Is sustainability sustainable?

Is sustainability sustainable?

Posted 11 June 2011, by: Greg Breining, StarTribune, startribune.com

For several years now, the University of Minnesota has been planning a “sustainable” community of nearly 30,000 at UMore Park near Rosemount, nearly 5,000 acres that once included a short-lived and thankfully unsustainable World War II gunpowder works.

Last month, more than 80 people associated with the planning effort convened for two full days to better understand what they were talking about.

You can hardly blame them. Since “sustainability” became associated with feel-good causes in the last quarter-century, we’ve heard of sustainable communities, sustainable development, sustainable agriculture, a sustainable planet and even sustainable futures, as redundant as that might seem.

Who can be against sustainability? But like a lot of buzzwords, even patriotic hallmarks such as “justice” and “liberty,” the term combines measures of virtue and vagueness, economics and ecology, simple-mindedness and soothsaying.

Kevin Tuerff, who established the Greenwashing Index in conjunction with the University of Oregon School of Journalism, has said the Federal Trade Commission should declare “sustainability,” at least in terms of products and commercial practices, meaningless.

Environmental historian Donald Worster writes that as an environmental concept, the very use of a term such as “sustainable development” is “confusing our language and thinking.”

So, what’s it mean to be “sustainable”? One problem in defining sustainability is that it has come to mean so much to so many.

Twenty-five years ago, the United Nations defined sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

At UMore Park, sustainability has come to include eliminating carbon emissions and waste; providing sustainable transportation systems; using sustainable building materials; promoting local and sustainable food sources and sustainable water; preserving natural areas; celebrating culture, heritage and equity; stimulating local economy, and promoting health and happiness.

Worthy goals. At the very least, virtuous political statements. But one must ask if planning by such criteria makes a community any more likely to “sustain” in a way most of us would understand the word.

Does generating all your power on site — however inefficiently — really contribute to a thriving community that’s built to last? Can a community be sustainable even if the economy on which it depends — something largely out of a community’s control — doesn’t sustain?

Another problem, as Worster points out–sustainable for how long? A year? A generation? Forever — even after the sun explodes into a red giant, melts the Earth, and then shrivels and grows cold? Few societies in human history have sustained beyond a few centuries.

The notion of sustainability meshes with our belief in the balance of nature, an enduring steady-state of harmony. Yet that is never really true of nature. Nature is always in flux.

As biologist Daniel Botkin (himself a recipient of the Mitchell International Prize for Sustainable Development) writes in Discordant Harmonies, our belief that forests grew to a stable, predictable “climax” state, and that predators controlled the numbers of prey, crumbled to dust a half-century ago when scientists realized almost no data supported such ideas.

Instead, chaos and unpredictability rules. Species seize the opportunity provided by a sudden abundance of resources. An explosion in population precedes a crash. Deer die. Wolves starve. Lemmings run over the cliff and into the sea.

Likewise, humans believe in making hay while the sun shines, the antithesis of sustainability.

I recently interviewed Hans Rosling, star of past TED conferences and professor of International Health at Karolinska Institute in Sweden. I asked if the coming population of 9 billion people on planet Earth was “sustainable.”

He didn’t see it as a terribly relevant question.

“There’s always been unsustainability,” he remarked. “Think about Sweden. Why do people live in Sweden? Because the ecological use of Germany had become unsustainable 8,000 years ago. Human history is an endless list of unsustainable states.”

And so towns spring up around a new mine, only to whither once the ore is gone. Farm towns become retirement communities — and eventually ghost towns — as farmers grow more efficient and as children flee to jobs in nearby cities.

Who would have imagined just 40 years ago that the automobile would survive but that Detroit would not–at least in its former grandeur?

Today, China and India are gambling on so-called unsustainable development–heavy use of water, coal and polluting industries — to lift their people out of poverty. Paradoxically, that unsustainable step may lead to a more sustainable future.

Rosling says the key to assuring our future is a world population that stops growing. And that will happen, he says, only if the poorest 2 billion people, concentrated in parts of Africa, Asia, and Latin America, manage to escape abject poverty, get an education, secure basic rights for women and become confident that their offspring will more likely survive than to die young.

Then, and only then, will they have fewer children. For that reason, economic growth by most any means is good.

So, what is sustainable? Hard to say. But that doesn’t keep people from trying.

Greg Searle, executive director of BioRegional North America and a consultant for UMore Park, says defining sustainability has been an exercise in relative merits. So, a home is sustainable because it uses significantly less energy than conventional homes. A car is sustainable because it burns less fuel from “unsustainable” sources (that pesky word again) than other vehicles on the road.

But experience shows we tend to save only to consume. So we buy a Prius to get more miles per gallon, only to drive more miles. Efficient refrigerators save energy for our computers and flat-screen TVs.

Searle suggests we look beyond relative metrics to an “ecological footprint” that represents our fair share of energy, land use, whatever. “If everyone lived like Americans do, we would need 5.3 planets. Clearly we can’t go on like that forever, because we don’t have five planets.”

Indeed, we have one planet. How much can it sustain?

Two years ago, 29 scientists (including Jonathan Foley of the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment) asked that very question in the journal Ecology and Society. They devised a dazzling and ominous chart, a sort of rainbow-colored pinwheel, that showed nine environmental “planetary life-support systems,” from ocean acidification to ozone depletion, and limits within which they felt humans could hospitably live.

“We propose a new approach to global sustainability in which we define planetary boundaries within which we expect that humanity can operate safely,” they wrote.

Humankind had already greatly exceeded two criteria — biodiversity loss and conversion of atmospheric nitrogen to human use as fertilizer — and was severely pushing the boundaries of climate change and stratospheric ozone depletion.

Knowing what is sustainable presumes we can divine the future. Unfortunately, much talk of sustainability seems preoccupied with the past.

The website of the Institute for Sustainable Communities asks, “What is a sustainable community?” Its answer is a photograph of a small town of century-old houses with mansard roofs, commercial buildings built of brick, and steeples of four churches rising above the canopies of mature trees.

And that is what I suspect sustainability means for a lot of us. Strip away the environmental gloss, and “sustainability” is a reflection of the human abhorrence of change and a desire for stability.

I would love to live in such a town. (To some extent, as a resident of a century-old neighborhood of St. Paul, I already do.) But a vague and wishful idea of sustainability too easily encourages a vision of yesteryear, and the vain hope that somehow it will endure.

Instead, we must look to advances in technology and planning, in production of energy and treatment of land and water, and the surprises they will bring in an unknowable future.

Greg Breining writes about travel, science and nature for the Star Tribune, the New York Times, Audubon and other publications. His latest book is “Paddle North: Canoeing the Boundary Waters-Quetico Wilderness.”

http://www.startribune.com/opinion/otherviews/123661344.html

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One response to this post.

  1. Sustainability is the fable of the Ant and the Grasshopper by Aesop. Lemmings do not rush off cliffs to the sea . . . that was a fiction created for a Disney production. Beware Disney!

    Reply

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