Praxis (Building Solutions)

The Vocabulary of Sustainability

Part 1 - What the heck does it really mean?

By Max Zahniser

(also posted at The Sustainability NEXUS)

A wise man (either Aldous Huxley or Ken Wilber, or both) once said that the language we use often has a great deal more wisdom embedded in it than those who use it (paraphrased). Hence, we can gain a great deal of insight simply by looking up a word’s definition and/or etymology. This simple, yet rarely employed approach has served me well in navigating the ongoing discourse in the sustainability movement; a movement which has become bogged down and confused by cultural over use and misuse of many key words, adding to and even skewing meanings. Although the explosion of social and environmental initiatives and organizations is encouraging, many of these organizations and their leaders are exacerbating the confusion rather than moving toward the clarity we’ll need to really scale up the effectiveness of our collective efforts.

Sustainability itself is already an over-used, seldom understood word. Peter Senge (systems thinking and organization dynamics thought leader) pointed out that the blurriness of the term sustainability is both its greatest strength and greatest weakness. On one hand we’re finally discussing some things in one conversation that have been segregated for several generations, and we’re recognizing interdependencies that we have all but forgotten as a human race. On the other hand it is hard to take decisive and effective action when you’re overwhelmed and confused by a lack of clarity. But I believe we can achieve clarity and still more consciously discuss whole-systems.

In seeking a definition and better understanding of sustainability you could delve into the work of the Brundtland Commission, or the Ceres Principles, or LEED or any other sustainability framework, or even just the Wikipedia entry for sustainability; and it would probably all be worth your time (albeit a great deal of your time). But it would really take you beyond definitions, into philosophies and structures that surround the word sustainability, but are not the word itself. I’ll take us into the realm of philosophy in this article as well, but there’s real utility in demystifying the word first, by simply looking it up.

But before we can define sustainability, it is important to address a critical word that I’ve already used once in this article without defining it. Despite the title of this article, we need to first set the context for the term sustainability by establishing the concept of systems.


Etymology: Latin and Greek: Systema - "whole compounded of several parts or members, system", literary "composition"


1. A set of interacting or interdependent components forming an integrated whole.

2. A set of elements and relationships which are different from relationships of the set or its elements to other elements or sets.

Source: Wikipedia

Following from system is a cross-disciplinary worldview or philosophy (or perhaps a meta-discipline if you will) that many of us find to be very helpful in navigating the complexity of our reality, also mentioned above: Systems Thinking/Theory. The quickest way I’ve found to establish a simple but fairly deep understanding of systems thinking or systems theory, is to go over some more vocabulary words:



At once part of a greater whole, and a whole unto itself; implying also being comprised of other, smaller wholes. Coined by Arthur Koestler

So the follow-up conclusion that one comes to fairly quickly is that everything is a holon! In the system of reality or existence as we know it, anything we have a name for, and everything else, is a holon, and holons are the elements referred to in the definition of system above. And our reality is made up of an incredible tapestry of sibling systems or holons, as well as nested-systems or nested-holons. E.G. Something makes up quarks, which make up protons and neutrons, and with electrons these make up atoms, which make up molecules, which make up bacteria and viruses and organelles, which make up cells, which make up organs, which make up organisms, which make up species or cultures, which make up ecosystems, which bump into each other in ecotones, which make up bio-regions, which make up the biosphere. If you stay in the realm of physics with this thought experiment, you reach the universe as a whole, and perhaps some of the proposals for the nested system beyond our universe (all of which you may also believe is a living system onto itself). 


Strong Emergence OR Synergy

A phenomenon within complex systems in which the behavior of a system cannot be explained simply by the sum of that system’s constituent parts. 

I.E. – you can’t tell why or how a holon is behaving as it is. This is the magic we’re learning how to deliberately foster in teams of humans; generating amazing ideas and solutions that we never could as individuals or even as un-integrated groups. Some would argue that strong emergence doesn’t actually exist, that we often simply can’t perceive all the constituent elements of a system/holon. And right or wrong, it doesn’t matter, as long as we can consistently make the magic happen.



Detectable effects or behaviors of a system in response to an action.

For an interesting dynamic regarding feedback, look up the meaning of the Pygmalion Effect.



Separation in time and often location between an action and the related systemic feedback (again, the effects or behaviors of a system in response to an action).

These present one of the biggest challenges, even to the most conscious species (as far as we know it) on Earth. Despite our cognitive ability we are failing to recognize the effects of our behavior due to delays, and this simple concept explains most of the crises we’re currently facing. Achieving great solutions to big challenges means reaching across many of these divides.


Now we have a sort of cosmology or worldview, into which we can insert, finally, our definition of sustainability.

First let’s break sustainability down to its root:


To keep in existence; to nurture; to maintain

Source: Wiktionary

Sustainability or Sustainable then, is

A condition or a behavior of a system which can be maintained indefinitely.

If you can sustain a behavior it means that that behavior is indefinitely repeatable; that the behavior does not damage or deplete, directly or even indirectly, the systems/holons that make that behavior possible to begin with. Likewise, sustaining a system or holon means that the behaviors and dynamics of the system do not deplete or damage the meta-system and sub-systems (holons of which that holon is a part, and holons within, respectively) that support the subject holon’s dynamics.

A couple of quick, simplified examples, in case this is already getting too wordy:

1. If you’re planning to build 400 brick exterior homes for a particular population, and you only have 200 homes worth of brick, then either the size or the material, or both, represent an unsustainable design. With regard to resources, and at a level of a larger, more complex holon, this is exactly what we’re doing.  

