"Sustainability" and "Green" have become the two most prominent marketing terms for a number of years now. But what just do the terms mean and how are they applicable to what is happening in the world today?
On the surface, for those of us who have toiled in the organic fields, this is an absolutely great time; what we’ve waited for so long to see, but deeper inspection of how these terms are used and overused, sort of makes me cringe. Even among professionals I often see the terms used in a very limited sense, usually tied in with the word “development” but not recognizing the multifaceted nature of what it means in-depth for other changes we must build into our own institutions and society as a whole.
Largely missing have been some of the main attributes of what we today call sustainability but envisioned a bit differently by those who came before us. In my own mind I see them as people who were not as distracted by things like CSI New Orleans, Ghost Whisperer, Dancing with the NFL or other unnamed forms of entertainment that are deemed “must-see”. Then the marketing profession has gotten hold of these words and made them into the most often used adjectives in marketing history. Yes, we ought to be happy about this but when these noble, well-meaning words are not well-understood or their use is bastardized they carry the risk of our believing that we are accomplishing more than we really are. Then, we are actually foisting off onto future generations the hard lifting that is yet to come because there is little more than an inch deep and mile wide understanding of the totality of what “sustainability” means–and requires. In effect that “foisting” is the very antithesis of what sustainability strives to correct. More on that later.
I don’t mean to sound like I am the godfather of sustainability; I certainly am not, but I was fortunate enough to listen weekly to a Yale Professor named Dr. Albert E. Burke who was the Director of the Graduate Studies in Conservation and Resource Use. I was six or seven years old and he had a local television show that was what I can only call enrapturing. He was one of those rare people who even back in the mid-50s was able to connect the dots between our resources and how well we use or abuse them and our freedoms. It is my opinion that the current environmental movement has not yet seen the equal of Dr. Burke. He gave many specific examples of these connections, some of which I will go into in later blogs. Suffice to say for now, in 1962 he warned about our growing oil dependence as a security problem before nearly anyone else had a clue on this even as our own domestic sources had just begun to dwindle. Then there were the Choctaw...he was an early and firm advocate for Native American rights and devoted many shows and writings to this topic.
Another formative experience came from an old friend in the renewable energy advocacy community who nagged me incessantly to read a book she referred to as the Brundtland Commission Report of 1987. The late Virginia (Ginny) Judson was one of these incessant, nagging, graying but never old, little ladies whose five feet in height belies her power and persistence that somehow when she corners you, you can no longer refuse to face the music. So after years of nagging, in 1991, I read the book version titled Our Common Future better known as the Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development.
It was in reading it that I came across what most people now consider to be the classic and, in my opinion still the best, definition of “sustainability” or “sustainable development”. It reads “meet[ing] the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.” Reread that and maybe now you can connect with my dismay on how we foist off on future generations the heavy lifting we refuse to do today that I mentioned just three paragraphs above. Good grief, environmental groups get foundation funding for passing a state law that mandates 80% reductions of CO2 by 2050 but sets few if any intermediate, more granular goals. Or our legislature's repeated stealing the money from the Energy Efficiency Fund.
In some ways, though, the word is still enigmatic and a lot of people think they can improve upon it but often get so lost in specifics, they lose site of it overarching wisdom. They add to it, and embellish it which sometimes does aid in upstanding but more often than not is to the concept’s detriment. When you deeply think about that definition it sort of covers the gamut of how we should be investing our efforts. And yet, many of our “sustainability practitioners” do not integrate that simplicity of meaning into either the built environment or the laws and regulations proposed or passed seeking to make us a more “sustainable” society.
So that is an introduction to this dialogue where I want to try to convey a deeper meaning to the word sustainability and maybe, just maybe, totally replace the word "green" with something that has not only a deeper meaning but also has some standards to go with it. I am sure I’m going to rankle a lot of good people who will disagree with me, and that diversity is fine too.