I cannot stand this word.  I recently looked it up to make sure I wasn’t missing a hidden meaning, but nope, just like I thought, it means to “keep going.”  In common parlance, I think folks use this word to mean something that can keep itself going with minimal stewardship from us.

My hatred stems partly from an ongoing dislike of trendy words and silly usages: monetize, “grow” the economy– etc.  That is not to say that I don’t love overused words (and double negatives)- eponymous- as in “my eponymous blog,” is my favorite word.  But sustainability really sticks in my craw.  I was once reading a design magazine where a designer said that he didn’t use stone countertops anymore because they weren’t sustainable.  Stone?  Not sustainable?  What are you standing on?  It is the very definition of something that is sustainable! 

Now don’t misunderstand this either- we need to consider the environment and ecosystem when we plant and weed and spray chemicals.  That is important- but has nothing to do with sustainability. 

More to the point for us gardeners, “sustainable” gardens don’t exist.  Gardens exists purely because we put plants in a location and take care of them.  We are inherently creating an unnatural ecosystem- and even in a restored prairie (as any prairie owner can tell you), a garden’s continuation will depend entirely on our own good graces and our skills at weeding, fertilizer, dividing, planting, digging, burning, composting.  Don’t get me started on a sustainable vegetable garden.  (Peas and carrots will grow in perpetuity on your property?  Now THAT’s impressive.)  Anyone who wants to know whether even the most basic gardens are sustainable should find the foreclosed house in their neighborhood and take a look at the garden- it’s the first thing to go.

Could a person sustain a garden in perpetuity?  No.  And who would want to?Tastes change, climate changes, pests and diseases come and go.  Gardening is as much about living today as it is about living in the future.  Gardens are ephemeral, artificial creations- and that is one of the things that makes them so impressive and beautiful.  Not any idiotic claims of sustainability.

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2 Responses to Sustainability

  1. T. Caine says:

    Sustainability is a term widely used and greatly misunderstood, and I will agree that it gets tossed around and slapped on labels more often than it should, but that does not mean it does not exist or is not important.

    I think you are misinterpreting the meaning and goals of the word. Sustainability does not mean “unchanging indefinitely.” Sustainability is a word that describes balance. Stasis. A system of inputs and outputs that can function without waste. A natural environment is clearly the easiest example, but nothing in nature exists “in perpetuity.” Things evolve, things change, things are created and become extinct, but a balance is always maintained that creates no waste in the system.

    To say stone is sustainable because it’s a natural material is misleading. It is not that stone is unsustainable. It is that extracting, cutting, polishing and installing a stone countertop requires energy that will most likely not be reclaimed. The process and intended use is wasteful, and thus deemed unsustainable. In the end it will be a heavy paperweight in a landfill.

    I think a vegetable garden can absolutely be sustainable. And I would think that for every manicured english garden that is deemed beautiful, you’ll get just as many people that point to untouched landscapes and give them the same description. I can understand your frustration as our society is only beginning to come to terms with the word, but I would not throw it out just yet. It has a lot to teach us.

  2. gwendolyngarden says:

    Let’s be clear- stone is sustainable because we couldn’t possibly mine all of it away, unlike lobsters (that we could definitely fish to extinction), not because it’s natural. That’s what volcanoes are for.

    My irritation with the word is its use as a synonym for environmentally friendly. Granite countertops are unlikely to be environmentally friendly for any number of reasons (although I still like them.) Vegetable gardens can be very eco-friendly, as can English gardens and restored prairies. But its environmental friendliness depends entirely upon one person: the gardener.

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