The Meaning of Sustainability


Sustainable small family farms for crops, sheep, and olive trees for olive oil. Village of Machairas, Central Greece. Photo: Evaggelos Vallianatos.


I remember sometimes in 1980, the last year of the Jimmy Carter administration, when a couple of economists from the US Department of agriculture visited a few of my colleagues at the US Environmental Protection Agency. They wanted to discuss the costs of transforming conventional agriculture to sustainable farming.

This shocked me. Costs, I said, what costs? After all, there are only benefits, no costs, to doing good. I had the impression that sustainability meant more than maintaining an idea or a business unchanged. I thought that sustainable agriculture, for example, was agriculture in the public and ecological interest. The US Department of Agriculture economists probably had the same idea. They said, what should we do with the huge quantities of pesticides and synthetic fertilizers of conventional farmers? Clearly those harmful chemicals have never been sustainable, hence unwelcomed in sustainable farming. Who would bear the costs of removing those chemicals from farmers addicted to them? In addition, growing one crop in large farms was also unsustainable, what with its demand for toxic sprays, huge petroleum-powered tractors, irrigation, the destruction of biodiversity, including pollinators like honeybees. So, the USDA economists told us the costs of making US agriculture sustainable would be prohibitive. Forget about sustainability, they said.

But like the invention of soft white bread, sustainability has had a life of its own. It refuses to die. And for a good reason. It may well be a cover for the American dream of a great society, wholesome food, and a healthy natural world.

War on nature

The nineteenth century sparked the mechanization and industrialization of almost everything — in factories, armies, business, schools, politics, architecture and the urban built environments, agriculture, and religion. This tremendous expansion of industrialized and armed human activities throughout the planet has been harming nature so much that experts are talking of the rise of the Anthropocene, that is, a new epoch of complete human dominance of the natural world.

The wars of the twentieth century, the invention of the atomic and nuclear bombs, the American bombing of two Japanese cities with atomic weapons, unchecked population growth, and the emergence of computers and Artificial Intelligence, all but sealed the fate of wildlife on land and seas.

This brutal war of humanity against nature has brought into being the climate catastrophe — and climate nemesis. Nature, an almighty force on Earth, in fact, Earth, is finally lashing back at humans, their foolish notions of control of the planet. Man / woman represent but one animal species. What about the millions of other species? Who or what gave man the hubris of domination? Would Mother Earth allow the aggressive humans to go on with their campaigns of extermination?

Probably not. The Earth is alive and some 4 billion years old. Plato thought the Earth was the oldest of the gods. About 2,400 years after Plato, one may argue about the Earth’s divinity and biology, but not about her uniqueness, beauty, and perfection. She loves all her children, the countless species of plants and animals. That one of them, human, is becoming a dinosaur, must be very disturbing to the Earth. The Erinyes, goddesses of justice and punishment of heinous crimes like matricide, will not allow humans to unsettle nature.

Climate nemesis

By 2023, climate change has become climate emergency, causing chaos in the entire planet. It is entirely anthropogenic, though it has the appearance of a classical tragedy with inevitable consequences of a divine wrath and punishment, a nemesis.

Climatologists and humans that respect science are well aware that fossil fuel companies are basically responsible for hooking nations and their populations on unsustainable energy extracted from the burning of petroleum, natural gas, and coal. The burning of these fuels creates enormous hazardous emissions of greenhouse gases that raise global temperatures, putting the Earth and civilization at grave risk.

Many Americans in the West worry about the deadly effects of floods, storms, hurricanes, heat waves, and vast forest fires. They support conservation and protection of the environment. But no matter the public concern and the persistent search for sustainability, federal and state governments, politicians, and fossil fuel companies pretend all is well. President Joe Biden made huge but empty promises to fight climate change. He is preoccupied fighting America’s proxy war in the Ukraine.

Sporadically, some homeowners and small business put solar panels on the roofs of their houses and buildings. Electric vehicles are also selling well. Yet the impression one gets in America of 2023 is that business as usual is in charge. Some newspapers do publish articles on the engulfing climate crisis. Even televisions hint that storms and fires and drought are products of climate change. But colleges and universities and other centers of science are largely in deep sleep.

Meaning of sustainability

As I said, sustainability offers a cover. Sustainable development sounds good. Sustainable water use means nothing to the uninitiated, and that’s the ambiguity and hope of our age. Our times of pollution demand that. Like an alternative dogma to an established religion, like a slogan, sustainability offers a way out of facing the tragedy we have created, at least temporarily. It is a hope for the future. It is a potential transition from bad to good policies, even personal aspirations. That’s why municipalities, cities, schools and numerous institutions label so many things they do sustainable.

