In the predecessor to this essay, we argued that most jargon is born in the technical laboratories of experts who are exploring new territory. There, it has a useful-and sometimes even noble-job to do, describing new or unfamiliar ideas. So when environmentalists and economists first applied SUSTAINABLE to certain forms of development and methods of harvesting natural resources, they had something precise and significant in mind.
The best of them could tell you, with great specificity, what they considered to be the “sustainable” method of fishing for tuna or culling a forest. Whether they were correct about those things was a question that reasonable people could debate, because there was a definition of SUSTAINABILITY that both sides, supporters and opponents, could grasp and reckon with.
Unfortunately, the environmentalists had picked a word that already had a number of other meanings in occasional use. So the minute their new meaning caught the public imagination, it took no time turning up in every subject that wished to borrow the political or scientific cachet of environmentalism. Suddenly, no one wanted a sturdy or durable program any more, they wanted a sustainable one. Expenditures could no longer merely be affordable, they had to be sustainable.
Skills taught in school couldn’t just be lasting, they had to be sustainable. Anything, in short, that made it past autumn’s first frost was now sustainable. Any connection to the survival of whales or rain forests had been lost for good.
This perfectly illustrates the price we pay when a crisp, technical term becomes a mushy cliché, when commonplace ideas masquerade as technical esoterica. There is nothing more sophisticated about a “sustainable” budget than about a stable one, though writers who use SUSTAINABLE that way evidently hope to be taken for savvy and wise. Yet while they are tossing the word around for empty effect, its usefulness in its original context starts to dissolve. Is “sustainable” development near the Everglades merely development that will survive the first flood? No, that wasn’t supposed to be the meaning at all. But thanks to (forgive the expression) the watering down of the original term, the important, old meaning has been… well, washed away.