Why has the term “sustainability” become so popular, and is it useful?
Berry: I’ll go out on a limb, and Wes can saw it off. We’re stuck with this word because of the obvious need to sustain the things that we’re not sustaining. But by itself, the word doesn’t mean very much because no word means much by itself. If you’re going to make use of this word, you have to find a context for it in which it can mean something. You can look around and study examples. You can find here and there forests that have been sustainably managed, so far as we can tell. You can find farms that are not running off a lot of topsoil after rains. If you can get it particular enough, you can talk about sustainability and make a little sense. But it’s a matter of getting it into sentences that say something actually verifiable in a context. And I think we have a long, long way to go.
Jackson: The first paper I wrote that described our current work was published in our Land Report and was titled, “The Search for a Permanent Agriculture.” I’d read about the Catholic Church’s idea of “permanence” as a kind of virtue. But “permanence” wasn’t quite right. When I published the paper outside The Land Report, I changed the title to “The Search for a Sustainable Agriculture.” The term must have been floating around in 1978.
I’ve been asked to define the term and give examples. My response has been, “well, give me a definition of justice.” The idea of justice arose in a historical moment, probably out of the idea of fairness, or the perceived lack of fairness. It arose, as I understand it, among the Hebrews, about the time of the minor prophets. Maybe that’s where we are today with “sustainability”—it is a term we the people have resorted to because of the perceived lack of sustainability in our society.
Ultimately it comes back to Wendell’s idea that it is best to have a particularity in order to know what we’re talking about. It is a value term, and I’m in favor of keeping it, but we need to protect its meaning, protect it from being co-opted.
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