A few weeks ago I was out camping with a group of friends. We were taking part in a rock climbing class put on by the Mazamas. After spending the day out on the rocks, learning the ins and outs of climbing, we were kicking back with a potluck style barbecue cookout at the campground near the crags, sharing stories and food with other groups that were part of the same program.


OK, so I forgot to take pictures around the fire. This stock photo will have to suffice to set the scene…

As the sun set, we built a fire in the campsite’s massive 10 foot fire ring. And so it was that I found myself sitting on the edge of that ring, trying to avoid the blowing smoke, and listening to a conversation happening a few people over from me.

“I hate that word.”

“Oh, I know! It’s so sickening. Every time I hear it, I want to throw up!”

Wow, that sounds serious. What awful word could they be talking about. It must be something vile. Something representing a concept so horrendous that it was unmentionable in polite company.

And then they mentioned it.


The word, it turns out, was “sustainable.”




My mind boggled. Really? Has it gotten that bad?

The term has gotten increasing amounts of press over the last decade or so. And it’s certainly often over-used, or misused entirely.

Mostly, it’s all been about being “green.”

And that’s a very valid use of the term, but it’s missing a whole lot of the main point. Maybe that overuse of a very limited part of the actual meaning is what drove my new acquaintance to feel ill when she heard it?

It made me realize that, since I use that term fairly frequently on this site, I’d better stop to take a moment to clarify just what it is that I mean by it.

Sustainability is, at its core, a set of conditions that allows something to keep existing, as it is, indefinitely.

At that level, there’s not any value judgement. Just “will it last?”

If I win $5000, and decide to use it to improve my daily life experience by eating dinner at a fancy restaurant for $100 a meal, is that sustainable?

Of course not! I’d run out of money in less than two months and be right back where I started… albeit with a new appreciation for fine dining, and probably a few extra pounds!

Ecological sustainability is an important aspect of overall sustainability, but it’s only one part. There are others. Financial, as mentioned above. Social/Community sustainability. Internal emotional sustainability.

Everything can be evaluated for sustainability. And it should! If what you’re doing can’t last, you’re going to to have to change at some point. Why not get proactive? Why not orchestrate a change that serves you well, instead of having to react quickly and non-optimally when the well runs dry?

How do you feel about the word “Sustainable?” Does it bother you? Are there other words that make you feel ill? Let me know in the comments below.

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