It's not easy to talk about sustainability. The concept is unfamiliar, abstract, and vague.

The popular definition from a United Nations' commission says that you are being sustainable when you are "meetingthe needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." That sounds nice, but there are a lot of different interpretations about what it really means and many debates about how to put the concept into practice.

Actually, it's not surprising that we have trouble talking about sustainability. As Donella Meadows, co-author of Beyond the Limits, says, "Until recently the world was very large and the human economy and population very small. We weren't up against limits. We didn't need to talk or worry about sustainability. We don't need words for things until they become issues that we have to deal with. Then we invent the words. That's exactly the process that is going on now. It is the most important thing that we need to do at this point in the discussion: create the language so we can talk about the problem."

In many respects, the language of sustainability can be quite simple. We don't have to imagine the immensity of integrating harmlessly all of human activity into a finite, global biosphere. Instead, we can think about basic virtues and habits working together, taking care of what we have, teaching our children, standing up for everyone's rights, consuming what we really need rather than everything we can get.

Sustainability is not about the denial of comfort and pleasure. Rather it is a challenge to think deeply about achieving a high quality of life over the long term.
Sustainability is not a mythical end state of perfection. Rather it is a process of improvement and a context for decision making that forces us to define success broadly and holistically in terms of multiple benefits.

And sustainability is not a depressing guilt trip. Rather it is about mobilizing human creativity to make a better world for all.


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Proceedings of the Sustainable Communities Symposium 2000

Sustainable Communities 2002
Sustainable Communities 2004

Local sustainability initiatives
Cuyahoga Valley Initiative

Other sustainability topics
Global warming and the design of regions
Redesigning industry
Sustainable food systems
Sustainability resources

UN World Summit on Sustainable Development 2002


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