The word “sustainability” has gotten such a workout lately that the whole concept is in danger of floating away on a sea of inoffensiveness. Everybody, it seems, is for it whatever “it” means. On a recent visit to a land-grant university’s spanking-new sustainability institute, I asked my host how many of the school’s faculty members were involved. She beamed: When letters went out asking who on campus was doing research that might fit under that rubric, virtually everyone replied in the affirmative. What a nice surprise, she suggested. But really, what soul working in agricultural science today (or for that matter in any other field of endeavor) would stand up and be counted as against sustainability? When pesticide makers and genetic engineers cloak themselves in the term, you have to wonder if we haven’t succeeded in defining sustainability down, to paraphrase the late Senator Moynihan, and if it will soon possess all the conceptual force of a word like “natural” or “green” or “nice.”
Confucius advised that if we hoped to repair what was wrong in the world, we had best start with the “rectification of the names.” The corruption of society begins with the failure to call things by their proper names, he maintained, and its renovation begins with the reattachment of words to real things and precise concepts. So what about this much-abused pair of names, sustainable and unsustainable?
To call a practice or system unsustainable is not just to lodge an objection based on aest...