By Scott A. Meister and Douglas J. E. Barnes
As environmental awareness has increased, marketers have seen the importance of including the word “sustainable” in their pitches, particularly if what they are selling is not sustainable. It’s almost as if the definition has been twisted into meaning “beneficial” or “profitable.” In Japan, the word “LOHAS,” an acronym meaning “Lifestyles Of Health and Sustainability,” is being used to produce TV programs that promote the purchase and consumption of supposedly “green” goods such as re-useable shopping bags, and fair-trade goods, produced and packaged in layers of plastic and shipped from various corners of the underdeveloped world. The sustainability part of the word has been virtually all but ignored. An important part of sustainability is to reduce consumption, but the word LOHAS is being used to promote it. There have been dozens of “LOHAS” programs produced that simply reviewed vacations to remote areas to meditate and practice “shodo” (Japanese calligraphy), and the making of disposable Hawaiian leis made from Japanese wild-flowers (hardly a necessity, and hardly sustainable). By these TV programs’ definitions, virtually anything from old Japanese culture is sustainable, such as target practice with a blowgun, or growing “organic” monocultures of “edamame” (soy beans). Simply because they are grown organically, they assume they are grown sustainably. In short, the word sustainable has been twisted to mean “hippy or traditional vogue.” It is being used to sell a fashionable lifestyle, and the various consumer goods that go with it, but not a sustainable lifestyle. It is being used to promote consumption, not the reduction of it.
We hear of sustainable agriculture, sustainable consumption, sustainable development, sustainable forestry and sustainable energy. However, it is not often made clear what sustainability actually is. Merriam-Webster defines it as “capable of being sustained” and “of, relating to, or being a method of harvesting or using a resource so that the resource is not depleted or permanently damaged…” One environmental science textbook says that “Sustainability implies that we cannot turn our resources into waste faster than nature can recycle and replenish the supplies on which we depend.” (William P. Cunningham, Mary Ann Cunningham, Barbara Woodworth Saigo, Environmental Science: A Global Concern, McGraw-Hill, New York, 2005.)
While this gives a sort of vague impression, it still leaves one unable to know what sustainable is or isn’t. If we rely on this vague definition, there can only be one definite answer: a negative one in which a resource use is unsustainable. With this fuzzy definition, it is like asking “Am I immortal?” Only your death can provide a definite answer. Using this unclear definition, if a set rate of resource use is found to be sustainable over time, there might arguably be a higher rate that is still sustainable. The only way to know resource use is unsustainable this way is wait until the negative answer is reached and that resource is depleted. This approach has been taken by civilisations such as the Sumers, the Anasazi, the Pitcairns, the Mayans and others. If we are to avoid repeating their mistakes, a more precise definition of sustainability is needed.
Let’s define sustainable more carefully. A system is sustainable if, over its lifetime, it produces more energy than it consumes. From this, it becomes much easier to see what is sustainable and what is not.
Looking at resource use from an energy audit perspective, we can attempt to determine whether a proposed action or system is sustainable or not. For example, concrete has an embodied energy of 5.6 mega joules per kilogram or 1.5 kWh per kilogram according to data cited by Australia’s Department of the Environment and Heritage. So, used as a construction material in a conventional building such as an apartment block, it is not likely to be sustainable. However, if the concrete is used as part of a thermal mass to absorb and reradiate heat and buffer temperature changes within the home as part of a passive solar strategy that greatly reduces the need for heating, there is a chance that, over the lifetime of the home, the concrete will store more heat than was used in its creation.
Additionally, areas full of high-density apartment buildings are not sustainable, because there is not enough land to support the harvesting of clean water for drinking (let alone washing and practice of flushing toxins to the sea). Nor is there is enough land for soil and trees to provide food, and there are not enough energy resources within immediate access to provide heating and cooling for large complexes. These high-density living areas must import virtually everything, and in the process of their construction, have often taken large portions of highly productive soil, out of production.
A sustainable community is one that is able to provide for most (if not all, ideally) of its own energy needs. If it is not able to provide for itself, it is able to trade with a bioregional neighbor to avoid the need of spending massive amounts of energy for the sake of importing. A sustainable settlement is able to provide most of their own water, shelter, food, heating and cooling and will have a renewable source of energy.
Being sustainable, does not mean that we wish to go back to the dark ages, live individually self-sufficient lives isolated from the rest of the world, while praying to this or that spirit or goddess for salvation. Being sustainable, does mean reducing our inputs and costs, while at the same time, increasing our productivity, health, sanity and leisure time so we can spend what we do have on more essential needs such as genuine happiness.