Four Essential Questions on “Sustainability”

I have long chafed at the way people tend to use the word ‘sustainable’: it has become a term of general approval applied to something perceived – or something being sold – as “good for the environment” and/or good for people in some vaguely defined way.

The usual “three pillars” model of sustainable development only exacerbates the problem, with its way of distinguishing technological, economic and social sustainability. The markers of “social sustainability,” for example, really just look like ordinary concerns of human welfare and equity, and it is unclear whether they are among the conditions of sustainability or among its goals.

Partly as a consequence, the Sustainable Development Goals promulgated by the United Nations come across as a grab-bag of progressive values and initiatives which, taken together and regardless of their merits, don’t add up to a coherent account of the conditions under which “sustainability” might be possible.

My usual response to this conceptual muddle is to take the term back to its roots: ‘to sustain’, which means to prolong or to maintain as well as to nourish and to care for.

In relation to some other things I’ve been working on – about which more in subsequent posts – I have distilled my concerns into four essential questions:

  1. What are you trying to sustain?
  2. For whose sake?
  3. For how long?
  4. To what end?

Only with answers to these four questions will it make sense to inquire into the conditions under which it will be possible to sustain whatever it is that is worth sustaining.

Not to spoil any upcoming posts, but I’ve been brought back around to the problem of sustainability by way of the third question: For how long? Suffice it to say that recent research into the link between music and ethics have given me a troubling glimpse into deep time and the conditions for sustaining any human way of living for more than a few generations.

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