Sustainability is often straight and diplomatic talk and politics of preserving sound and ethical and ecological ideals and practices. It comes as solutions and long-term goals. It could not be otherwise. To wish to sustain something, is all about love. It means you love that which you sustain.

However, some would say they want to sustain hunting, commercial fishing, or nuclear weapons. I couldn’t do that, especially nuclear bombs, pesticides, fossil fuels, Artificial Intelligence and other weapons of war and domination. So, sustainability encloses both deception and hope for a better future. Polluters at home and abroad under pressure baptize their activities in the waters of sustainable development. They name everything they do, including deforestation, sustainable. International banks brand their loans sustainable, etc.

Sustainability in the Amazon volcano?

I remember my trip to Northeast Brazil in February 1992. I was to talk about agrarian reform, why the state had to stop the destroyers of the Amazon, restrain large landowners while giving land to the landless peasants, and more land to very small farmers. But once at the conference in the beautiful city of Fortaleza, the conference organizers did not allow me to speak to the entire conference. They sent me to a room with five other professors. Sustainability was at the heart of my presentation. In fact, the conference at Fortaleza was a preliminary step to the June 1992 Earth Summit or UN Conference on Environment and Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro. The sustainable development agenda or the 197 nations Earth Summit was ambitious:

“The ‘Earth Summit’ concluded that the concept of sustainable development was an attainable goal for all the people of the world, regardless of whether they were at the local, national, regional, or international level. It also recognized that integrating and balancing economic, social, and environmental concerns in meeting our needs is vital for sustaining human life on the planet and that such an integrated approach is possible. The conference also recognized that integrating and balancing economic, social, and environmental dimensions required new perceptions of the way we produce and consume, the way we live and work, and the way we make decisions. This concept was revolutionary for its time, and it sparked a lively debate within governments and between governments and their citizens on how to ensure sustainability for development.”

The debate continues. The Rio conference was fundamental in, at least, getting people to think that there is another way to conventional domination and colonialism. Climate change was already on the move. The Earth is our Mother.

In 1992, President Lula was heading the Workers’ Party. He became President in 2002. The Amazon was on fire in 1992 and 2002. Twenty-one years later, in 2023, Lula is once again president. The Amazon and its indigenous people are in grave danger. One of the leaders of indigenous people, Davi Kopenawa Yanomami, explained what he hoped to see from President Lula. He talked to Amy Goodman of Democracy Now, November 17, 2022:

“You asked me, “What does President Lula represent?” For me, my people, the Indigenous people of Brazil, he has thought about us. He has thought about how to resolve the problems that we’ve been facing for so many years. For me, Lula is a positive person. He is like a friend. He is like a friend of the forest peoples. He wants to save the life of my Yanomami people and to save the lives of our rivers, our forests. He is a very good thinker. He has promised to remove the miners from the Yanomami territory. He has also promised to minimize the deforestation of the Amazon forests. So he is following through on his word. He is the only president who has been elected on the ticket of helping the forest peoples, helping the Indigenous people of Brazil, and other persons who really need help.”

Davi Kopenawa was talking about sustainable development, the core mission of the 1992 UN Conference in Rio de Janeiro. That conference gave us a science-based study of climate change (through the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) and climate Summits, warning world leaders and humanity of the tsunamis they have unleashed with their ceaseless burning of fossil fuels. These important UN actions were conceived in the spirit of sustainability – a hidden truth layered with jargon, international politics, and fear. Brazil has been a boiling agrarian volcano ready to explode. The Amazon forest is the fuse.

In 1992, I witnessed the lava coming out of that agrarian volcano in the Amazon. I spoke to landless peasants; I saw children begging. But one needs to read Death Without Weeping to grasp the magnitude of the disaster. This is a 1992 book by Nancy Scheper-Hughes, professor of anthropology at the University of California-Berkeley. She says the Brazilian Northeast, “land of sugar and hunger, thirst and penance, messianism and madness,” made death routine–particularly for “the children of poor families.”


What has changed since 1980 is climate. The situation in 2023 is substantially worse than that of 1980. The climate dragon is all over the room. In the Climate Summit in Egypt in late 2022, Antonio Guterres, UN Secretary General, said that business as usual is leading us to highways of hell.

Despite efforts by Exxon and other fossil fuel companies to deny their responsibility for setting the planet on fire, the news of their duplicity is out. They did it. More and more people are saying enough is enough.

This public anger with the continuing ecological disasters and harm, dating a century or more, encouraged corporate deception, which adopted sustainability and sustainable development like advertisements. Yes, corporate, academic, and government interest used the concepts to hide the existing dangers but, in the public imagination sustainability has taken the ideal form of the good for humans and nature. That’s a source of inspiration to seek the truth about the purposes of life and to stop pollution and fight climate change.

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