Dave Lister: What does sustainability really mean?

By Dave Lister, The Eastside Guy
As featured in BrainstormNW magazine

Sustainability. It’s a buzzword that’s loved by Portland, Metro and Multnomah County Politicos. Like the gunfighters of the old west, the Political Elite pull that word like Colt .44 peacemeakers at the OK Corral. Everything that is bad is “unsustainable”. Everything that is good is “sustainable”. “Sustainable” is used to describe everything from building practices, to neighborhood associations, to businesses.

Problem is, when you ask them, no one can give you a clear definition.

Near as I can tell, “sustainable”, in the political vernacular, falls somewhere between bicycle activism and Marxism. The Portland City Council, in considering anything, will weigh its “sustainability” as a major factor.

According to most modern dictionaries, “sustainable” is synonymous with “endurable”. Something that is sustainable will carry on, will be around, will be something which can be relied upon. “Sustainable” is the grass in your front yard which erupts every spring, or your grandfather’s woodworking tools that still hold a keen edge. “Sustainable” is the precious memories evoked by the family photo album, or your father’s pocket watch. “Sustainable” is your cat showing up on the back mat every morning, or the joy of reading your favorite novel for the seventeenth time.

The political connotation of sustainable, however, is far different.

A scan of the City of Portland’s official website will turn up several hundred different occurrences of the words “sustainable” or “sustainability”. Despite the preponderance of the word, definitions are few and far to come by.

The best I could find was on City Commissioner Dan Saltzman’s website. It reads as follows:

“Sustainability is synonymous with integrating ecology, economics and social justice for long-term global stability and prosperity. It means thinking about our behavior in a bigger context-recognizing that our choices have a profound effect on our future so that we can mitigate the negative impacts. A commitment to sustainability is a commitment to creative and responsible action”.

This slice of wisdom is illustrated with a line drawing of a frog.

My sixth grade teacher at Grout Grade School, Mrs. Mason, who taught us proper English through strict discipline and an occasional ruler across the knuckles, would have had a field day with that one. Not one to suffer fools she would have branded that paragraph as what it is.

Orwellian NewSpeak.

“Sustainability”, in the city of Portland’s vernacular, is a phantom. It is specious. It is empty. It means nothing. Despite their throwing out of the word at every opportunity, nothing in Portland is sustainable. Businesses depart. Roads degrade. Pools are closed. Parks falter. Schools fail. Crime increases. Vagrancy abounds. If anything the city, and the situation, is “unsustainable”. And yet, the social and political elitists maintain their quest for “sustainability” through political correctness and the continued pursuit of failed policies.

Recently, the City of Portland recognized ten area businesses for a commitment to sustainability. These “businesses” were lauded for their commitment an environmentally “sustainable” future.

The most interesting thing was that two of the ten businesses weren’t businesses at all, but were rather departments of Portland State University.

The PSU office of transportation and parking was granted a “sustainability”award by promoting alternative transportation methods, and PSU’s Epler Hall and Broadway Housing Buildings were given a “sustainability” award for stormwater management.

Mayor Potter and the City of Portland are hosting a business summit. The focus will be on sustainability. They will, no doubt, emphasize creativity, diversity and enviro-awareness as the keys to sustainability in business. They will also, no doubt, fail to discuss the underlying requirement of any sustainable business. Profit.

I’ve managed or owned small businesses in Portland for twenty-five years, and one
thing I can tell you unequivocally is that, to be “sustainable”, a business must make profit. Without profit, no amount of stormwater management, green building practices, or energy efficiency can ensure “sustainability”. Without profit, business fails, cannot endure and therefore, by definition, is “unsustainable”. I learned this lesson the hard way while managing a business in the late 1980’s. The business was a co-op. A wholesale company selling to neighborhood hardware stores. The idea was that the co-op would buy its inventory, cover its expenses, pay its employees and then pass through to the co-op members goods for resale at cost. Seemed like a very “sustainable” concept. Problem was, the recession put a damper on the company’s sustainability. With a slowdown in business, and without profit, inventories could not be replenished and salaries could not be paid. On December 31, 1982 I locked the door on the warehouse for the last time.
Of course, profit, which is the underlying criteria for a “sustainable” business, is not in the city’s vernacular.

