Why I Capitalize the S in Sustainability

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One thing you will notice on this website, and certainly something that the spell checkers do, is that I capitalize the S in Sustainability. The reason is simple. Sustainability in the sense that I mean it- "Achieving the highest quality of life possible for the most people at the most times and places within the biophysical limits of planet Earth"-is not the same as the dictionary definition for sustainability. From the Oxford English Dictionary: sustainable-able to be maintained at a certain rate or level. But Sustainability is not just about maintaining. We don't seek to maintain 1 billion people in poverty. Rather, at the core of Sustainability is a vision of a better future.

Is it so important to distinguish Sustainability from sustainability?

Obviously I think so, or I wouldn't have written this piece. The original meaning of the word sustainable-to maintain-continues to have an important value in describing businesses (whose income and expenses at least balance) or even the exploitation of groundwater (balance of recharge and use) among others. Therefore, rather than try to force a change to the definition of sustainable across the English language, lets use Sustainable to also mean equitable, quality of life, innovative, ethical etc. This simple capitalization makes it easy to distinguish between a sustainable business (e.g. Coca-Cola) and a Sustainable business (e.g. Patagonia).

Aren't there rules to English? You can't just go capitalizing whatever words you want!

To you good sir, I say, don't be a bully! And indeed that is the glory of the English language. Almost uniquely it is a language amalgamated from many others1)If you are interested in the evolution of the English language Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue provides a somewhat dry and academic telling or there is The Mother Tongue by the ever funny and entertaining Bill Bryson, constantly evolving and changing with no central authority dictating official rules (though some may attempt to).2)For example the Spanish language is overseen by the Royal Spanish Academy founded in 1713 "to fix the voices and vocabularies of the Castilian language with propriety, elegance, and purity" Not to say I am promoting a return to the anything goes English of the middle ages. Rather that change in the English language rises from the bottom up. I am not the first with this capitalization scheme. Ed Doerr proposed that Life Stances such as Humanism should start with a capital letter. And Sustainability is not just a Life Stance but a Societal Stance!

Aaron Redman is the founder of Achieving Sustainability and what passes for an administrator in these parts. Currently he is working on his Sustainability PhD at ASU while raising a baby daughter and taking advantage of nap time to foment discussions on this here blog.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. If you are interested in the evolution of the English language Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue provides a somewhat dry and academic telling or there is The Mother Tongue by the ever funny and entertaining Bill Bryson
2. For example the Spanish language is overseen by the Royal Spanish Academy founded in 1713 "to fix the voices and vocabularies of the Castilian language with propriety, elegance, and purity"
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