Every now and then a single word emerges from our common parlance to achieve the status of a master term. Such a word gives expression to discrete needs and purposes, but it also provides a perspicuous lens through which to view the ethical disposition and emotional temper of a culture at a particular moment in time. The argument of this essay is that “sustainability” has become just such a word for our moment, deserving closer attention than it has so far received.
This essay seeks to address a set of neglected questions about the cultural significance of sustainability’s rise to a master term in our society and to distill its deeper moral and ethical salience from the wide spectrum of its connotations and applications. We will see how varying concerns over what Americans (and humans more generally) are not presently sustaining reflect a deep-seated anxiety that goes to the very heart of our most basic assumptions about what it means and takes to thrive in the contemporary world. Specifically, we will see how such assumptions are themselves connected to growing uncertainty over whether the relationship between humans and nature is one primarily defined by scarcity or abundance. In light of these anxieties and uncertainties, we will also see how the rise of sustainability to a master term represents accumulating disappointment and disillusionment with those key terms once believed constitutive of modern progress—terms like “development,” “improvement,” and “growth.” The cultural significance of sustainability, in other words, is related to the mounting scrutiny and doubt now facing the master terms of modern progress.