We have had several questions that while tangential to Sustainability they are more about environmentalism, and it would even be possible to give answers to the questions that a environmentally good but are not sustainable.

How can I minimize packaging and chemicals in personal hygiene products?

Favorable laws for graywater usage

Are there any hard numbers on energy spent on recycling?

What countries have the highest greywater reuse rates?

Based on the SE name I would expect primarily applied sustainability questions rather than environmentalism and trivia questions.

All of these questions have a piece of them that intersects with sustainability. But as a whole they do not.

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    Regarding the greywater questions - I'm considering questions that deal with the legal and social structures that allow for sustainable practices to be on topic.
    – Laizer
    Commented Feb 11, 2013 at 19:41
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    Until we have an Environmentalism SE, I think it will be quite useful to allow those question, which intersect with sustainability. I'm curious, though, what kind of answer can be environmentally good, but not sustainable?
    – Earthliŋ
    Commented Feb 12, 2013 at 3:22
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    I've turned my -1 to a +1, after our chat session. I don't agree that those questions should be off-topic, but I do think that this is an important discussion to have.
    – 410 gone
    Commented Feb 12, 2013 at 9:32
  • @EnergyNumbers, based on my reading of other meta sites, voting for meta questions has a different meaning. +1 does not simply refer to a useful question. +1 implies some agreement with the premise of the question, which in this case, I think is clearly that environmentalism, and topics like climate change (or the implications thereof, not necessarily the fundamental climate science), should not be part of this site. I'm downvoting the question, because I don't agree with this premise, even though I think it's a reasonable discussion to have.
    – Nate
    Commented Aug 7, 2013 at 5:20

4 Answers 4


Thanks to Chad for the chat session where we went through some of the issues. I agree with Chad on some issues, disagree on others, but can now at least see where Chad's coming from.

My own inclination is that we shouldn't let the best be the enemy of the good.

The best fit questions to our site are those which explicitly ask about the sustainability of X or Y.

Good-fit questions ask about topics which have a strong connection to sustainability, for those who know the topic well enough.

And the challenge is that the strength of connection, as well as what sustainability actually is, are to a degree each subjective judgements.

For those of who've been working in related fields, or studying there, or volunteering there, we each have some pretty clear ideas, from lots of exposure, about what does and does not relate to sustainability. The foggy area comes, because we don't have identical ideas.

But, after several decades of active discussion about sustainability, there are quite a few recurring issues: recycling, biodiversity, decarbonisation, pollution, energy efficiency. Those of us who've been working in these fields, take for granted that we don't need to draw the links between each of them and sustainability, each time we use them. And I agree with Chad that none of these are synonymous with sustainability. For example, once all our energy is from renewables, then energy efficiency may not be a meaningful sustainability question (but ISTM that until that time, it is).

Chad makes the very valid point that not all recycling is sustainable; not all decarbonisation is sustainable. Tackling catastrophic climate change is necessary, but not sufficient, for sustainability.

Here's my proposal for how to untangle all this

  • During the early months of this site, let's be generous in what we take to be on-topic, to enable us to build momentum and our user base: it's much easier to start broad and then narrow down, than the other way around. Stack Overflow itself followed that path, as have several other Stack Exchanges.
  • Let's have a set of definitive questions on the main site that explicitly seek to draw out the relationship between individual topics, and sustainability - one for recycling, one for decarbonisation, one for biodiversity, one for energy efficiency, and so on. We already have a question on pollution and sustainability, and although the question body maybe needs some work, the question title is great: How are pollution and sustainability related?. Model answers should define where the overlap is, as well as where something might be within the individual topic, but actually contradicting sustainability; an example of such a contradiction is demonstrated in the question on the relative "sustainability" of petrol (gasoline) and diesel.
  • Let's be tolerant of our differing views of what sustainability means, while being vigilant against pseudo-science and quackery
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    I also expect that some borderline questions from the early days of Sustainability.SE will survive (and maybe be protected or closed later). On English.SE, "What is a verb?" only needs a good answer once. I figure even some pure sustainability questions (e.g. "How do I save energy in an apartment?") will be there forever. As time progresses, questions get more and more refined, and the expertise of the community increases. Allowing broad questions now is good and may well lead to a site with more specific questions later.
    – Earthliŋ
    Commented Feb 16, 2013 at 12:24

Is there a difference?

