When you open any English dictionary and look up the word sustainable, the synonyms you will typically find are:
Unfortunately, these completely miss what sustainability is about.
Let me explain.
The definition of sustainability is:
The ability of the world’s population to meet its needs, without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.WCED (1987)
Mankind’s ability to go on forever, to survive.
Do continuous, imperishable or viable properly communicate the gravity of this definition?
No, they don’t.
The only acceptable synonym of sustainability is survival, because that’s the very essence of its definition.
If you need a proof, try using that in a sentence. You will see that it will retain its intended meaning and make perfect sense.
Fossil fuels do not support our survival very well because they are a limited resource that will eventually run out.
Have we underestimated the importance of our survival?
The idea of trying to promote rapid economic growth for the benefit of humanity is entirely alien to the supporters of our survival.
There is no question: survival is the perfect synonym for sustainability and can be used interchangeably.
What about sustainable (adjective)?
However, when looking at sustainable as an adjective, things get more complicated.
Trying to replace sustainable with survival gives us:
Not only do these sound downright silly and neither comes even close to communicating its intended meaning.
More importantly, using sustainable as an adjective is not very practical in everyday life.
By definition, sustainability means meeting all the needs of all the people, both present and future.
So, we can talk of sustainable this or sustainable that only if we take into consideration:
- All the resources in the world, and
- All the needs of all the people on Earth…
… at the same time.
That’s the only way we can determine whether or not things are done in a way that ensures humanity’s continued survival.
There is, however, one very significant problem with this:
Because we need to take into account the entire Earth, with all its people and all its resources, with ever-changing needs and always competing demands for resources, any claim of sustainable this or sustainable that can be easily challenged simply by pointing out needs that compete for the same resources.
As a result, using sustainable as an adjective is practically meaningless.
Is there a better word to use instead?
Preferably one, which clearly communicates its intended meaning and can be used in everyday life to provide clear guidance in decision making?
Yes, there is!
That word is: responsible.
Just like survival gives clear meaning to sustainability, the noun, responsible gives clear meaning to sustainable, the adjective.
Just look at these examples:
The government should do more to promote responsible agriculture.
The creation of an efficient and responsible transport system is critical to the long-term future of London.
Cycling is a totally responsible form of transport.
Not only does responsible offer total clarity. It is also way more actionable.
Primarily because, whenever you have a choice of options, it’s always easier to determine and agree which option is better (more responsible) than the current situation, since all you need to do is compare one option to another.
What you don’t need to do is analyze things on a global scale.
In other words, responsible allows us to move quickly towards a brighter future.
It helps us overcome indecisiveness and “paralysis by analysis”.
To sum up
- The best synonym for sustainability (the noun) is survival.
- The best synonym for sustainable (the adjective) is responsible.