Sustainability should be a fighting word. But like so many terms in our modern lexicon, “sustainability” has long been dragged through the mud, through the marketplace, through governmental and nongovernmental circles. We find it on corporate annual reports, in descriptions of modern agriculture, even embedded in tag lines of nonprofit publishing houses like Watershed Media. Along with other fighting words like “organic,” “natural,” and “biodiversity,” sustainability wavers on a precipice above a void of total and complete ambiguity. (All good things will inevitably be co-opted and rendered meaningless.)

If we do take the time to examine this word, however, we find one of the juiciest, most fragile, and illusive onions one could ever hope to peel. At its core, sustainability implies, quite literally, the ability to sustain. So the operative question we need to continually keep in mind as we unravel the proverbial onion should be to sustain what? We hear all kinds of mega forces piggybacked alongside the sustainability train: sustainable agriculture, sustainable design, sustainable development – even sustainable growth. It is a testament to the power, the urgency, but also the inadequacy of the word, and perhaps ultimately, the inadequacy of language itself. Anyone for sustainable obesity? Or sustainable debauchery?

At its deepest and most fundamental sense, our vision of sustainability must transcend human concerns and embrace all of the life forms that make up this sweet earth. One need look no further than Arne Naess’ principles of deep ecology or the lucid prose of one of our greatest living American writers, Wendell Berry, to find the real trajectory that the word should inspire. On a personal (and perhaps simplistic) level, sustainability implies the relentless nurturing of ever-deepening relationships. It is only at the level of direct interaction that we can adequately respond to the needs of the living world around us. At that point of intimate scale and connection, we become informed and inspired. And perhaps prepared to put up our dukes and defend what’s worth fighting for.