Sustainability is one of those buzz words, like artisan, disruptive and solutions that is often used with only a vague sense of what it means.
So what is sustainability?
One way to better understand the concept may be to look at the word’s origin, or its etymology. (I grabbed the below from http://www.etymonline.com/index.php)
sustain (v.) – “give support to,” from stem of Old French sostenir “hold up, bear; suffer, endure”, from Latin sustinere “hold up, hold upright; furnish with means of support; bear, undergo, endure,”
able (adj.) “having sufficient power or means,” from Old French (h)able “capable; fitting, suitable; agile, nimble” , from Latin habilem, habilis “easily handled, apt,” verbal adjective from habere “to hold” (see habit (n.)). “
What stands out for me is sustainability appears to be about having the means to carry on. In other words if something is sustainable it must be capable of withstanding stresses or shocks over time. This does not mean that things cannot change. It would be unrealistic to believe otherwise. However, what is important is that it does not change in a way that fundamentally changes its basic nature.
Sustainable growth therefore means continuing to get larger and larger. A sustainable city is a place that continues to be where large numbers of people come to live and work. A sustainable house is one that continues to provide shelter. And, so on.
None of these have anything inherently to do with the environment. Though the environment is often the word most associated with sustainability. Why? I think it probably reflects some question marks over the environment’s ability to continue to provide the goods and services it currently provides us.
Can sustainable growth, a sustainable city or even a sustainable house be possible if we want the environment to continue to provide the energy, nature, food, climate, and so on that we currently enjoy? If we keep finding ways to adapt, then yes. However, this itself takes time. In the meantime we must acknowledge that we are part of the environment ourselves and therefore, we can only change our environment so much before our livelihood itself is unsustainable.