Sustainability Semantics

John Locke, the U.N., and how to figure out if an acre of land would rather be a swamp or a cornfield

The word "sustainability" has appeared more than 3,000 times in major world publications over the last three months, according to the news search engine Nexis. But does anyone know what it really means? Two Michigan Technological University researchers, ecologist John Vucetich and ethicist Michael Nelson try to answer that question in their new paper, “Sustainability: Vulgar or Virtuous?,” in the current issue of the journal BioScience. “Too many environmental scientists think sustainability is primarily about documenting and protecting ecosystem health," they argue, "whereas too many engineers think sustainability is primarily about more efficiently meeting human needs."

Consequently, they invite us to consider the vague concepts of human needs and ecosystem health. “Depending on how societies understand these concepts, sustainability could mean anything from ‘exploit as much as desired without infringing on future ability to exploit as much as desired’ to ‘exploit as little as necessary to maintain a meaningful life,’” they assert. They add, “These two attitudes seem to represent wildly different worlds—one might be called vulgar sustainability and the other virtuous—yet either could be considered ‘sustainable.’”

The two conceptions are indeed different, but why is the second deemed “virtuous?” Vucetich and Nelson style their argument as chiefly a plea for universities to include ethicists in the debates over the meaning of sustainability, but they clearly want to smuggle in a specific ethical view, e.g., ecosystems have some kind of inherent moral value independent of human desires.

In his 2001 BioScience article, “Values, Policy, and Ecosystem Health,” Robert Lackey, a fisheries biologist at Oregon State University, cogently shows that the concept of “ecosystem health” already slips in the idea that nature has value independent of human desires. “Although rarely stated clearly, in most formulations of ecosystem health, there is a premise that natural systems are healthier than human-altered systems,” asserts Lackey. “Tacitly, the assumption is that pristine, or less altered, is good and preferred; highly altered ecosystems, in contrast, are less desirable, if not ‘degraded’.” Lackey also points out that because “ecosystems have no preferences about their states,” defining ecosystem health necessarily involves a person or persons deciding what ecosystem condition or function is “good.” How do we know whether or not an acre of land would “prefer” to be a swamp or a corn field? As Lackey notes, either could be considered “healthy” depending on what human preferences are being implemented.

In trying to lay out the dimensions of the concept of sustainability, Vucetich and Nelson use the loaded term “exploit” without clearly defining it. Exploit can mean either: (1) to employ to the greatest possible advantage, or (2) to make use of selfishly or unethically. Given the context of their argument, it’s pretty clear that Vucetich and Nelson largely mean the latter, since inserting the former definition into their understanding of "virtuous sustainability" would yield the nonsensical phrase “employ to the greatest possible advantage as little as necessary to maintain a meaningful life.”

For an earlier perspective on exploitation and sustainability, let’s take a brief look at the arguments of the 17th century British philosopher John Locke in his Second Treatise on Civil Government. Locke asserts that “he who appropriates land to himself by his labour, does not lessen, but increase the common stock of mankind.” Increase the stock of mankind? How? Because by intensively cultivating land, a person produces “a greater plenty of the conveniencies of life from ten acres, than he could have from an hundred left to nature.” Thus Locke concludes that such a person “may truly be said to give ninety acres to mankind.” In fact, Locke believes he has underestimated human productivity: “I have here rated the improved land very low, in making its product but as ten to one, when it is much nearer an hundred to one.”

This Lockean view seems to comport with the notion of “sustainable development” as defined in the United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development’s 1987 report, Our Common Future. According to that report sustainable development is “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” On the face of it, Our Common Future appears to endorse what Vucetich and Nelson call “vulgar sustainability.”

One implication of Locke’s analysis is that if humanity can produce what we need on the moral equivalent of one acre of land that means that we can leave 99 acres to nature. In other words, there is no inherent contradiction between efficiently meeting human needs and protecting ecosystem health, however it is defined. In other words, pursuing vulgar sustainability is actually quite virtuous.

Ronald Bailey is Reason's science correspondent. His book Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution is now available from Prometheus Books. This column first appeared at

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Ronald Bailey is Science Correspondent