Sustainability: Our 21st-Century Snake Oil Pitch
Updated: Oct 19, 2022
After just coming out of another local government election cycle here in British Columbia, the bombardment of the sustainable attainment of things in communities through platform goals, Official Community Plans, values and beliefs of candidates was abundant once again. Not that these goals do not have any merit, but I believe these aspects of sustainability are very personal to whoever is pitching it on their platform.
Where am I coming from in this exploration? Let’s conduct a test. Ask a friend or coworker, "What does sustainability mean to you?" Did their definition or interpretation match yours? Was it even close?
To sell this test a little more, ask another person in your circle and for fun, ask another person.
Sustainable or sustainability are close cousin buzzwords ramped up in our language to defend and manage our environment, climate and consumerism habits over the last few decades. But, honestly, what does it mean?
As an economic development practitioner for over the last 15 years in communities across Alberta and BC, it has come up in every community. It is a comforting word to highlight doing something ethical, responsible and manageable towards the future and to solve current crises. It is a potion pitched to stakeholders that is geared towards improving challenging situations.
Unfortunately, it may be to our demise. But why? We need to look at where this word entered our comfort dictionary with an evolving meaning. If we all see it defined differently, how can we ever find a shared vision to address our current and future challenges? We need to use language that is definitive to people left and right on the political and economic spectrums and then address all our goals.
The commonality we all share is that we want to live in a better world and create a better future for the coming generations. Let us aim at that goal with a common theme and definitions of the words we use. Snake oil words are marketing words, and marketing is targeted to audiences by design and strategy to evoke an emotional response to act on something being promoted.
Not to worry, I have a replacement that I have been using for the last few years and sustainability is not in my vocabulary if I can avoid it. I am not one to think I dreamt this up myself. I have had great mentors and talked with great thinkers throughout my life, and I do very open-mindedly while listening. I then look at history and see how ideas have evolved and how they got planted in society.
Let us briefly examine where this word and its tenses got into our everyday lives to explain something we all see differently. An example of extensive reading and discussion I have tripped across on the topic can be found here… https://zeroco2.eco/en/2021/09/14/birth-sustainability-concept/.
Sustainability started with forest management back in the 1700s and how to deal with a renewable resource. It evolved into use to discuss balance and control of non-renewables for future generations in the 1970s and 1980s and continues to grow into everything social, economical and environmentally pillared to this day. This meaning of evolution is perhaps why we all see sustainability differently today.
It is a threatening word to some and a holistic word to others. I come back, though, to the goal of the commonality we all share, which is to build a better world for ourselves and future generations.
How about responsible development? This phrase is my replacement because it seems more concise as a goal to improve where we are today for tomorrow, yet consider ways to do that responsibly. Sustainable means maintaining a balance, or a stasis, relating to a resource, but now expands to the social, economic or environmental triple bottom line. I believe we are in trouble if we maintain a triple bottom line in stasis. We utilize more resources than the planet can keep up with. If we keep in stasis socially or economically, we will stop evolving or innovating.
We must evolve, innovate, optimize and improve our environment and social and economic well-being. We must adapt to future challenges we have not foreseen yet. We just came through a major challenge that began in March 2020 and another big one in February 2022 with the invasion of Ukraine. We must constantly innovate while being responsible for ensuring we do not burn down the planet, society and the economy.
We need to develop responsibly in new ways to survive and thrive for today and, more importantly, tomorrow and to ensure the planet we reside on continues to provide for all the species living on this rock. I do not want to do that only sustainably.
Perhaps all our vision, mission and value statements needs a relook. They are supposed to be concise statements as a rule, and snake oil words do not need to be in them.
It is hard to build an organizational brand that everyone understands, believes and exudes to your stakeholders with snake oil words. That is a future discussion, however.