should be easy to answer. Sustain just means ‘keeping it all going’ and for human view of the environment that translates to allowing resource use to endure.

Only nothing is quite so simple.

Conventionally, sustainability is defined as variations on the theme of enduring — being able to be maintained at a given level — so to sustain something means to ‘keep it all going’ and sustainability is the ability to do it.

The problem with applying sustainability to the environment is to decide what exactly it is that is sustained.

Typically we think of sustaining our use of the environment that includes all aspects of agriculture, forestry and the raft of cultural, recreational and aesthetic uses.

Except that these uses [and the values that go with them] are not mutually exclusive, they overlap.

If a forest is converted to crops or pasture it loses some or all of its non-production values. Conversely, keep the forest and forego production values.

There is always a choice to be made over what to sustain.

Sustainability is time sensitive

The Hawaii Ironman world championship event is extreme by any measure — most people could not complete the 3.8 km swim, 180 km bike ride and 42.6 km run in a week, let alone in an 8-hour day 

Athletes can sweat more than a litre an hour in the cycling and running legs and drop 5% of their body weight even with the vital rehydration during the race.

In 12 hours they use as much energy as a person would need for 20 years of sitting down to watch television.

Such exertion is not sustainable.

But these athletes train to be able to make such effort sustainable for the time it takes to finish the race. They have to keep it going to have a chance of winning.

This example is also true of environmental sustainability. The forest that was converted to agriculture was sustainable when maintained as a forest [even allowing for some logging and silviculture] but the land may not support agriculture indefinitely. Typically converted land will require subsidies of nutrients and energy [fertilizer, pesticides and tillage] to sustain crop yields.

Sustainability of crop yield might only last for a few years without inputs and perhaps decades with them but eventually production will decline.

This is a current environmental issue for subsistence agriculture.

rural communities are often sustainable so long as population is stable and there is land for shifting agriculture | village in Papua New Guinea

Pragmatology of what is sustainability

Time is the essence of what is sustainability. It is not so much about enduring or even about how endurance happens, but more the duration of keeping it going. How long it lasts.

Everything that humans do uses resources that are either the products of natural capital or the capital itself.

We like to think that we can use resources sustainably. Certainly there are cautious and profligate ways of using resources and it usually pays to adopt the cautious ones.

Only we don’t actually follow this thinking too often. More common is the thought that the world’s resources are infinite, so how could we possibly use them all up.

Well 100 years ago that thought might have been reasonable.

Now, with some 5 billion more mouths to feed, it is the thought of an ostrich.

rainforest in the lowlands of Papua New Guinea

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timber resources from forests and woodlands are potentially sustainable but harvesting changes the character of the habitat

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