In my opinion, they're all on-topic.

I think it's hard to disentangle the two. My question about pollution is relevant. I think the difference between environmentalism and sustainability is even harder to define than the distinction with pollution.

I will lift out three of your examples. I skip the greywater ones because I hadn't heard of it before today.

  • Toxic chemicals are on-topic, because toxics may ultimately end up as waste and an accumulation of toxic waste is unsustainable.

  • Decarbonisation is on-topic. It has two elements:

    • To end the reliance on fossil fuels. Fossil fuels are unsustainable except if used at an extremely low pace (but note that decarbonisation does not necessarily mean a switch to sustainable sources)
    • To stop the contribution to anthropogenic climate change. Anthropogenic climate change is also unsustainable.
  • Recycling is on-topic, because it's about an efficient use of resources, as is the question about energy. An efficient use of resources contributes to ecological sustainability.

  • Gah, you got this before I could hit the button. My question about recycling is relevant since, given two options, the one that is more efficient in terms of energy and resources is more sustainable. Commented Feb 11, 2013 at 16:08
  • @BobRoberts - How does the the amount of energy spent recycling have to do with sustainability. If all of the energy used was solar then it does not really matter how much was used. Recycling is sustainable at any rate here. I agree that recycling is an important part of sustainability but not all recycling is about sustainability. And your question does not differentiate.
    – user141
    Commented Feb 11, 2013 at 19:32
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    @chad It makes sense to track the amount of energy from certain processes right now because the likelihood of all the energy being from sustainable sources is extremely low. In the future, we may reach a point where all energy is sustainably generated, but it is likely achieving that will be linked with a reduction in energy usage. There is a lively debate on-going as to whether it is possible to generate enough energy sustainably to support our current and projected future energy use. Thus questions about the energy use of recycling are perfectly valid for sustainability. Commented Mar 15, 2013 at 18:20

An Area 51 proposal like Sustainable Living is actually defined more thoroughly by its example questions in the definition phase than by it's description. While it's description may have been "Q&A site for folks dedicated to a lifestyle that can be maintained indefinitely without depleting available resources." many of the actual questions which were proposed, voted up and boosted this proposal into commitment were environmental questions rather than pure sustainability questions.

Similarly the scope of a stack exchange site when it comes out of beta is actually defined more throughly by questions and meta discussions during beta than it is by its Area 51 proposal.

Since we need this site to grow and attract contributors, I think that we can afford to be generous in the scope of questions we allow at this stage. As long as a question is about or related to sustainability, I believe we should be allowing it at this time. If there is a significantly better place for the question to be asked (such as gardening or skeptics) then questions can be migrated, but in doing so we have to realise that the nature of those sites may well provide answers with a significantly different bias to that which the questioner was expecting.


I think this gets to a more significant issue: "Can you have sustainability which destroys the environment in the process?" If you can't then environmentalism has to be a part of sustainability.

One of the real problems we get into with permaculture questions is that they are considered on-topic if the individual provides enough background to show that this is related to sustainability, and closed if they don't. This means that folks with advanced permaculture knowledge can ask questions, while those with only basic knowledge can only supply answers, which seems to me to turn things on it's head.

Regarding things like greywater, I find it hard to argue this topic is somehow more about environmentalism than about sustainability of water usage. The whole question comes down to reducing our demand for highly treated potable water (and that's probably the only primary benefit of this). Similarly recycling is a good topic because this is again about reducing our depletion of natural resources (and a good part of this is energy).

I think the idea of having topics to flesh out these relationships is a good thing.

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