What sustainability really means to rural decision-makers

September 22, 2009,
Scenes from rural areas of the Pacific Northwest, where Kansas State University geographer Lisa Harrington interviewed civic and business leaders about what sustainability means to them. Credit: Photos by Lisa Harrington, Kansas State University department of geography.

From book titles to real estate developments, it's easier to find things claiming to be sustainable than it is to define it.

That's why a Kansas State University geographer is trying to pin down exactly what sustainability means to those who might be trying to work toward it. Her goal is to better understand what is important to people who have to make decisions about what to sustain with the hope that this will later help civic and business leaders in make more informed decisions about sustainability.

Lisa Harrington is a K-State professor of geography whose interest is in rural geography. She is teaching a K-State class in sustainability science and said one of the big issues in teaching such a course is developing a good sense of what sustainability means and communicating that to students.

"I want to develop a better sense of how people view the term sustainability and develop a better sense of issues and problems that people in are having related to ideas of sustainability," Harrington said. "Sustainability is broadly applied without always being meaningful. Generally, people try to use it appropriately. It's just that it is a term that's broad enough it can be misused."

For her research, Harrington interviewed civic leaders and resource users in rural Washington and Oregon to get a sense of what sustainability means to them and how they feel about it. Harrington found that some rural leaders have an understanding of sustainability that fits how scholars and professionals define it -- as something that can last into the future. But other rural leaders she interviewed don't like how the term is used or don't understand it.

"Some of the people I interviewed are planners, so they want a really clear definition that they can apply to their work," Harrington said. "I wanted to get a sense of what sorts of problems rural leaders and decision-makers were focusing on and some of the changes and stresses they're experiencing that relate to sustainability."

In the rural Pacific Northwest, Harrington said, the primary industries are fishing, logging and tourism. All of these industries require a balance of sustaining the local economy and sustaining the very environment that makes fishing, logging and tourism viable in the first place. Moreover, Harrington said that the tourism industry raises social sustainability issues like whether service industry workers can afford housing in the communities where they work.

"When people are thinking about sustainability, they can't really sustain everything -- ecologically, socially or economically -- at the same time," she said. "Choices have to be made."

Harrington presented the research in July at the 17th annual Colloquium of the International Geographical Union's Commission on the of Rural Systems.

Harrington plans to continue this research elsewhere in the country, including in Kansas. She expects that the specific issues will be different -- for instance, sustaining family farms rather than ocean ecology. But Harrington expects that some of the underlying problems will be the same, including the availability of suitable housing and jobs that pay enough to sustain families.

Source: Kansas State University (news : web)

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3 / 5 (2) Sep 22, 2009
"When people are thinking about sustainability, they can't really sustain everything -- ecologically, socially or economically -- at the same time," she said. "Choices have to be made."

What a horrible statement and attitude to have, especially for an academic. Shame on you Lisa!

The fact is you can't have actual sustainability in any one of those areas without having it in the others, this is self-evident and should be obvious, because of how intertwined it all is. That's why this is such a difficult subject for people to verbalize. Because our current worldscape is so far from sustainable, and mostly because of the society and economy sectors. Political wars of intolerance and a self-destructive world economy are the greatest threats, with the earth being poisoned beyond repair being a distant third.

I'm not saying this as some foretelling of doom but because it will probably take nothing short of a revolution in social and economic sectors to realize actual sustainability
5 / 5 (2) Sep 22, 2009
"Sustainability" is a advertising and political buzz word. Long term sustainability is impossible. If you need proof of that just look at the conditions on the Earth over the last 4 billion years. There were no humans to ruin the sustainable environments and yet they still changed. Even over the last 100 years (much less the last 10000 years) we've had measurable change.
not rated yet Sep 23, 2009
Sustainability is a very concrete concept, possibly more so for developing nations, but certainly also for the western world, and to claim it is nothing more than a buzz word or marketing tool, while in some instances is correct, is at the most basic level sophomoric and defeatist.

There were no humans to ruin the sustainable environments and yet they still changed.

This just demonstrates your lack of understanding of what sustainability actually is, or rather should be.
not rated yet Sep 24, 2009
I have to agree with GM. "Sustainability" is an illusion if you take a larger scope into account. There are no infinites in the Universe.
not rated yet Sep 24, 2009
Of course there's no infinites, the concept of existence precludes an end, however you can take measures to make sure you are not fastening your own noose around your own neck. And that's sustainability. Barring uncontrollable circumstances, you're not gonna be the cause of your own demise.
not rated yet Sep 24, 2009
Barring uncontrollable circumstances, you're not gonna be the cause of your own demise.
Considering your opening statement "the concept of existence precludes an end" one could expand that to state exactly that you will always be the cause of your own demise.

In any event, sustainability isn't a concrete concept. our evolving technology could be considered sustainability as when problems loom, we solve them via technology.

Then again, every comment in this conversation is an argument of semantics while the three of us all have agreeing viewpoints on the topic.
Sep 24, 2009
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