Is “Sustainability” Sustainable?

Tuesday, July 8, 2008 - 3:09 pm

Is “Sustainability” Sustainable?

readings for garden project class (spring 2010): jessica prentice's full moon feast; michael pollan's second nature; barbara kingsolver's animal, vegetable, miracle; novella carpenter's farm city; and michael pollan's the omnivore's dilemmaPhoto by David Silver / Flickr, cc by-nc-nd 2.0
It’s been fascinating to watch the reactions to our recent rebroadcast of the Barbara Kingsolver. Last year we had a wildly positive response. This year, more than a few listeners experienced Kingsolver’s account of her experiment in a year of eating what she could grow herself — and my interview of her — to be elitist at worst or impractical at best.
Full confession here: I was more surprised by last year’s response, because I also felt that the odyssey Kingsolver undertook necessitated all kinds of basics that elude me and most of the human beings I know — a stay at home job where you set your own hours, a wildly cooperative teenage daughter, a farm you just happened to inherit — and that’s not to mention the southern climate. Still, I was compelled by her insistence that we can’t leave these problems to the next generation, and by her descriptions of the delights of homegrown food.
I did plant a garden last summer of the first time in my life, and loved it. I’ve made more of an effort ever since to buy food that has not traveled thousands of miles to get to me. But this year I haven’t managed the garden. I’ve become more acutely aware of how hard — if not impossible — it would be to live on what I could grow year round in Minnesota or even buy at coops or farmers’ markets. And I’ve learned about some of the ironies of this issue of food globally. For example, that New Zealand is producing such ecologically friendly food that, on balance, the kiwi fruit they produce might be an ethical choice for me to purchase. And on and on.
So here’s my question to you, to all of us: Is sustainability sustainable? Part of the challenge, it seems to me, is to be focused and mindful and accept the limits of what each of us can humanly do in the circumstances in which we live right now, and accept that in ourselves and others. Are we suffering from too little practical guidance on how the routines of our imperfect, already complicated daily lives can truly affect the environment? Or are we facing a debilitatingly guilt-inducing overload of information?
I’d like to hear others’ ruminations on this. What happened to the listening public’s excitement about eating locally between last year and this? Many of you asked if Barbara Kingsolver herself is still living this way. If she’s not, does that negate the whole effort? How can we stop sustainability fatigue from setting in?

Share Post


is a Peabody Award-winning broadcaster and New York Times bestselling author. In 2014, President Obama awarded her the National Humanities medal for “thoughtfully delving into the mysteries of human existence.” In 2013, she created an independent, non-profit enterprise designed to deepen the engagement of diverse audiences and amplify the unusual social impact of this content.

Share Your Reflection