Cities across the nation are facing the same problems. Loss of open space, increased traffic congestion, air pollution, unequal distribution of resources, and the loss of a sense of community are all overwhelming, and we suffer from their consequences every day. But there is one concept we assume to dig us out of this mess: sustainability.
I think it’s safe to say that the word “sustainability” wins the prize for buzzword of the year. But what is sustainability really? The problem is that sustainability is overtly ambiguous and there is no certification or grading scale. The concept of sustainability is essentially value-laden and therefore it’s not surprising that there are as many definitions of sustainability as there are people talking about it.
To see how badly it has been twisted, just look at the recent advertisements from corporations such as Wal-Mart and Shell gas that provide them with a phony green image. Do they really suppose we are idiotic enough to believe such forgery? The bad part is that these corporations know the average American will believe such deceptions and, even worse, they can claim to be sustainable and no one can stop them because sustainability has no rulebook. So before any of us watch another deceiving commercial or use this delicate word again, it is essential that we recognize its different connotations as to avoid getting lost in translation.
Since the Brundland Commission in 1983, the concept of sustainability has been readily embraced in many politically correct circles. Aside from its universal acceptance, there is much debate over what this mythical term actually means. The proceedings of the World Commission on Environment and Development in 1987 provides a succinct description of the term as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” This definition is bland but superficially appealing. At least it references the future inhabitants of the planet! Then again, with so much uncertainty about the health of our planet’s ecosystems, is it prudent to guarantee that our generation’s actions will still leave reliable living systems for future generations?
Environmental educator David W. Orr puts sustainability into two categories: technological sustainability and ecological sustainability. Technological sustainability is the notion that every problem can be solved by technology, and it seems to get the most media attention. It includes expert interventions where high-profile international agreements are expected to fix the world’s complicated environmental troubles. Technological sustainability is simply a form of reductionism where we do a more efficient job of using up nature. It looks to professionals to refine the global interface between humans and nature, and in doing so, it neglects the most important elements of culture and community.
By contrast, ecological sustainability, which gets far less attention, is taking responsibility to find alternatives to the practices that got us into trouble in the first place. This means we must completely rethink transportation, economics, energy use, agriculture, city planning and more. Ecological sustainability limits the overall strain on the environment while suppressing the desires for excess material and technological possessions.
The concept of sustainability for many Americans is very different to people in other parts of the world. In a land of sprawling landscapes characterized by packaged developments and simulated settings, the United States has naturalized an ideology of competitive consumption. True sustainability has been lost in the whirlwind of “greenwashing” and political promises. The physical form of our nation is a direct manifestation of what is most valued in our culture. The extensive knowledge needed to build a LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certified building counts as valid knowledge, while the equally sophisticated information needed to grow food without pesticides may not.
UCLA urban planning professor Gilda Haas best described the idea of sustainability: “Building on the strength of people’s histories and cultures; that’s what sustainability is about. Building capacities, seeing their collective wisdom. Enabling. Making one’s expertise available. Mentoring. People seeing their potential in my eyes, reflected back at them . No one cares what color or age or class I am because I’m not trying to take over. I want to say ‘we,’ not ‘I.’”
So please, whether in class, at a cocktail party or in your professional career, remember that people associate sustainability with many different contexts. It is essential that it moves from its buzzword status and that people realize sustainability is geographical in its manifestation. After all, it is a combination of history, culture, people and customs, so its nature will be as varied as the geography of the globe.
Blake Hudelson is a city and regional planning senior and a Mustang Daily environmental columnist.