What exactly is "environmentally sustainable"?

Buzzwords sometimes drive me crazy. Here is such an example: “environmentally sustainable”. Could anyone please do me a favour and tell me what exactly this phrase means? I have a vague idea but somehow this word “sustainable” doesn’t add up. Please give an intellectually sustainable definition.

Thanks a lot,

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Hi Torsten

This site explains it.

Hi Amy,

Many thanks but this description is still rather vague. They use terms like “sustainability issues” and “environmental sustainability programs” which pretty much can mean anything and nothing at all.[YSaerTTEW443543]

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Hi Torsten

I know what you mean about buzzwords. Another one that drives me crazy is leverage (or any of the forms of that word). I think some people use that word nowadays not because it means anything, but only because they think it sounds impressive. :roll:

As to environmental sustainability, I would translate that the simplest or broadest way possible. Environmental would refer to things around you, and much of this would be connected with natural things that might be polluted or depleted. These things have an effect on the quality of people’s lives.

Sustainability means keeping or not losing the current level of these things, and also maintaining/not losing the current level of the quality of life.

With this broad definition, I would then simply try to interpret it more precisely based on the context in which it is found.

Think of how glass furnaces were fueled in eastern Germany and the Czech lands prior to the 19th century. This is an example of something not being environmentally sustainable. To fuel the furnaces, they had to cut down trees, and the fuel demand was faster than the growth of the trees, so the glass furnaces had to keep moving from time to time when the local wood was depleted.

On the other hand, the timber industry in the US is run in an environmentally sustainable way, because they plant more trees than they cut down, so the resource constantly renews itself, and the US has more forest land now than it did in 1776.

Sometimes, however, “environmentally sustainable” can be a type of double talk. In some cases it means that something operates or is built in a way that will prevent angry criticism from radical environmentalists. In other cases, it means something like, “I don’t have to feel guilty.” George W. Bush’s home in Crawford, Texas, is actually extremely energy efficient and environmentally sustainable, but it’s not often talked about that way. Al Gore has a home (more than one) and lifestyle that are extremely wasteful of energy, but his lifestyle is sometimes described as “environmentally sustainable” because he buys “carbon credits” from a company he owns in London.

Amy, “leverage” in financial terminology clearly means using credit to finance a purchase or a project. That’s not confusing or vague. However, I think people who are not educated in business have heard the term used so much in an economic context that they started using it in a vague way that means approximately “to use something as a crowbar”.

Well Jamie,

Maybe the timber is industry in the US is run in an environmentally sustainable way but I doubt that this industry is using “environmentally sustainable” energy sources. As a matter of fact, none of the industrialized countries can claim to do anything “environmentally sustainable” because we all depend on oil which we will run out sooner or later. Your timber industry is no exception here. How do they cut down and process the trees? By muscle power or by using oil?[YSaerTTEW443543]

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Hi Jamie

I know that the word leverage should not be confusing or vague. However, the way it is used by some in business, it could mean just about anything. 8)

If you dig far enough down into any business, including the most eco-friendly ones, you’ll find something that’s not eco-friendly.

Almost no heavy-duty industry is able to use “environmentally sustainable” energy sources, but those solutions are coming down the road. Most environmentalists, and most Germans, think the energy apocalypse is coming next week, but North America alone has several untapped oil fields larger than those in Saudi Arabia, and it’s doubtful that we’ll run out of petroleum in the next couple hundred years. If that time ever does come, we can use clean coal technology for another few hundred years, but before then, a lot of things will be run on hydrogen cells or some kind of technology that hasn’t been conceived yet.

Once some American football team was losing $1 million a year, and a reporter asked the owner’s father, “That’s terrible! He’s losing a million dollars a year! How long can he continue like that?!” The father said, “As near as I can figure, for the next 150 years!”

Hi Jamie,

Do you mean that the US or humankind will cease to exist in the 2400’s?

All the best


No, I mean that, unlike many people, I think it can be assumed that humankind will have solved the problem by 2400. Many people project the future based on today’s technology, but valid predictions can’t be made that way. If you try, you wind up as wrong as Malthus was.

Hi Jamie,

I could not agree more.

All the best