2. A bitter, angry person that tends to lash out at other people, and burn proverbial bridges, fairly rapidly deteriorates the conditions that allow that person to behave that way within a particular relationship or group of relationships. Even someone that behaves this way only once in awhile may be seen as doing that consistently by some of the circles they are in. So in that sense, their behavior is not sustainable, at least within a particular social system. However, being rejected from circles again and again could reinforce their bitterness, and unless the pattern is interrupted somehow, the reinforced bitterness sustains the behavior. So depending on how you draw your boundaries around the subject, the application of the term sustainability can be applied in more than one way. Many would argue however, that eventually that destructive personality will create or encounter a situation that ends the behavioral pattern if it is not truly sustainable (incarceration, fatal violence, or an epiphany that leads to real personal growth).

So, as you can see, the meaning of sustainable, or sustainability depends a great deal on what subject you are referring to.

What are we talking about sustaining, or failing to sustain?

Our behaviors?

Our designs?  

Our economy?

Our way of life?


Only endangered species?

Riparian ecosystems? ...


In the broadest and simplest sense I think it is this last one, but with the understanding that sustainable behaviors or practices, in serving their primary intent also serve to sustain the systems within which they are nested. And all of the preceding and possible answers to the question above are interdependent, and are nested-holons embedded as a part of the biosphere. So you could say human life, or human civilization, but underlying even that enlightened self-interest, is simply put, Life itself. 


To Be Continued….

In Search of an Ecological Architecture

A Retrospective on Green Building Philosophy

Drexel University - Interiors Graduate Thesis Research Paper

by Noelle Via

Advisor: Max Zahniser

Advisor's Note:

Sustainability, the green movement, environmentalism; whatever you call it there's clearly something more significant than a fad happening. The arc of even the most recent chapter of this movement can be tracked across several decades. Behind the recent explosion of unsubstantiated and irrelevant claims of environmental performance (aka greenwash) there's a real demand for a shift in the way humans meet their own needs, and real progress is actually happening. Architecture history textbooks and courses usually lay out a series of cascading movements in thought and practice over millenia. How might our current movement be reflected upon in such media decades from now? In her graduate thesis research paper Noelle Via gives us a possible answer to this, and she finds an interesting evolving pattern of thought and approaches; trends whose trajectory into the future might point the way toward much more than just an eco-aesthetic, and perhaps toward a human society that meets its needs without obliterating its own life-support systems in the process. Her subsequent DESIGN thesis, The EDEN Project, explores an example of what built environment development or redevelopment might look like in this future paradigm which she has found just beginning to emerge.

Click the cover image below to access her research paper. 

bubbles honeycomb living patterns noelle via cover

The Psychology of Consumption

Graduate Thesis Design Research by Kate Greim

Advisor's Introduction:

Kate's research paper arrives (perhaps as a cleverly feigned accident) at what might be the most fundamental underlying human condition that is standing between current reality and a sustainable form of future human civilization. Although Kate titled her research specific to collecting, the findings and conclusions are applicable to all forms of consumption that go beyond necessity, in American and increasingly even global society, from the extremes of hoarding, to high end art collections, to shopping as therapy, or just associating one's identity with objects at all. The compulsion takes many forms, but is so widespread we were constantly aware that it not only reflects upon both of us, but we were also constantly aware as she was writing the paper that she had to be cautious about offending 99% of her readers with every conclusion.

Kate's exploration drew her into some of the deepest psychological conditions that seem to be integral to our society today, and found them to be self-reinforcing as our economy depends on the behavior continuing and as needs never quite get met. 

As Kate was wrapping up her process with this research we felt like we were just beginning to see into some of the deepest insights on the modern human condition, and that she could have kept digging and discovering more truly fundamental hidden mechanisms that bridge individual pscyhology and global living-system dynamics. She was putting her finger on what may be the most fundamental and yet oft overlooked and unmet needs that we as humans have, and that perhaps nearly all dysfunction and conflict in our society could be traced back to.

So, psychology and sustainability  geeks alike, Enjoy!

 The Research Paper:

Advisor's Following Notes:

One of the last dynamics Kate and I explored as she was researching was the temporary nature of consciousness and mindset. There are many versions of the landscape of human consciousness / mindset / orientation, many spectrums, from Maslow's hierarchy of needs, to Spiral Dynamics, to the more recent X and Y types of human motivation. In any case, most of us, probably all of us, travel up and down or back and forth across these spectrums, probably hourly and daily.

Yet our conditioned impulse compells us to find the label for what we "ARE": a Myers Briggs: INTJ, or a Spiral Dynamics Yellow, or a Maslow self-actualizer. But does anyone really remain at any of those points? Even when you're hungry or tired or both, or when someone just bumped into you in the subway station, or cut you off on a highway? These labels may be the tendency we revert to when we're well fed and calm; our highest current potential that has been unlocked and become accessible in our best moments; but we're oscilating across these spectrums, and more fluidly than we might want to admit.

My colleagues and I are finding that having some idea of a person's orientation across these spectrums can really matter as to how to best engage them in integrative, relational, and/or democratic processes. And when a facilitator can cultivate an environment in which a person or a community is able to very consciously step into their full potential mindset, or even actually carve out further potential (i.e. climb higher up on the SD spiral, or Maslow's pyramid than ever before), then getting at the fundamental void Kate identified is actually easy. Believe it or not, when I leave a great integrative sustainability charrette, or take even a short trip into the wilderness, the collector or impulse shopper in me are nowhere to be found, because the deeper needs that often drive the compulsion, have been met.

A technical sustainability consulting company with clients and strategic partners including University of Pennsylvania, the Pentagon, B Lab, the U.S. Green Building Council, Autodesk, Con Edison Company of New York, Wallace Roberts & Todd, Humanscale.