Sustainability: A dissent

Julianne Lutz Newton, Eric T. Freyfogle

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review


Broadly conceived and considered in its many usages, sustainability has grave defects as a planning goal, particularly when used by conservationists: it confuses means and ends; it is vague about what is being sustained and who or what is doing the sustaining; it is uninspiring; it is little more than Pinchotera conservation (and thus ignores the many lessons learned since then); it need not be linked to land, to the land's functioning, or to any ecological science; it need not include a moral component; it is consistent with the view of humans as all-powerful manipulators of the planet; and, in general, it is such a malleable term that its popularity provides only a facade of consensus. When sustainability is defined broadly to include the full range of economic and social aspirations, it poses the particular risk that ecological and biodiversity concerns will be cast aside in favor of more pressing human wants. Given these many defects, the conservation movement should discard the term in favor of a more alluring goal, attentive to nature and its ecological functioning. A sound goal would incorporate and distill the considerable ecological and moral wisdom accumulated since Pinchot's day while giving conservationists the rhetorical tools needed to defend the land against competing pressures. In our view, conservation would be well served by an updated variant of "land health," Aldo Leopold's ecologically grounded goal from the 1940s. Land health as an independent understanding should set the essential terms of how we live and enjoy the earth, providing the framework within which we pursue our many social and economic aims.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)23-32
Number of pages10
JournalConservation Biology
Issue number1
StatePublished - Feb 2005
Externally publishedYes


  • Agrarianism
  • Biodiversity
  • Conservation goal
  • Ecological processes
  • Environmental justice
  • Land health
  • Nature and culture
  • Soil fertility

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Ecology
  • Nature and Landscape Conservation


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