The city of Portland thinks that a “sustainable” business is one that puts a brick in its toilet. Only problem is, I’m not sure that they know the brick goes in the toilet tank and not the toilet bowl.

But what the heck do I know? I’m just an Eastside Guy.

Article By Dave Lister, The Eastside Guy
As featured in BrainstormNW magazine

  • John Fairplay

    I can’t tell if “sustainability” is on the road to “Ecotopia’s” famous “Stable State” system, or has already passed it by. No home, business or government agency can be truly “sustainable.” To be so, it would have to produce 100 percent of what it consumes. This is not possible. It is also impossible for any single community to achieve this goal for the same reason.

  • Richard P.

    I can’t help but view a big chunk of this “sustainability” movement as an outcropping of earlier agendas such as this:

    -“Federal prosecutors say two convicted members of the Earth Liberation Front will testify against Briana Waters at her arson trial under way in Tacoma in return for reduced sentences.
    Waters is accused of acting as a lookout during the 2001 arson that caused $7 million in damage at the Center for Urban Horticulture at the University of Washington. The Earth Liberation Front claimed responsibility for the fire because it believed, mistakenly, that a researcher was genetically engineering trees.
    Waters was a student at The Evergreen State College in Olympia at the time. -She is now 32 and lives in Berkeley, Calif.”-

    Unfortunately this sort of extremism has permeated every level of public policy making where more of the same “believed, mistakenly” problem drives many well intended efforts into pushing for costly and counter productive measures that don’t deliver the envisioned benefits.

    Good piece Dave!

  • Terry Parker

    What continually is left out of the buzz “sustainability “ discussion by the so-called self-descried progressives and their rhetoric is that for something to be called sustainable, it also must be financially self-sustainable; in other words WITHOUT government taxpayer subsidies footing the bill. As examples, bicycling is NOT a stainable mode of transport until the bicyclists themselves pay the costs for bicycle infrastructure, and mass transit is NOT sustainable until transit passengers pay the costs of providing the service. Furthermore, not including financial self-sustainability as a necessary component of government programs that are ballyhooed as being sustainable is in part what is fueling the recession.

  • Bob Clark


    I think sustainable and living green is a form of new age religion. Worshipping the gods of our founding fathers is passe. But our leaders need a moral compass. So, they’ve brought back a form of earth worship. This new religion is great for only our city and state leaders know how to worship the earth correctly. This gives them the power to lord over all the rest of us preordained idiots.

    I hope the drumbeat of this new religion fades away, because the media and neighborhood organizations are now into the game of preaching it down to us preordained idiots.

  • rural resident

    “Sustainability” seems to be a synonym for “anti-growth.”

    Its advocates would contend that a business with static revenues is sustainable. It isn’t. Businesses have to grow and change, or they will cease to exist.

    The same is true of communities. Land use regulations that reduce the supply of buildable land and drive up the price of housing would not seem to “sustainable.” Making housing unaffordable for increasing numbers of middle-income households wouldn’t seem to fit Saltzman’s definition of “responsible action” that enables cities and counties to “mitigate the negative impacts.” (Forget those with lower incomes; they were left in the dust years ago.) When people have to spend disproportionate percentages of their incomes on housing, lack access to the best values in consumer goods, and have less chance of getting higher wage jobs with better benefits, that certainly has “a profound effect on (their and) our future(s).” Oregon’s current approach fails Saltzman’s test of sustainability.

    Prosperity depends on the efficient operation of free markets (recognizing the need for some (*appropriate*) level of government regulation of economic activity). Forcing low- and middle-income people to spend more on goods and services threatens their financial viability. The planner class does that when it either forces people to drive long distances for reasonably priced goods or denies them market access altogether. Saltzman seems to believe that we should endure economic hardship so that “someone” somewhere else on the planet will be better off. However, they can’t seem to show any direct link between our citizens reduced standard of living and an improvement somewhere else.

    Sustainability is a political blank slate. One can ascribe to the term whatever one wishes. It’s a convenient counter to any proposal that would increase economic choices by those who are dedicated to telling the rest of us how to live.

