The seduction of sustainability

Words are powerful and fluid. We know that. Their meanings are subject to time, place, and situation, and they pick up and discard interpretive nuances in what sometimes seems like whimsy. This makes it possible to suggest that statements made even a generation ago mean something other than what they were originally intended to mean.

Here’s an example close to home: The Trust Object lays out the mandate of the Islands Trust in this compact sentence: “The object of the Trust is to preserve and protect the Trust area and its unique amenities and environment for the benefit of the residents of the Trust area and of British Columbia generally, in cooperation with municipalities, regional districts, improvement districts, First Nations, other persons and organizations and the government of British Columbia.” One phrase in particular has been subject to intense scrutiny, to see if the mandate of the Trust might be reinterpreted to facilitate changes in policy. Supposedly these words—unique amenities and environment—have people scratching their heads. Sorry, but there’s nothing truly ambiguous there.

An amenity is something that is amenable, or pleasant, and if it’s unique, then you’re only going to find it in one place. I like to think that the word was chosen with great care by those who first drafted the Trust Object, and that they assumed it would be taken in the context of the environment—a word that automatically referred to the natural environment in the 1970s. There are many things that are uniquely pleasant in the Gulf Islands. Spotting an orca pod in a glittering sea from the deck of a ferry might be among them, as would the sight of bald eagles wheeling over massive old firs along the water, or the presence of a midden strewn with shells, knowing the land had been home to First Nations people for thousands of years. Other amenities are now more rare: oystercatchers teaching their young to crack open the shells, or Garry oak meadows full of camas lilies in spring. But in considering the sum of the Gulf Island’s amenities, we can say that, taken all together, they comprise pleasures that cannot be found anywhere else. So let’s keep that phrase in the Trust Object. It’s poetry in legal form.

Here’s a word that has become extremely seductive of late: “Sustainability.” It’s what we call a buzz word, a word that’s used with abandon but has lost the technical or scientific aspects that are essential to understanding its full meaning. We see these phrases everywhere: sustainable communities, sustainable forestry, sustainable economic development. Let’s take one of them: sustainable forestry. Well, logging is not easily sustainable here, in our now drought-ridden climate and erosion-prone wet seasons unless: the land is only selectively logged; the large matriarchal trees are left standing; the felled trees are replaced with new ones; the young trees are protected from browsing deer; and the wood waste provides mulch. A little water in a drought also helps. I’ve seen sustainable forestry at work in Europe but it’s not happening here to that degree, not yet. There are exceptions: Wildwood, on Vancouver Island, for instance, where Merv Wilkinson truly did put sustainable forestry into practice with old growth, and there are a few operations on a smaller scale here on Salt Spring.

Does it matter if we call land-use practices “sustainable” when they are not? Back in 2007, a report done for the Trust found that existing land-use practices and human activities were eroding the health of island ecosystems. In other words, our current way of living was not sustainable then and is even less so now. We have a pretty good idea of how land-use practice can be sustainable, but there’s immense knowledge and commitment necessary for making it a reality. The word alone won’t do the work for us.