Sustainable is a great new buzzword. It sounds great. Sustainable. It’s hard to argue with the idea of sustainability. Who doesn’t want something to keep going?
The problem is that sustainable can mean two different — and closely related — things with one distinct difference.
Sustainable can mean that something is able to be perpetuated. It can also suggest that it relates to something that will sustain, something that will help keep us moving.
So the question is, which one do people mean when they use it?
Say that a fish is sustainable, and you are talking about it being harvested in a way that is ethically and environmentally clean: no overfishing or illegal practices and nothing that damages other species at the expense of the cash crop.
Say that an energy source is sustainable, and you are probably talking about something like solar or wind, which is replenishable rather than something like oil or gas that is finite.
Is that the kind of thing that Mayor Bill Peduto is talking about as Pittsburgh becomes second only to New York City in adopting the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals?
The list of goals from the U.N. includes things like clean water, clean energy and “responsible consumption,” but more of the 17 goals address the kind of things that are important to most communities: eliminating poverty and hunger, improving health and education, making the world safe for women and those who face discrimination.
It also includes things that can make cities more attractive like economic growth, industry and infrastructure.
There are people who are going to have a natural inclination to embrace this because they agree with some of the principles or with some of the supporters. They might be better served by some healthy questioning.
There are those who will dismiss it the same way. Sustainable means climate change, they may think. Bike Lane Bill wants it so it can’t be right!
People need to stop thinking that facts and solutions and ideas have to line up exclusively with one political ideal or the other, because nothing is ever that easy.
We need communities that have jobs that grow without booming and busting, food that is plentiful without being wasted, homes that are safe and available without feast-or-famine pricing and, yes, environments where our water and air are clean and healthy. To get there, we need to work with each other rather than at odds.
Because all of the opposition just isn’t sustainable.