A net zero balance between production and consumption of natural resources. A stalemate between supply and demand. The point at which social, economic, and ecological concerns reach an equilibrium. Green roofs. Solar power. Electric cars. Hemp. Soy. Locavores. A communist conspiracy theory. Big government. Transit. Green living. Soylent Green. LEED certification. The thing Al Gore invented after the internet. The only hope for humankind’s continued existence. Despite sustainability’s stature as arguably the most significant buzz word of our times, a concise and universal definition has proven elusive. Attempts as often as not reveal political biases and personal fears. What, exactly, is sustainability? Depends on who you ask.
If you ask me, I’m siding with the dictionary. Sustainability is the ability to be sustained indefinitely. Period. If the repetition of an action at a given rate cannot be sustained indefinitely then it ain’t sustainable. Extracting fossil fuels faster than the earth produces them is not a sustainable endeavor. Neither is global population growth. Nor sprawl, nor unchecked densification, nor many of our habits or our reactions to the perceived goodness or badness of those habits. Most people with functioning prefrontal cortexes can get behind the idea of a world in which there is a perpetually ample supply and equitable distribution of food, water, shelter, energy, and other resources. But even assuming such a world is possible and within our ability as a species to render, it is the process, the plan, that presents the biggest obstacle. Put another way, people resist change because they are afraid of losing something. If the way we live is fundamentally unsustainable, and sustainability is what we seek, then changes must be made. What, then, are these changes? And what will we lose by making them? Despite its seeming perfection as an ethos, the transition to a sustainable way of life will likely be jarring for many of us and even deeply disturbing for some. Why? What will a green life take away from us? What is the true cost of sustainability?
I think the train has already left the station. We are, as a species, moving inexorably toward sustainability, because we know in our bones it is absolutely right. But, as is typical with homo sapiens, we’ve piled in, stoked the boiler, and hit the gas without inspecting the tracks. So buckle up. Mixed metaphors aside, this is gonna be a bumpy ride. In a series of upcoming articles I’ll be doing a bit of reconnaissance, scouting the road ahead for twists and turns while keeping one eye on the rearview mirror for lost luggage. All you backseat drivers, feel free to speak up.