Thursday, December 28, 2006

"Sustainable" defined

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.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Jordan: The Kafrin Site, Part 1

In the first part of this series, we looked at some of the larger problems facing Jordan. This installment focuses on the initial conditions of a site in Kafrin, Jordan, in which a permaculture pilot project was carried out.

Earlier, we looked at some of the problems facing Jordan. The greatest among the obstacles is an “absolute scarcity” of renewable fresh water available for use [“absolute scarcity” being less than 500 m3 per capita per year]; and the situation has been rapidly worsening. In 1946, there were 3400 m3 per person available each year. This has dropped to 155 m3 per person today, making Jordan one of the world’s poorest countries in terms of water resources. Of the water available to the nation, 62.5% goes to agriculture and 32.5% goes to household use. So, through the introduction of permaculture techniques, it is hoped that more efficient use can be made of water in Jordan.

In 2000, a project involving permaculture designer and teacher Geoff Lawton was initiated on behalf of Japan’s Nippon International Cooperation for Community Development (NICCO) and the Hashemite Fund for Human Development (JOHUD), which currently funds the management of the project.

A 5 hectare site in Kafrin, Jordan, 10 km from the Dead Sea and 6 km from the Israeli border, was selected for the pilot project. The aim was to show techniques of sound ecological management in a region with otherwise very low agricultural output, to improve local agriculture and livelihood, and to study the effect of permaculture on soils, plants, agriculture and the local environment.

Rainfall at the site comes in 2 or 3 large events and amounts to only 100 to 150 mm per year. Regular hot, desiccating winds contribute to severe evaporation on the site. The soil is very infertile with little organic matter and extremely high salinity. Soil to a depth of 30 cm was found to have 98.1 dS/m, and soil from 30 to 60 cm deep registered 101.7 dS/m, making it extremely salty. [dS/m, or decisiemens per metre, is a measure of electrical conductivity which can be used to measure soil salinity. The United States Department of Agriculture considers soil over 4 dS/m to be “saline soil.” The soils at the Kafrin site are above this level by more than an order of magnitude!] Only sparse, intermittent vegetation could exist on the site at the time the project started.

In the next article in the series, we will look at the steps taken to turn the site around.