There seem to be two main uses of the term sustainability: environmental and financial. Since I am a touch of an idealist I think of sustainability in a broad scope. For something to be sustainable it has to be sustainable forever (or at least for the foreseeable future).
Environmental sustainability should be reserved for practises that stop future destruction of the environment, including biodiversity, even if every person on earth follows that practise. According to this definition, the use of oil for propulsion is not sustainable, nor is the consumption of animals for food. In short, the lifestyle of the average person in the “developed” world is not sustainable. This lifestyle has become the benchmark with which other nations measure their success. How can we expect them to lower their impact on the environment when we have had the benefit of 100+ years of unsustainable practises? Why should the emerging world not experience the kind of golden age that the first world has? Perhaps our golden age is coming to an end.
The notion of financial sustainability is problematic. In the case of environmental sustainability, there is a direct and measurable effect of our behaviour on the environment, in terms of lost species, lost habitat, and the increasing CO2 in the atmosphere. These are real and physical things. Money is not real. It is not real in two ways.
First, the amount a consumer pays for item X does not actually reflect the cost of the production of item X. The whole system of capitalism is based on the ability to make profit on a sale, and therefore the cost of sale must exceed the cost of production. Often this means the decrease of the cost of production which correlates with the exploitation of the workers in the production process. Normally “cost of production” means the amount the company spent on producing the item. In order to even hint at financial sustainability we need a different conception of the “cost of production”. Usually the resources used by a production process are the products of a lower level production process: One industry’s product is another industry’s resource. A new conception of “cost of production” should include a living wage for each of the workers involved in the process, and built in time delays that allow the renewal of any environmental damage caused by the production process. (For more info on this notion of cost, see this post.) This notion of cost would massively increase the cost of consumer goods, such that they reflect the actual cost of production, which is required to make those goods sustainable.
Second, the environment is a real physical system and therefore it provides real constraints on what is possible. Money, on the other hand, is not a real physical system, and is not even rigorously tied to a real physical system. If it was, then there would be a fixed amount of money in the world at any one time (like there is a fixed number of natural resources at any one moment). For this to happen all governments would have to agree on how this fixed amount is maintained. As there is no fixed amount, money is a construction that cannot be reduced to physical resources. Consider this notion in relation to the discussion of the cost of production above, and we may conclude that the idea of “financial sustainability” is artificial at best, and meaningless buzz at worst.
You may ask about scientific development, and the service economy at this point, as I’ve only discussed physical production. I have two thoughts on the matter: (1) These kinds of services do incur real costs (equipment and a living wage for the practitioner), the former of which is real and physical. (2) There is something different about the production of ideas (knowledge, services, software, etc.) rather than the production of physical products. The cost of production (in the proper deep sense) is much lower because the requirement of physical goods is minimal. In fact the most significant resources are not physical but the ideas and knowledge already present in the culture.
I would argue that the production of ideas is the role of a cultural practitioner, and that ideas can benefit all of culture and industry. The production of ideas and knowledge cannot be treated in the same way as the production of objects. As they can be applied so broadly, and are highly dependent on existing knowledge, they should be supported by taxes received from the community. The current treatment of knowledge as if it was a physical artifact is improper because of the differing emphasis on physical vs. cultural resources. The lack of physical resources is attractive to the capitalist, but the requirement of cultural resources is problematic. The collections of knowledge corporations acquire, in the form of patents, have become so large and complex that any one corporation is likely infringing on another. These patent vaults continue to grow not only to control that knowledge, but increasingly to make sure that the infringement balances: If you infringe on their patent, make sure they also infringe on yours, resulting in a stalemate. The net result is the atrophy of cultural knowledge (the public domain) which restricts future intellectual development.
I began this post admitting my idealistic leanings, and perhaps the notion of sustainability “forever” is problematic. In fact it is not problematic if we expect to be around forever, or perhaps until the end of the life of the sun… How sustainable we are should correlate directly with how long we wish to be around. We are hungrily consuming resources (particularly oil) that took much longer to produce than we have even existed, this seems to do little but highlight the fact that our existence is finite. That being said, it is quite possible that in order for us to be sustainable, for the time we wish to exist, we would have to adopt a lifestyle that resembles poverty. Not something us in the western world would like to entertain. The only other option may be to limit the population of the world, which is the main driver for all this increasing consumption. Perhaps the life of the western world is sustainable, if the population of the world was much smaller. There is no sign of this population growth slowing.
The bottom line is that choices of sustainability have a problem of scope. How far in the future can we imagine ourselves, and how much short-term compromise are we willing to live with in order to keep the future we want? (short term pain for long-term gain)
Having said all of this, I still can’t shake the feeling that the train has left, we have already spent too many years looking too shortly into the future and not making any meaningful sacrifices in the present. This can only point to one thing, an eventual end. All previous human civilisations have ended, which should this one be any different? Perhaps the only true environmental sustainability is the destruction of humanity. Our disappearance will give the earth time to recover, at least until the evolution of the next greedy and exploitative creatures.