‘Sustainability’ easy to understand, hard to practice

Published 12:00 am Monday, August 3, 2009

“Sustainable” and “sustainability” are the buzz words of the day.

The last time I remember a word being so frequently being spoken by official folks was back in 1985 when Mikhail Gorbachev became head of the Soviet Union. The buzz word then, first used to describe Gorbachev’s approach to governing, was “pragmatic.” All of a sudden, everything was measured by the “pragmatic” yardstick. “Yes, it’s a good idea, but is it ‘pragmatic?’”

Pragmatic is just another way of saying practical. If orderly, logical steps are taken to respond to a situation or set in motion to solve a problem, that’s “pragmatic.” A person replacing a flat tire on a car who follows the procedure set forth in the manual is “pragmatic.” It would be unpragmatic, say, to try to put on the spare without first removing the flat.

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Of course, it goes without saying that everything associated with governing should be pragmatic.

If there’s a problem, the first step should be to define what it is. Then various solutions should be considered before settling on the course of action that most expeditiously creates a solution.

That’s being pragmatic.

“Sustainable” means no net change. Politicians have borrowed it from environmentalists.

It’s shrimp season in Mississippi.

To harvest shrimp in a “sustainable” way simple means no more of the crustaceans are relocated to dinner tables or specials at Capt. D’s than can be replaced by nature.

By matching the rate of replenishment, the supply of shrimp, all other variables excluded, becomes endless.

Same for tree farming. Ideally, the rate of timber harvesting should match the rate of new growth. That way, the supply of forest products will never run out.

“Sustainable” has a warm an fuzzy appeal. It means “balanced,” “equal” or “in equilibrium.” Good karma comes from balance — balanced diets, balanced lives, even balanced tires.

In Washington, members of Congress have been chirping about “sustainability” in several pretty bogus ways. Perhaps they’re trying to convince us it’s been on their minds with every vote they cast.

But that can’t be so.

The last time the federal government’s revenue and spending balanced in a year was 1957, and even then the nation was carrying a $270 billion debt. Since then, the government has outspent its revenue every year.

Yet all of a sudden, it seems, it’s dawning on at least some members that federal spending, no matter how needed or noble, is not “sustainable” at current levels.

And as far as increasing taxes to offset the increases in spending, there’s an equilibrium point there, too. Taking too many dollars out of the private economy is like reducing the size of the brackish marshes where baby shrimp are born. Do that, and the risk is loss of the ability to replenish at a constant rate.

Whether it’s too late to for Washington to worry about “sustainability” is anyone’s guess. The threshold may have been crossed from which there is no return. If so, then only the speed at which America will go belly up subject to being sped up or slowed down.

Anyway, it’s been nice to hear the word “sustainable” used in our nation’s capital. It’s heartening to know some are familiar with the concept of economic balance, that there is a well and that it has a bottom.

Of course, it would be better to be assured they’d also be pragmatic about this situation.

But let’s not get carried away.