What is Sustainability Anyway?

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I’ve been batting around the word ‘sustainable’ for a couple of months. It’s so commonplace now I’m not even sure what it means.

Sustainable – dictionary definition

The definition has gotten watered down with the ‘trend’ of it now. The dictionary definition is:

1. Able to be maintained at a certain rate or level.
2. (esp. of development, exploitation, or agriculture) Conserving an ecological balance by avoiding depletion of natural resources.

There is no mention of creating everything you need to be sustainable. That is what it means to me, and I think that is the original definition of days gone by, although I doubt Colonial men and women used it.

Sustainability and agriculture

I don’t know of any sustainable farms. We use diesel and trucks to deliver food in town 45 minutes away four days a week. We use tractors to plow the fields. We heat the greenhouses with electricity from the grid, and the irrigation pump is on the grid as well. We buy hybrid seed for good production. Many of our materials and supplies are delivered via FedEx or UPS. Although we do repairs, we do buy a lot of new supplies, and many of them are plastic or packaged in plastic. Even our compost is delivered to us from an hour away.

Source: healthiie.tumblr.com via Mama on Pinterest


To me, a sustainable farm creates its own fuel, reuses its waste, makes its own fertilizer, grows its own seed, recycles materials or rebuilds them, and makes its own food. Nothing from the outside needs to come in; it’s all created on-site. It’s like an enclosed capsule, similar to the Biosphere in Arizona, but without glass.

Impossible you say? Think back to before the Industrial Revolution. How did farmer’s farm before power, fuel and plastic? Exactly. They took care of all their own needs.

Sustainable building

The best in sustainable building, to me, is an earthship. One vessel is self-sustaining. It makes its own power, grows its own food, collects its own water and filters it for reuse, and is made of recycled materials and mud. The earthship has probably the lowest carbon footprint of any building.

Source: etsy.com via julie on Pinterest


This is not taking into the account of the embodied energy of the solar panels, the few building materials or the water system. But still, my point is, it is self-sustaining. You can put it anywhere. It does not need to be tied to the grid or a city water utility. It’s truly net zero in all respects, not just electricity.

Sustainability embodied in nature

Ecological systems are self-contained. Decomposing leaf matter in the woods fosters the environment for an oak tree to grow. It grows for a hundred years, then gets knocked over in a stiff wind. It provides habitat for animals while decomposing to put organic matter back into the soil to grow another tree. Ecology is a cycle as anything sustainable should be.

Sustainability – keep our focus, resist overuse

As trends take root, the original idea behind them gets partly left behind. I think this is the case with ‘sustainability’. What we call sustainable is not truly self-sustaining. It might work within ecosystems or maintain a lifestyle, town or building at a certain level, but no more does it mean something sustains itself with its systems and processes.

Is there any chance we can get back to true sustainability? What are your thoughts?

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Nan Fischer

Nan Fischer has been living and building green for over 35 years. Nan’s emphasis on the BuildDirect blog is about how to make your dollar stretch further, while also moving toward a more sustainable lifestyle, as well as upcoming and existing technology to help us live in an ecologically-friendly way. Nan also authors posts on the website of her seed business, sweetly seeds.