Flip through the full-page ads of ReDirect Guide, and you’ll see the word “sustainable” a lot. Or just look at the cover. The publication’s subtitle is: “The healthy and sustainable business directory and lifestyle guide.” Inside the directory, business after business identifies itself by this remarkably popular word.
When you take a moment to remember what sustainable actually means, though – able to keep going without an end in sight – these days it seems the word doesn’t just get used a lot, but misused. Now, ReDirect Guide has a good goal, and it’s a fine publication, but when it comes to the word sustainable, it’s a case in point. In the words of Walter Simpson in “What is Sustainability:”
“Ah, sustainability! Now there’s a word we love to use. Sustainable this. Sustainable that. Everything these days is sustainable! Sustainability sounds so good, it’s hard to resist applying it to everything we think is positive or progressive. It’s become a stamp of approval.”
In the quest to be green, this is a problem. Rather than getting us excited about the work to be done, it tells us we’re already there. Instead of spurring us on toward real sustainability, it allows us remain (mostly) where we are.
Consider Inhabit.com’s “Top 5 Sexiest Sustainable Sports Cars.” Sustainable? True, these Top 5 do make an effort to rely on renewable fuel rather than petrol, so you might get away with calling them “green.” Definitions for that include:
“Concerned with or supporting protection of the environment as a political principle; not harmful to the environment.”
Still, cars in any case are remarkably energy-intensive, and sports cars, designed for a whole different kind of driving, are more so. But it’s not just the driving. It’s also the manufacture, the hidden costs, the production and everything else behind the scene. These drive up the ecological price, and that being the case, the question is, does the world produce the kind of energy required to sustain this sort of thing?
Indeed, the question isn’t just about the car. Carried on its coat tails is every social construct and cultural institution prerequisite to it: everything that has to be in place for people to have the freedom and resources to do a little recreational high-speed driving after all basic needs are met. Food. Shelter. Clothing. Not to mention transportation, whether by bike, by public transit, or more likely, by the massive number of (more functional) cars on which our jobs and lifestyles depend.
Given just how energy-intensive a sports car really is – even one that drinks renewable fuel – one has to ask whether renewable fuel can really meet its demands. In the words of Peak Oil Primer (a question/ answer fact sheet exploring our reliance on oil):
“Even in combination it may not be possible to gather from renewable sources of energy anything like the rate and quality of energy that industrial society is accustomed to.”
So to the sports car. If you’re talking bio-diesel or ethanol, you’re growing food to feed your car; given how much we drive, you’re looking at soil depletion. If you’re talking electric motors, one has to ask what’s generating that electricity. Wind and hydro are great, but they offer small returns compared to petrol. Even a solar car relies on expensive devices (solar panels) that have been manufactured using oil. And oil is neither renewable nor infinite. Eventually it will get used up. There is “an end in sight.”
The point here is that, while sustainable energy does exist, there’s no guarantee it can hold up against the rate at which we consume it. Which highlights the misuse of this word “sustainable.”
At one café in Portland, customers are occasionally heard saying, “My coffee habit is more sustainable now that I’ve stopped buying paper filters,” or, “now that I buy the brown filters instead of the bleached ones.”
Still, as we know, the coffee is grown thousands of miles away; it’s trucked or shipped here; it’s roasted using petroleum-dependent energy and/ or infrastructure; finally it’s poured and enjoyed. At some point, we can expect this to become too expensive, too difficult to keep doing. Granted, an unbleached filter is “greener” than otherwise, but when it comes to “sustainable,” the significance of one’s choice of filters rather wanes in this light.
Anyway, what does “more” sustainable really mean?
Think about an apartment dweller living month to month. If they make enough to pay rent and buy groceries, their balance of revenue and expenditure is sustainable. If each month they need to draw $100 from a credit card in order to get by, their lifestyle is not sustainable. Eventually they’ll come to the end of that card. Now imagine they manage to get their deficit down to $10 a month. It’s an improvement, and probably a hard-won victory. But it’s still not sustainable.
In fact, calling it “more sustainable” just steals focus from the reality of the situation. It makes sustainability seem like a gradation: a shades-of-grey kind of thing, when really, in the end, it’s either a yes or a no. It’s either an ongoing life in the apartment, or an eviction notice – whether that happens tomorrow, or a hundred years from tomorrow.
Which brings us back to Walter’s article:
“The vast majority of activities and projects which are labeled sustainable are not. Is there harm in that? Yes, I think so – because misuse cuts us off from the term’s true power and meaning. It robs us of its benefit as a true measure of our behavior and achievements. It also undermines the ability of this important concept to serve as a guiding light – to help us meet the challenge of building a decent future on a finite planet with an increasing number of people making increasing demands on resources and ecosystems.”
Given the popularity of the term, let’s not cloud the issue. Let’s keep fresh in our minds what the word really means, and strive for that. When a business calls itself sustainable, pause and wonder: could this continue basically forever? When you’re making a lifestyle choice, ask yourself: could I just keep doing this? could my grandchildren? could my great-, great-, great-grandchildren?
The truth is, much of what we do isn’t sustainable. The structure of our lives and society doesn’t lend itself to that. But in the effort to become sustainable, in each “green” step we take along that road, let us keep the goal clear.
By awarding ourselves the prize before we’ve earned it, we make it less likely we’ll ever actually get there.