    • dean

      Reading the comments above, I can’t help but wonder what the alternative to sustainability is. Its not like we don’t have examples of past civilizations that overshot their resources and managed to impoverish, or even extinguish themselves.

      It is more “economical” to cut down a forest, turn the logs into boards, take a profit, and walk away than it is to reinvest in a forest. That is why loggers first cut through New England, then the upper Midwest, then the South, and then the Pacific Northwest for many years before the public got sick of it and started to regulate forestry. It is more economical to foul the air and the rivers than it is to install pollution controls. It is more economical to overplow the soil and let it wash down the river than it is to do conservation tillage.

      Sustainability is about using our God-given brains to make sure we don’t screw things up for our kids…and that means economics and ecology, which have the same Greek root (oikos) by the way, which means “home.” So sustainability means, “let’s not screw up our home for short term gain.”

      • rural resident

        You’re missing the point the author is trying to make. The definition of “sustainable” is so fuzzy, and changes so much from person to person, that it’s little more than a buzzword. Based on the way it is used, as an argument against development, it would seem that the opposite of sustainable would be dynamism, growth, and change.

        Few sensible people would advocate a “plunder and run” strategy of resource use. It is generally agreed that harvesting on long-term cycles based on growth rates, selective cutting (in some cases, selective clear cutting), and reforestation are better management practices and result in higher long-term profitability.

        On the other hand, let’s look at where the current approach is getting us. We’ve decimated families and communities, even entire regions. Catastrophic forest fires take out not only the trees (all of them) and the undergrowth, but leave the earth so badly burned that nothing will grow for years. How is that “sustainable?” How does that show responsibility to future generations. Yet the environmentalists (and I use the word loosely) cheer every time one of these fires comes along and burns hundreds of thousands (or millions) of acres, because it prevents anyone from getting any current economic value from the resource.

  • Friends of Meatpuppet

    The local politicians and their practices are unsustainable and should be shut down. Truly you can’t argue with the left?

  • Anonymous

    It’s unbelievable how dean distrort.

    The arguement that it is more “economical” to cut down a forest, turn the logs into boards, take a profit, and walk away is NO ONE’S agruement dean.
    And you know it.
    There are perfectly acceptable ways to log in sustainable ways which includeng reinvesting in our forests.
    Your extreme enviro-terrorists insist there be no logging at all on many large tracts where logging would be essentailly harmless.

    As usual you to misrepresent the modern and reasonable logging practices as “cutting through New England, then the upper Midwest, then the South, and then the Pacific Northwest for many years before the public got sick of it”

    You are a propagandist of the worst kind.

    “foul the air and the rivers,,, overplow the soil and let it wash down the river”?

    That’s not possible and no one is advocating it.

    Sustainability is about you using misinformation and misrepresentation to advocate for extreme policies whoihc go far beyond what is neccessary or reasonable.

    So sustainability means, “let’s lie our way to more goivernment regulations”

    • dean

      Sorry mr or ms anon, but the history of forestry is well known. Paul Bunyon, that mythological logger, was based on the reality of his day. Even today, loggers are removing rainforests in unregulated 3rd world nations with no thought to long term productivity. Yes…there are ways to log sustainably, and we are fortunate that our nation and state now have a regulated industry that is sutainable at least on some levels. Also the industry ran out of places to move to so in some respects HAD to learn how to manage instead of just cut and run.

      You don’t seem to know much about farming in the Midwest. The prairie soil of Iowa, Illinois, Kansas, and so forth is indeed washing and blowing down to New Orleans via the Mississippi. And right here in the Pacific Northwest, the Palouse of eastern Washington and Oregon has the highest rates of soil erosion in the nation due to fallowing every other year. Look it up.

      Some of the most effective sustainable initiatives are market driven, not regulated. The Leeds program for energy efficient buildings is one, and the Forest Stewardship Council certification of sustainable forests is another. I don’t think we can regulate ourselves to sustainability, but sometimes regulation is necessary. Maybe you want to go back to the good old days before the clean air and water acts, but I don’t.

  • tits

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