Sustainability: the New Buzz Word

Today the buzz-word is sustainability. The word has caught fire in academic circles with the most recent converts a group of scientists that examines risk. The SRA folks—Society for Risk Analysis—sent an email announcing the 2012 conference will focus on, among other things, Risk and Sustainable Development.

Truth is that the word sustainability is so over-used that it ceases to adhere to its meaning.

I first heard the word from a fellow graduate student in Madison. One of my best pals, an agricultural communication expert from Brazil, focused his graduate work on communication and sustainability.

For him, sustainability centered within an agricultural domain. His country was intent on sustaining crops, and Benami’s job was to communicate that intent.

Benami was warm and generous: a true mensch, this lovable family-man from Brazil. He and Jan Lathrop, another great pal, comprised the team that aided and abetted my study of news coverage of mining in Northern Wisconsin.

Benami told us the story of his master’s defense, which focused on sustainability. As the committee gathered around the table to hear about his research, Benami took a loaf of bread, tore a hunk from the stalk, and passed the loaf around the table as each person broke off a piece of bread. While the bread was being passed, Benami defined sustainability while the group considered the metaphor of the bread.

Today we use sustainability to describe everything from food production to protest movements. This morning the local news carried a story that Portland Mayor Sam Adams addressed the Occupy Portland protesters with an open letter:

“The growing number of arrests and reports of illicit drug and alcohol use, violent behavior and other criminal conduct must be immediately addressed” and his message to protestors was to “underscore to all Occupy Portland supporters the urgency of dealing with these issues. The way things are operating now is not sustainable.”

The letter closes with a vague pronouncement: “We’ve got work to do—and by we, I mean everybody, including all Occupy supporters. I look forward to finding solutions in the coming days.”

Framing the Occupy Portland activities as “not sustainable” harnesses a buzz word that has currency, yet fails to clearly delineate the problem.

I don’t blame the mayor: the word has power, which international risk researchers recognize and adopted for their conference theme.

But what does sustainability mean? We use the term so indiscriminately that it has begun to lose its meaning. As a result I learn from the news story that Occupy Portland activists are behaving badly. Now what?

[The quote above is from an Oregon Live report by Beth Slovic at


About Cynthia Coleman Emery

Professor and researcher at Portland State University who studies science communication, particularly issues that impact American Indians. Dr. Coleman is an enrolled citizen of the Osage Nation.
This entry was posted in ethics, risk, science communication and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Sustainability: the New Buzz Word

  1. kaenobis says:

    I am interested in what your definition of sustainability is, since there are a lot of uses for the word out there?


    • Great query about sustainability. The example from Mayor Adams simply means “we can’t continue.” I think a better way of thinking about sustainability is how you use current resources–and your best guess of what those resources will be in the future–to meet your objectives. An example that’s often used are the resources needed to sustain the baby boomers–the thing called social security–and the resources simply are not going to be available for all unless the resources change. Thanks for your comment.


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