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The Shortcomings of Sustainability

Question: What’s wrong with the term “sustainability?” 

Mitchell Joachim: Yeah the term sustainability, I have a slight issue with. There are many others that have a similar issue with that term. Richard **** at Columbia often says that if you ask ten scientists what sustainability means, you’ll get ten separate and different answers. Bill McDonough also doesn’t like the term sustainability. He thinks it’s not provocative enough. It’s a little bit too status quo. When I think of sustainability, I think of baseball.

But not really good baseball, I think of a team like the Chicago Cubs. A team that is sustaining itself, a team that can play in the major leagues but it doesn’t really win any games. It doesn’t win so much. It doesn’t evolve, doesn’t change, doesn’t have too many heroes. It’s not a breathing, growing, constantly nurturing, beautiful organism. It’s just kind of a group that gets by. It gets by to the next game and the next game and the next game and it’s not enough.

If you think of the New York Yankees, that’s a team that is evolving, growing, powerful, nurturing, intelligent, filled with heroes. It’s kind of a winning, a strikingly winning, team. And you would never associate the New York Yankees with being a sustainable baseball team. So I would think, if we’re going to call the movement sustainability, it’s a little too dry. So I think, the choice that I would often use is socioecological. And yes, it’s a mouthful but I think it describes the problem in two major sectors.

One, it’s about social justice and the policies associated with it and two, it’s about ecological science. Because if these are big problems that we’re trying to answer, we need to look to some specific sets of science that could help us solve them. I don’t think a term like sustainability does that so well. It’s more of a philosophy as well as a science as well as a kind of attitude and it’s really an umbrella for too much.

While ecology is a very specific science that looks at areas in the landscape, looks at flora and fauna, and makes decisions or has some serious research and proposals and suppositions that are much clearer answers. Socioecological, the terms mixed together, allows you to accept the fact that science is never going to be the answer. Science is not a silver bullet.

You’ll need human activity and the kind of a culture associated with how we live on this Earth and the governments that work with us to accept that change is going to happen. But it’s going to happen through many different characters and actors and agents working together. And so socioecological design would describe the field that I work in.


Recorded on September 11, 2009






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