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.


Anonymous said...

Nicely put. Great example of how a material with high embodied energy is put to a positive sustainable use. During one of my talks on sustainability, I elaborated on cement production as an example of a high embodied energy material, with the result of many quizzical onlookers. Next time I'll take your lead and make the connection of how it could be used beneficially.

Unknown said...

Elitrope, I'm glad you found it helpful.

PeakEngineer said...

Nice job, guys! As the word gains prominence, I can see products getting "sustained up" much as products are becoming "greened up" as corporate culture moves in. It's important to attach a solid definition to word to avoid consumer confusion and corruption of the movement.

One possible concern I have is that your definition of 'sustainable' could be too narrow; that is, it's stated in terms of energy but not the environment. For instance, a net exporter of oil could be called a "sustainable" country on a purely energy-focused basis, but oil production is clearly not a sustainble practice. I understand what you're saying, but energy is perhaps only one part of a larger definition of sustainability.

Unknown said...

I know what you are saying, peakengineer. Perhaps the piece should be expanded to clarify the full implications of defining sustainability in terms of energy and to address the case of finite resources.

One thing I could say is that if some practice or technology harms the environment, that harm is added to the energy "cost" of using the technology and needs to be paid back. Also, this definition needs to be global for it to be effective.

On the use of fossil fuels in particular, I think they can be a very useful energy source if used to create sustainable systems. For example, oil can power an earthmover which can be used to create water catchment systems that can survive and benefit the environment for thousands of years with very little maintenance. In such a case, the fuel, once used, is gone forever. The resulting system, however, fits the formula and is sustainable.

Scott A. Meister said...

I also agree that the definition could be expanded a bit. There is much more to be said to insure that the word "sustainable" is not only correctly understood, but correctly used. Peakengineer, your point about defining it in terms of the environment is very important. Perhaps we could write a Part II, to cover a few of these issues.

djeb, you made a great point about use of unsustainable fossil fuels. One of the biggest problems is that we waste a lot of the precious, unsustainable resources that we have on useless things. However, if we were to focus our energy on using them to create sustainable systems, we would be doing a lot more good.

Which is a better use of oil to create plastic?

A) A plastic action figure to promote a Hollywood movie

B) A plastic container used to create a weather resistant worm-farm, kitchen waste disposal system that builds soil, creates fertilizer, and aids in creating more worms for the building of soil in productive eco-systems?

It would be interesting to some other similar examples or ideas here from the readers that we might all be able to include when helping others to understand sustainability.

elitrope, thanks a lot for taking the time to visit, read and comment. I'm glad you enjoyed it. Much appreciated.

Anonymous said...

I actully like the Dow Jones Sustainability index definition:
"Corporate Sustainability is a business approach that creates long-term shareholder value by embracing opportunities and managing risks deriving from economic, environmental and social developments. Corporate sustainability leaders achieve long-term shareholder value by gearing their strategies and management to harness the market's potential for sustainability products and services while at the same time successfully reducing and avoiding sustainability costs and risks." To me, this covers sustainability's triple bottom line of economy, ecology and equity.

Unknown said...

I considered the business definition to sustainable, but they generally approach true sustainability like everything else environmental - by greenwashing. For example, one large manufacturer of glyphosate claims their product can be used to create "sustainable" agricultural systems. This despite the product is unnecessary, that it is toxic in the short and long term, and that it consumes more energy in its manufacture and employment than it returns in its use.

The Dow Jones definition is one, I believe, that is the sort of imprecise definition that I highlighted in the above. The only possible conclusive answer such a definition can yield is that systems (industrial systems included) are not sustainable. And such a definition is dangerous, particularly for institutions who are required by law to get the maximum profit for their shareholders (See Dodge v. Ford Motor Company, 1919). Such institutions will be more likely to press for more and more and more until they find that negative answer.

Scott A. Meister said...

djeb...again, I have to agree.

Furthermore, defining sustainability in terms of "long term shareholder value" looks only at sustainability in abstract monetary terms for the few people in the world who are actually shareholders, not the struggling, hard working citizens who are trying to keep a roof over their head, food on the table, clothes on their body and a smile on their face. Nor does it consider the people who have fallen through the cracks of the market.

Furthermore, it doesn't actually define what that ambiguous and abstract "shareholder value" means.

Will this mean profit for a few people who will take it out of circulation and horde it in savings, only to pass it down through inheritance so their children can blow the "value" like they are currently blowing our earths valuable resources, i.e. in the competitive consumer spirit, on SUV's, designer hand-bags and homes with cathedral ceilings and wasteful natural gas fireplaces in sub-zero temperate climate ski-resorts?(see article below on Top 10 fuel trees)

Will they perhaps use this abstract value to invest in weapons manufacturers that will simply burn that value up in the form of one big destructive bomb? Or will those shareholders spend their money by living a sustainable lifestyle and investing in their neighbors and their community?

The danger of the Dow Jones definition is that it does not approach responsible use of all resources (including monetary or market value).

To add to that, if history can show us anything about the Dow Jones definition, it's that most corporations (not all) more often than not, simply opt to take advantage of opportunities (not to mention the people who work for them) and their idea of "risk management" is manipulation of information so people either don't see the risks at all, or they convince them to accept the risks against their own better judgement through the use of sly and powerful PR firms...all in the name of increasing "long term shareholder value."

The market is a man-made abstract concept that doesn't really consider the natural laws that we have no choice but to live by or the natural systems that we depend on for our survival. The market deals in abstract financial gain for a few people only and more than graciously assumes that those few people will "do the right thing" with it.

Defining sustainability in these terms is truly dangerous, not just to society and the world as a whole, but to the businesses in the market that also depend on the natural world (it's people and it's resources) to survive as well.

It is too risky to continue defining things in our world in terms of such an abstract idea as "the market."

We would do better to define things in our world with the realities that exist...a limited supply of resources, an increasing demand on those resources, an ecosystem ever so carelessly balanced on the edge of collapse, and a need for everyone (not just businessmen and people with money) to survive, be fed, sheltered, clothed and content.

Unknown said...

Scott, you raise an excellent point regarding corporate ownership. Without me digging up the latest figures, I'll rely on statistics from 1995. At that point, the richest 1% in the United States held 51% of all stocks, 70% of business equity and 66% percent of all securities. Looking at the richest 10% in the U.S., they owned 88% of stocks, 92% of all business equity, and 90% of all financial securities. Considering the international influence of many, if not most, of the companies listed have environmental impacts beyond just the borders of the U.S. This means ownership is even far more unequal than just in the U.S. alone. With this in mind, considering "long-term shareholder" in a definition of sustainability is naive, if not even cruel.

Then, Scott, you raise the issue of pollution - pollution being an unused resource - in this case, wealth pollution (a problem Bill Mollison highlighted for us). The hoarding of wealth does not benefit the planet upon which all life ultimately relies. It may allow the exceptionally lazy to have their capital "work" so they don't need to (by weakening national currencies through speculation, investing in chemical plants in countries whose environmental laws can be bought, or which don't exist in the first place, et cetera).

A more useful index is the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI). But the GPI is not regularly calculated and does not key closely enough to the environment. What economist out there understands how vital mycorrhizae are to his or her existence? If they don't know that, then they are not going to adjust their indices to the very disturbing decline, of late, in European mycorrhyzal fungi. They are more apt to be busy inventing excuses for ripping off their grand children [e.g. the "future rate of discount" of resource depletion].