‘Sustainable’ is relative?

A while back, I listened to a webinar about aquaculture*, and the speaker spent most of the 1/2 hour trying to disarm the audience. Trying to get beyond the ‘farmed and dangerous’ branding, I suppose.
He referred to sustainability as relative, and made some comparisons to other relative concepts (i.e. you can’t judge whether or not something is ‘big’ without context). There’s no such thing as sustainable or unsustainable; only more or less sustainable than something else.
I sort of agree with him, in the sense that it’s not typically very helpful to organize foods and food categories into two neat columns with “sustainable” and “unsustainable” at the top. You can’t necessarily say that organic is sustainable and ‘conventional’ is not sustainable, because if somebody asked me to compare the environmental impact of a certified-organic package of chocolate cookies made by a major retailer’s store brand, to that of a non-certified-organic (but organically grown) bunch of kale from a small farm…you get the idea. More context is good to have. I’d say wild is currently better than farmed salmon, but I can’t really say that wild salmon is sustainable, because at this point, no salmon is really sustainable as far as I can tell. We should probably be eating filter feeders when we absolutely must have marine protein, until some very positive turn-around happens with the salmon and other large/carnivorous fish populations and the food cycle that they’re part of.
…And to be fair, the webinar presenter did mention that eating different KINDS of marine food is important to sustainability. It’s not just HOW we produce the stuff, it’s also WHAT we’re producing and consuming. I couldn’t agree more with that. (Over-consumption of protein in general was also raised – after all, we can’t store it like fat; we can only pee out nitrogen and stress our kidneys in the process.)
However, I think that when it comes to UNsustainability, in a certain sense it’s about as relative as pregnancy. Sure, you can be a few weeks before your due date vs. a whole 9 months away, but the fact is, you’re still pregnant.
People are not that great about thinking far into the future. We might think ahead to the end of our lifespan if we’re really forethought-ful, or to our children’s (maybe grandchildren’s) time if we’re exceptionally forethought-ful. Even so, when it comes to certain practices, even a mere human can see that we can’t keep doing it for more than a couple of generations, max. If we can SEE on the horizon that some resource will inevitably run out completely, that really says something.
Sure, there are some things we’ve currently labeled as ‘sustainable’ that we will probably re-think in a decade or less. We’ll discover some limiting factor we didn’t realize existed, and we’ll go “oops. I guess we can’t do this forever after all.” So in that sense, the label ‘sustainable’ should probably be taken with a grain of salt, and we should always consider the context in which it really qualifies as sustainable. I agree with that.
But that doesn’t mean that we can throw our hands up and say, “Oh well, sustainability is all relative (meaning, in business-speak, that we can make it mean anything we want), and so as long as it’s not the WORST possible option, it’s still ‘good’ in some senses.” That’s just bunk. If there are better options that are feasible, we should do those. AND, sometimes the best option isn’t going to be good enough. If we know that the best option out there STILL isn’t sustainable, I don’t think we should call it sustainable. That’s misleading. We could say ‘it’s the best option we have for now’, or maybe we should consider doing without it altogether, or looking at more game-changing solutions. For example, if there’s no sustainable way to consume animal protein every day, well then maybe we should think about whether we really need animal protein every day. If there’s no sustainable way to have chocolate available on the global market year-round, maybe it’s time to go easy on the chocolate? But of course, industry isn’t so great at game-changing solutions. They’re better at tinkering and ‘reformulating’ (or better yet, re-branding) their existing products to make them (seem) ‘new and improved!’ They do this with healthy food claims too of course.
*By the way, I’m actually pretty encouraged by some new systems of integrated multi-tropic aquaculture being developed. Wasteful or inappropriate fish-feeding processes, making crowded pathogen breeding-grounds, and producing concentrated waste products were some of the most alarming aspects of conventional aquaculture that I was aware of, and several of those issues can be dealt with pretty effectively by re-structuring the fish ‘farms’, farming new and different kinds of species, and feeding differently.
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