Sustainability: Towards a Definition

Nicole Walker

Sustainability is easy enough to define. Keeping going what is already going seems like a good idea. Is is good. It denotes being. Aliveness. Fact. Tucked inside the word are other good words: sustenance, maintain, able — something we are doing and can keep doing. Present tense. Simple. We sustain. We are sustaining. We will keep life as we’ve come to know it keep on keeping on. The word sustainable attaches to environmentalism, but sustainable is a reasonable, not-preachy kind of environmentalism. We resist the word environmentalism. It suggests not is but no. Stop driving. Stop heating this house. Stop powering this computer with ill-gotten electricity. But if humans are bad at one thing fundamentally, it is stopping. Animals. Animate. Going. Going is something humans do well. When I think of sustainability, I think of the possibility of cars. High-gas mileage. Electric-powered. Even solar-powered. But the solar-powered car. It only seats one. It goes slow. It’s hard to drive on rainy days. I don’t want no. I want forward.

Sustainability has a ring of lifestyle to which we’ve become accustomed about it. Let’s sustain what we have now. No one wants to make that many changes. And, to truly sustain the planet, not our lifestyles, we would have to give up a great deal of our lifestyle. I see my neighbor vacuuming his garden rocks. The clerk at Fry’s wraps one item per plastic bag. I sit here, two computers whirring, fridge humming, dishwasher running, washing machine spinning. I’m eating an orange trucked in from California. What does sustainability really look like: Washing my clothes and dishes by hand? Or is it more extreme? Does it look like washing my clothes and dishes with sand? Despite the fact that I read all of Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, I still buy red meat from Safeway. I try not to think about the cows I’ve met and their bland, sorrowful eyes. I try not to think about Styrofoam. About plastic wrap.


Sustainable to humans most likely means I can still have my internet and eat bacon. I can take a plane to visit my sister in Baltimore. I can take my RV, hitch my ATVs to the back, add an SUV just in case. I can go anywhere I want to as far as I want to with all the gas I want to use. I can drive to the grocery store, forget my wallet, drive back home, pick up my wallet, go back to the store, realize I forgot my canvas shopping bags, shrug my shoulders when the checker asks paper or plastic. Sure, I make certain to store my plastic bag in a plastic-bag-keeper until the plastic-bag-keeper explodes plastic bags all over my kitchen floor and I get mad and scoop them all up and throw them away.

What’s sustainable to the human is not the same as what is sustainable to the otter. The otter prefers a cool planet. He visits his sister in the stream adjacent. His black, oily legs power him over to her den. Inside, she offers him crawdads. It is a good thing otters like their crawdads raw — it is hard to get a good boil going when it’s twenty degrees outside. The water temperature, though, to the otter, is just fine.

What is sustainable to the crawdad is not the same as what is sustainable to the otter. The crawdad likes her water warm. Not so warm as to boil her, just warm enough that she can use the power of her plastic claws to fight back against the otter. Warm enough to lubricate her legs to kick herself a good hiding hole.

A hole finds the whole world sustainable. A hole is very Zen. It believes where one hole is filled, another will be dug. It has friends in crawdads, gophers, golf course designers, earthquake faults, geysers, meteors. What is unsustainable to the rest of us will be intoxicating to the hole. I recycle glass but then, some people don’t drink. Those people are probably the most sustainable of all. They’ll live forever, healthy and righteous.

While holes are seemingly always sustainable, wind may well not be. Wind farms, at some point, may functionally stop the wind. Turbines absorb the wind, turn the wind into electricity. The flapping you hear against your house at night is not a breeze, it’s the sound of pollen hanging desperately off the trees, crying, “We want to go there.” Where? “Anywhere.” Power lines have been routed away from trees. Without pollen, nobody is going anywhere.

What is sustainable to me is probably not sustainable to you. I won’t let my kids eat a Lunchable but those parents who do insure their children, or at least their lunches, are preserved forever with BHT. The memory of their youth lingers on in the divided sections of plastic, disposable trays. My neighbors, three kids, then two sets of triplets, put two garbage cans out to the curb each Thursday night but on Monday night, no recycling bin graces the space where sidewalk and driveway meet. Still, if sustainability is in sustaining your DNA, these people have me beat by more than a multiple of four. My DNA is going nowhere fast, compared to my procreative neighbors. Diaper after diaper goes into the garbage can. There is no recycling of Pampers. But my favorite part of Franzen’s The Corrections was the fantasy of silicon becoming a precious resource in the future. Our garbage dumps will be our goldmines. I love speculative nonfiction.


Solar power seems highly sustainable. The sun won’t burn out for another million or so years. But where is the comfort in that? The idea that my children’s (insert exponential children here) will be freaking out when the sun expires in 5 billion years? Here’s something that might make you wish the earth would explode right off the bat: when you Google “the sun will die when” some website says in 200 years instead of the more plausible 5 billion years. Because what’s the diff, really, between 200 and 5 billion? Because the internet is full of accurate information only about once every ninety-seven (make it 200, it’s an easier number) years. About 5 billion years old, the sun is about halfway through its lifespan. It does not have enough mass to go supernova; instead, it will become a red giant — overheating like a Chevy Nova (at least some things are nova). Things don’t look good for earth, 5 billion years from now. Even if earth survives the initial explosion, all the water will be boiled off. If you don’t frack it all to hell first.

