What does “Sustainability” mean anyway?

Earth Question MarkUse of the term is growing. As focusing on our effects on the environment becomes more publicly accepted/pertinent/politically correct, sustainability continues to be a label that is slapped on the side of another box and fit into another soundbyte with less and less of a care as to how it is defined and ultimately received by the public. While having more people become part of a larger discourse about sustainability is a good thing, if we do not take the time to step back and realize what values and concepts we are trying to instill in the word then we run the risk of confusing and ultimately deterring potential allies and supporters. I thought I would take a stab at a definition for what sustainability has come to mean to me as an architect and a writer thus far.

I recently got into a great comment-conversation over on Randal O’Toole’s blog (Antiplanner) concerning the nature of sustainability. A chap I know only as “ChipDouglas” took what is likely a common stance of skepticism surrounding the topic, but seemed to be a well-informed, educated, American citizen. One of his contentions was:

Despite its immense popularity, sustainability has no fixed meaning, which can probably explain why it won’t go away: it’s nominally attractive and you get to define it.

While I do not think that is true, I think it is a reasonable reaction to draw given the dangerous waters we are wading into concerning a mass-market image of an important concept. I recently gave a talk on sustainability at Milton Academy in Milton, Massachusetts, to students and faculty where I outlined some of my reactions to sustainability and how to zero in on this elusive definition.

The market for sustainability has evolved into a number of consumer items meant to fit seamlessly into our daily, cultural activities. Companies try to make it as easy as possible for people to change as little as possible. Solar Panels, Wind Turbines, CFLs, Hybrid Cars… Using any of these things does not really require us to change very much at all, and this can lead us to believe that the problem is not what we’re doing, but only what we’re doing it with. A potentially dangerous misconception for a culture that has so far to go. It allows us to develop a false sense of security that these “products” are solutions.

Now I am not arguing against buying a Prius or installing low-flow fixtures in your bathroom. If you’re motivated to do those things then by all means, I’m not going to stop you, but these are not “solutions.” Rather, these are a first step from where we are now and are decidedly secondary to the behavior of how we live. For instance, how much are we accomplishing if we install CFLs but still leave the lights on when we leave the room or if stores keep their window displayed illuminated all night long? How much are we helping by installing an efficient heating and cooling system if we still try to keep our homes at 60 degrees in the summer or 80 degrees in the winter? Before we talk about cutting edge buildings with impressive technologies, it is important to remember that sustainability is not a technological fix to supplement a wasteful lifestyle.

I have come to describe sustainability as:

A network of interactions that achieves a consistent sum of resource components to operate and evolve indefinitely without collapse or additional influx of energy.

Now there may be some fancy words in there but what we are talking about is a series of actions that revolve around an idea of balance or stasis—pushing and pulling around a point of equilibrium. So sustainability is not CFLs, it’s designing spaces with more natural light. Sustainability is not driving a hybrid, but rather designing communities around alternative transit and walkability so that people drive less. Sustainability isn’t designing a 5,000 square foot home with more bells and whistles than another 5,000 square foot home—it’s designing a spatially efficient 3,000SF home. These concepts are more than just items we can purchase. They carry with them repercussions for how we decide to live.

In the end, the talk was well received but I was struck by the number of people that came up to me afterwards commenting on how they had never considered sustainability in that light and how much more sense it made. This only underscored for me how our flagrant use of the term has gotten a bit sloppy–perhaps to our detriment. My definition may not be perfect, and I am open to criticisms and reactions, but I think the exercise of trying to holistically define the word and how it relates to our society is important for those of us who subscribe to making it a comprehensive, cultural direction.