Sustainability & Health

Even though I often say ‘I work in the sustainability sector’, I’m not a great fan of the word. In fact, the word ‘healthy’ describes my desirable future a lot better than ‘sustainable’. Health is dynamic, re-generative and alive.

One important misunderstanding regarding ‘sustainability’ today is that – even when undertaken with the best intentions – many initiatives are still driven by doing less harm. Examples are reducing energy consumption while still using finite fossil or nuclear resources; Or reducing pollution and other waste, yet continuing to release toxic substances in water, soil and air. Just fewer than you used to. Neither of these actions make society more sustainable.  The activities are still destructive and in fact un-maintanable in the long term. The thing that has changed in the process is the pace at which the damage is done, not the quality of the process itself. Compare this to going from a diet in which you take in twice as many calories as necessary to a diet that is 1.5 times richer in calories than you need. This change is not going to make you loose any kilos. Instead, you will still gain weight, only at a slower rate.

Secondly, the word sustainable is often used as an adjective to entities that don’t necessarily need to be sustainable, like products, or organisations. For example, I have heard people talk about growing sustainable tomatoes. Isn’t the whole idea about a tomato that its form comes to an end when I eat it? The value of the tomato is in the eating it, not the keeping. Another example are ‘sustainable buildings’. Our social structures – private and professional – change over time, and buildings are most useful if they’re not durable, but in shapes and materials that can return easily into the ecosystem. Similarly, people talk about becoming or creating a sustainable company. I believe that if products are no longer useful, or they were non-beneficial to the planet in the first place, it is perfectly acceptable, and more valuable to the earth to go out of business rather than to sustain an existing organisational form.

In nature, no single individual is sustainable. We are born, live and die. Each species and individual is transient, we come and go at our own pace. What matters for the future of all Life is whether the system is sustainable as a whole.

Sustainability is a system’s quality. And personally, I like to use the word ‘health’ instead.

We can consider ourselves healthy. That doesn’t mean that we’ll never fall ill, but that we have the strength and resilience to return to a vital state. It doesn’t mean that we never change, but instead that we develop continuously; a dynamic Life process. It doesn’t mean that we never die. Instead, we form part of the cycle of Life exactly because we do.

Using the term ‘health’ also reminds us that our well-being is always related to the well-being of all others. I cannot be healthy if I take in food that is sprayed with unhealthy toxins. I cannot consider myself healthy if I breathe in the air-born pollutants exhaled by factories hundreds of miles away. Similarly, a product can’t be considered healthy if its by-products cause either social or ecological damage. And an organisation isn’t healthy if its employees – or anyone in its product chain – suffers mentally, socially or physically from being involved in the production process.

Health is a natural dynamic. All living systems will always look for and tend towards it. Creating a healthy economy is therefore not a process of fighting symptoms and illnesses of today’s economy, but rather creating habits, livelihoods, organisations and structures that are in harmony and integrity with the greater system of Life.