Fracking uses a lot of water. I just went down the Google hole and emerged with, surprise, conflicting information. Some say fracking uses less water than burning coal or watering golf courses. Others say that the level of contamination in that fracking water is so severe we’ll never repair it. Someone else went on to try to convince me that somehow the use of methane while fracking creates brand new water which led me to think I should stop reading that thread since last I heard, we are all drinking dinosaur pee and that is that for water, on this planet at least. Suffice it to say, when the sun turns from red dwarf to red giant, the water/dinosaur pee will be boiled off, the atmosphere will disappear, and all that precious water, potable or not, will disappear into space. Or maybe disappear into Google where from, as you know, nothing really ever returns. I’m still there now, trying to find out about this water vapor created by burning methane. If you ever get thirsty and you happen to have a farting cow and a match, you will be sustenance yourself.

The biggest threat to sustainability is the I/You conundrum. As I love Italo Calvino’s “On a Winter’s Night a Traveler,” I hear him read (in my memory because my copy of the book is still on the back of a toilet in a house I once owned in Portland, Oregon—that copy. That house. That toilet. Together they are sustainable), “You walk down a cobblestone street. Your head turns to the left. You see a man with a mustache. His eyes lift and fall on your white head.” Some readers don’t like this “you” business. “You can’t tell me what to do. I will turn my head when and in what direction I want.” Some readers love this. They love that both the author and the reader are together in this. The “you” point of view is unsustainable. But the “you” point of view can lead you down a path of goodness, potentially unsustainable goodness but goodness nonetheless. To see a mother bear cling to her baby bear on an ice-floe that is melting in the middle of the arctic sea will remind you of the daughter that is coughing in her bed and while the polar bear’s apocalypse is real and your apocalypse is, in the 21st century, full of nebulizers, inhalers, and portable oxygen, you pretend you can fall in love with that mama bear. You can approximate, metaphorize, resemble her. That polar bear loves her baby as much as I love mine (even though mine has been coughing on me and keeping me up all night with worry. The mama polar bear. Does she worry like you?). You will save that polar bear like you will save your daughter. You insert one more vial into the nebulizer. You donate fifteen dollars to Greenpeace. You can sustain your conscience one more day.

But the metaphor falls apart as it does in any second-person narrative. At some point, the “you” is just too insistent. Too preachy. Too full of itself. You want your “I” back. You are tired of polar bears. Come on down to the lower 48. Adjust. Adapt, you tell the polar bears. You think Greenpeace should have enough cash by now to let the bears catch a ride on their big boats, giving the bears a break from swimming from ice floe to melting ice floe. You imagine Greenpeace throwing seals off the bow of the boat (You can swim! You have flippers. Lazy seals.), trawling flotation devices behind. Then you start to feel bad for the seals. You can’t take this anymore. You jump off the boat. Join the seals and the polar bears. This you has gone on too long. Jump!

As Jacques Derrida and Jim Morrison assure us, no one here gets out alive. There is no jumping off the boat. You are the boat. I’ve been stuck in my own boaty head for years now and the only way I get anywhere near off of it or out of it is watching the ground squirrel figure out how to carry four acorns at once or the raccoon open the latch on the garbage cans. If the only animals that are going to survive are rats, deer, squirrels, roaches, and raccoons then I should learn the ways of the roach. Skitter. Congregate. Learn how to fly. These animals have one thing in common. They have adapted toward humans, the roaches best of all. The small adapts much more quickly. A bug moves quickly away from a falling stick not because he himself is small but because he pays attention to the small vibrations in the earth. And that by paying attention to the small, we can make our big selves adapt. I smell lilacs. It is spring. I should prepare for drought by sucking milkweed. The monarchs. They live. I learn to love the sour taste. I’ll fight the cockroach to quench my thirst.


Maybe humans are too multi-tentacled to adapt. We have too many associations. Nothing is just one thing. Information is not cold numbers and hard facts like it is to a squirrel. We weigh facts. We caress facts. We warm ourselves by the dream of a technology that will save us. Solar power. Solar power. We chant to the sometimes-still-moving wind. We form emotional attachments to facts which turn them from facts into feelings, numbers into hope. I love the number three. I loved being three. When I was ten, I pretended I had a three-year-old daughter and when my daughter was three I loved her most and I love my son most at three too so if you tell me that in order to stop global warming, I’m going to have to give up the number three, that three is the number of carbon dioxide and forcing sad swimming polar bears then I will tell you that the globe will then have to be hot. I love the number three. I think we can save three polar bears. That is how much I love three.

It also may be metaphor that kills us. Grazed by bullets. The bullets are not deer, eating gently at our cheeks. The language itself is too soft to save us. Drowning in information makes us forget there is no water around. Angel hair pasta has neither angels nor hair in it. These are the salad days is only a good thing when you weren’t required, for your heart, for your cholesterol, to eat a salad every day. We take grazing and drowning and angels too lightly. Figurative language is the reason people need pictures of four-year-olds with holes in their faces.

But that is horrible and the horrible won’t save us. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe metaphor will save us. I would die without you — as long as the I and you simultaneously means caterpillar and squirrel. Frog and leopard. Jellyfish and termite. Ahi and ostrich. Panda and koala (all the yous of the nonbear bear family). Dust mite and dust mote. Hawks and ravens (even if the ravens seem to bully the hawks). Goldfish and monarchs. Jim Morrison and Jacques Derrida. Lactobacillus acidophilus and yeast. Elephants and elephantitis. Rattlesnake and bumblebee. Daughters and rock-vacuumers. Crawdads and otters. Solar power and holes. Roaches and Google. Triplets and Pampers. Raccoons and Michael Pollan. The bagger at Fry’s and the RV driver. Italo Calvino and the polar bear. You and even maybe me too.

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