More than a buzzword

Local experts pin down the real meaning of the term ‘sustainability’


People throw the term “sustainability” around a lot, especially in
Boulder County. But how many of us really know what that word means and
are familiar with the controversies surrounding it?

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary’s definitions of the term “sustain”
include “to supply with sustenance, nourish,” as well as to “keep up,
prolong.” So the natural question emerges, what are we talking about
sustaining and for how long? How long can we keep up our current
lifestyle without making profound changes?

Many in Boulder County make themselves feel sustainable by recycling,
by biking to work, by putting solar panels on their roof, but being
truly sustainable takes more than that.

And before long, we may be forced into a much more radical form of sustainable living whether we like it or not.

Michael Brownlee, co-founder of Transition Colorado, says that if we
continue on our current path of putting consumption and economic growth
first, a shift to sustainability will be inevitable. And he says the
most controversial aspect of the conversation is the idea that we might
have to put economic growth on hold, a concept that very few of our
elected leaders want to discuss.

“Our way of life, as Dick Cheney once said, is not negotiable,”
Brownlee says, adding that even former presidential candidate Al Gore,
when discussing renewable energy, doesn’t bring up reducing consumption
or energy use. The discussion is always about maintaining our current
way of life.

Brownlee acknowledges that the idea of halting economic growth is
“heresy in classic economics,” but is inevitable from an environmental
point of view if we want to achieve sustainability.

“Growing economically is detrimental to human and all other life,” Brownlee says, “and that discussion is essentially taboo.”

Unfortunately, he says, our American way of life revolves around
fossil fuels and the almighty dollar in “an economy of extraction and

But before long, the decision will be made for us, Brownlee says. We
will run out of energy if it continues to be produced by traditional
means. The idea of relocalization, which his organization focuses on, is
based on the “realization that we’re on the brink of a global energy
crisis,” he explains.

According to Brownlee, to be sustainable we need to reduce our
dependence on global systems, whether it’s food, banking or energy. If a
community like Boulder County can become more self-reliant, more
resilient, and is better able to withstand the changes that are bound to
come, we can increase our chances of not just surviving, but thriving.

“What we have learned is that the way humans are living on the planet
is unsustainable,” he says. “If the conversation doesn’t start with
that recognition, it’s rearranging chairs on the Titanic.”

And he aims high when he talks about sustainability. Instead of
maintaining the status quo, halting practices that damage the natural
environment, and leaving our soils, forests, oceans and waterways in
their current state, “the real goal is to regenerate what has been lost
and destroyed,” Brownlee says. “If we were able to stop all greenhouse
gas right now, we’d still have tremendous work to regenerate the

We’re just now feeling the effects of greenhouse gases emitted 40 years ago, he says, which is pretty scary.

“What’s even scarier is that in the U.S., people don’t want to talk about it,” Brownlee says.
Jason Gerhardt, a local permaculture instructor and designer, agrees that the emphasis should be on regeneration.

“I think that if we speak of sustaining our current way of life, we
are accepting a degraded condition,” he says. “Whether you look at the
environment, watersheds or the economy, they are all in a degraded
condition, a non-optimally functioning condition.

“In my work, I focus more on the word regenerative instead of sustainable.”

When asked how long we can realistically expect to sustain our
species, Brownlee points out that we are actually still in the early
stages of life on this planet, in the grand scheme of things. Humans are
a relatively recent addition when one looks at the history of the
earth. But we may end up cutting our time here short.

“We are on the endangered species list,” he says.

Earth is losing 200 species a day, and we’re in the midst of the
sixth-largest extinction of life our planet has seen, according to
Brownlee. A sustainable population for the earth might be in the
neighborhood of 1 billion to 2 billion people, he says, but we’re at 7
billion and still growing. That level of population growth can be
sustained for a while, but some experts say climate change alone will
require us to reduce our population by 80 percent to 90 percent by the
end of the century if we want to survive, he says.

Despite the doom and gloom, Brownlee believes we haven’t crossed the
point of no return yet — he still holds out hope that we can reverse our
current trajectory.

“We may not have much choice on that, because the oil supply is
dwindling,” he says. “Some say nothing is going to change until we hit a
major crisis. I would like to think that we’ll wake up before that

Gerhardt says the term “sustainability” has lost a lot of its meaning
because it has been co-opted by mega-corporations like Monsanto.

“When two opposing entities use the same term — say one is Monsanto
and the other is a local organic produce farm — it is hard to see a
mutually agreeable point where the two meet in the middle,” he says.
“This just points out that the word has begun to mean whatever the
people using it want it to mean.”

While “sustain” means to uphold something for a certain amount of
time, the sticking points are what that something is, and how long it is
upheld, according to Gerhardt.

“Monsanto is trying to sustain their unique version of agriculture,”
he says. “Local organic farmers are trying to sustain their own unique
version of agriculture. In this sense, the word can be used by anyone
trying to keep something going, but the real issue is whether what is
attempting to be sustained is in line with the forces of the natural
world, and therefore can actually be sustained. … The base of natural
resources makes that decision, not human might.”

Given the natural ebb and flow of life, it is unrealistic to think
that human civilization can be sustained forever, Gerhardt says.

“The point is, ‘sustainable’ is a perfectly useful term if what is
attempting to be sustained is made clear and the time scale is
explicit,” he explains. “Otherwise, it is a marketing ploy, no matter
who is using it.”

Adam Reed, a research faculty member in the Renewable and Sustainable
Energy Institute at the University of Colorado, says the term
“sustainability” is best known by how it was defined by the Brundtland
Commission in 1987: “Sustainable development is development that meets
the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future
generations to meet their own needs.”
Reed echoes Brownlee’s concerns about consumption.

“Our entire economy is based on the idea that we can keep producing
more and better things, and that these things make people happier and
happier,” he says. “The gestalt of consumerism has even absorbed the
green movement — you can now go consume ‘green’ automobiles, ‘green’
homes, ‘green’ clothing, the list goes on and on. Are these products
really reducing demand for energy and resources? They are better than
their non-green counterparts — if they aren’t lying or greenwashing —
but we’re still consuming an awful lot at the end of the day.”

Reed says trying not to burden future generations — as the definition
of sustainability directs — comes down to who has the political power.

“Those who will be most harmed by our failure to live sustainably
today do not have a political voice, because they haven’t been born
yet,” he says.

According to Reed, our current materialistic, consumption-based
system that links happiness to rising gross domestic product needs to
undergo a transformation.

“What is needed is a reassessment, at a massive scale, of what makes
life worth living,” he concludes. “And that’s a question that goes
beyond clean energy technologies, ‘greening’ supply chains, or buying
organic Patagonia T-shirts. The core of sustainability is Aristotle’s
notion of eudaimonia, or ‘human flourishing.’ To get to a sustainable
society, we must re-examine what makes ‘the good life,’ and choose

Michael Brownlee will be a featured speaker at Boulderganic After
Hours on Thursday, June 23, from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. at the Dairy Center
for the Arts, 2590 Walnut St., in Boulder.