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A practice is sustainable if it can be continued indefinitely within a system.

Indefinitely? Without limit, except as posed by external events truly beyond the control of those performing the practice that change the system. Resilience describes the ability to withstand external changes to the system but relies on changes not exceeding critical limits.

Is there a limit beyond which it is not possible to continue? Assuming planet earth as the system, the sun is expected to put an upper limit on any biosphere after several billion years. Other events beyond our control that make life impossible on this planet may or may not occur. For purposes of this discussion sustainable civilization is able to continue on this planet while the sun provides a suitable environment i.e., for billions of years.

More sustainable or less unsustainable?

A lot of efforts for which the term "sustainable" or "more sustainable" has been used, are actually concerned with stretching the remaining time a practice can be continued. That does not solve the underlying problem, only provides more time to implement different practices that can indeed be continued. As such the terms "more sustainable" or "less unsustainable" are misleading. "More sustainable" improvements so far postpone serious problems by no more than one generation (If someone can find examples that do better, please add). That is a far cry from the millions of generations that could be possible. Such efforts, such as conserving resources (e.g., a car that is more efficient and/or used less), are worthwhile because they provide more time, but they must not divert attention from the effort to come up with sustainable solutions. No matter how much effort is spent on finding "more sustainable" improvements, someone will eventually have to come up with a solution that can be continued. The damage and thus the burden placed on future generations will be greater the longer that takes.

Creating sustainability

Creating sustainability is an entirely different task from stretching the time to continue existing practices. Nature shows that it can be done. Every civilization should try. None has succeeded so far. We know more now. Admitting that "more sustainable" is not sustainable will help to intensify efforts to create sustainable solutions.

Meeting the needs of the present

The most frequently used perspective on sustainability talks about "meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs" which is traced back to the Brundtland comission's report. This puts the "needs of the present" first and anyone is free to define what these needs are. This seems to be a cause of the erosion of the concept, the remainder of the sentence is conveniently served with some notion of doing things in a less damaging manner. "Sustainability" has become an almost meaningless "buzzword", other terms have started to replace it ("resilient" seems to be coming en vogue now, even if its original meaning is different). The focus on the existence of civilization in the far future automatically implies that all real needs have been met in the time until then, including the present. Looking first at the need of future generations to exist provides the framework to understand what needs we have.

Temporarily more unsustainable to get to the right kind of trajectory?

Nick Bostrom proposed that it was not so clear that sustainability is the most appropriate frame and expressed that he thinks we need to keep the rocket engines on until we've reached escape velocity, thus we may need to go deeper into a phase of unsustainability first in order to get to a different kind of sustainability at the other end (say rapidly outwardly expanding but inwardly sustainable multi-galaxy super-high-tech civilization with posthuman population size maybe billions of times greater than now...!). He thought the current focus should be not be so much to get into the right kind of state but to get onto the right kind of trajectory.

It may well be possible that temporary unsustainability can lead to better sustainability. It seems much wiser, though, to enter such a path only as a civilization that can be reasonably certain that such a better sustainability will be reached and has an alternative. Without that the current path seems foolishly dangerous.

The existence of intelligent individuals (be that machines, human generations or other types of being) in the future provides a worthwhile goal for any civilization. We should choose the wisest path to reach it. Dipping temporarily into unsustainability could be done when it is less risky. Right now it seems more important to find ways to achieve conditions that are necessary to allow civilizations to continue. That includes sustainable practices.

Links and other definitions

  • The Brundtland comission's report concluded that Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. It contains within it two key concepts:
    • the concept of 'needs', in particular the essential needs of the world's poor, to which overriding priority should be given; and
    • the idea of limitations imposed by the state of technology and social organization on the environment's ability to meet present and future needs.
  • US Environmental Protection Agency EPA defines Sustainability as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
  • Wikipedia's articles on sustain and sustainability discuss various concepts and understandings of the term.