Sustainability is a modern-day buzzword. It is used so much
that it is at risk of suffering from a dilution of meaning.
But is still is an important concept.
In August 2004, President Bush boasted
that home ownership in the USA was at an all-time high (69.2 percent).
It was important for him to point this out, just before the
election. The reason is that he was advocating trickle-down
economics. He needed to show that concentrating wealth in the
hands of a few could lead to improved standards of living for everyone.
(That happens to be a lie:
“Social mobility is now less fluid in the United States than in other
affluent nations. Indeed, a poor child born in Germany, France, Canada
or one of the Nordic countries has a better chance to join the middle
class in adulthood than an American child born into similar
Well, now we find out that home ownership is down
to to the same level it was in the summer of 2001. This means
that the increase was not sustainable. It was fake, based
upon a smorgasbord of smoke-and-mirrors economic gimmicks.
Perhaps I will be proved wrong, if the housing market turns around.
But there is an abundance
of evidence to indicate that it is getting worse.
Meanwhile, the credit crisis is hitting
businesses that had nothing to do with the causes of the crisis.
This means that there is an increasing risk that the crisis
will spread to other parts of the economy.
Obviously, this does not explain what sustainability is; rather, it
shows an example of what it is not.
The US Environmental Protection Agency, which, admittedly, may not be
the most credible source, defines
sustainability as follows:
Sustainability means “meeting the needs of the
present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet
their own needs.”
This definition came from a United Nations report,
dated 11 December 1987.
Among other things, sustainability means using your third
wish wisely. It means maintaining biodiversity.
It means avoiding excessive consumption. It means a
lot of things, nicely
illustrated (literally) over at The World’s Fair.
The big problem is the the world’s economy depends upon the US economy,
and the US economy is build on ever-escalating consumption.
Moreover, it is built upon consumption of things we
That is a matter for psychology. It is said
that Sigmund Freud was involved in figuring out the psychology of
marketing that was used to create the consumer society in the USA.
Is there a way to use psychology to reverse this process?
Probably not. The catapulting of consumer values was
accomplished by teams of PR folks, people who wanted to make a lot of
money quickly. While there is money to be made in sustainable
practices, it is not quick money.
People can work on sustainability on an individual basis. But
with 6.6 or so billion people to get with the program, the prognosis
for that strategy is dim. A political system of centralized
control could work, but only if we have a way to guarantee that only
nice people are allowed to have that control. Not much chance
So the irony of sustainability is that it probably is not sustainable.