I have been noticing the word "sustainable" used a lot lately, in the past year or so. I suppose the largest intrusion of it for me was when our local free newspaper, the middle of the road Portland Tribune started having a pull out section called "Sustainable Living", featuring hybrid cars, worm bins, and other earth friendly ways of life for the well heeled. Its hard to judge when words creep into language, assuming a different meaning, and whether there is some subtext behind its use. It would be easier if there was a conspiracy. Readers of this piece can judge for themselves whether my analysis makes sense.
The word sustainable seems to be used in places where even a few years ago we might use "environmental","ecological", or "green". Depending on your region or country, those words may still be more popular. What is the difference between calling something "sustainable" and "environmental"? It could be that "environmental" suggests that the environment is the first priority. While not all environmentalists are deep ecologists, most of them had some type of respect for nature on its own terms, if not some spiritual reverence for nature. "Sustainable" however, doesn't suggest that industrial or commercial society is undesirable, but in fact suggests the opposite. It suggests that measures should be taken to preserve it for as long as possible. It is rather a pragmatic viewpoint, one that in some ways is very important. It is hard to be against "sustainable" too. Any businessperson or family with a budget can understand that you can't indefinitely have resources spent beyond those of resources coming in. To be unsustainable is to be the profligate uncle spending the family fortune before wasting away.
My own environmental consciousness seems to have a different history, and one I would like to write down before it fades from people's experience. My own first memories of environmental awareness came during the 20th anniversary of Earth Day, in 1990, a time when it seemed the country was having a resurgence of environmental thought. I remember that if there was a prime environmental concern, it was pollution, something that I haven't heard mentioned as much lately. I remember seeing a National Geographic cover where a hazmat-suited worker held up a large, tarry mess from a superfund site. My image, of both chemical and nuclear waste, was of something insidious, invasive, and able to kill and mutate in vanishingly small quantities. I remember reading in near-panic figures on how thimblefuls of some pollutants could kill thousands of people. Some of you might remember the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles crawling through ooze and mutating- an example taken from a child's science fiction story, but one I think was symbolic of how pollution was seen at the time.
Putting aside the real possibility that my fear of pollution had more to do with my young age, there is a question of when and why social concern switched from "pollution"-fear of toxic, invasive sickness, to "sustainability"- an interest in resource conservation. Another question is whether this is a reasonable shift. I would not totally discount conspiracy theories that corporate concerns and their media arms are soft-peddling people into, say, buying recycled furniture, rather than worrying about mercury in drinking water. I think a more reasonable answer is that as the environmental movement spread, it couldn't sustain a paranoid, Manichean worldview. People who didn't naturally have a disgust or fear of what industrial society would do could still understand the more pragmatic points of sustainable development. An even more optimistic reading is that some of the sharper fears of pollution have dissipated because in the developed world, many of the worse types of pollution have been outlawed.
So whether this is a real shift, or my imagination, and whether it signifies anything, is left up to the reader to decide.