Monday, January 26, 2009

Defining Sustainability

Back on Jan. 8th, when I gave a summary of the State of the City speech to the noon Rotary Club, a member asked me how I defined "sustainability". I can’t remember my exact response but it went something like this...

Actually, I resist defining sustainability...for a couple of reasons. First, I see "sustainability" more as a question to be applied to a wide range of circumstances, rather than a formula to be executed. Secondly, I think that it’s in Ashland’s interests to be supportive of a diverse community of sustainability practitioners (from the point of view of promoting Ashland as a center for sustainability). And thirdly, I’m wary of some definition of sustainability becoming an orthodoxy that preempts other approaches to the same end.

But in these times being able to define what you mean is often the first hurdle to earning credibility for a new idea. Otherwise there’s a presumption that it’s just a buzzword.

So I added that if you want to understand the *meaning* of the word ‘sustainability’ it’s probably best to look at specific examples. For instance, for a farming or gardening operation to be sustainable it needs to at least maintain the fertility of the soil being used. For a business to be sustainable it must be able to consistently make a profit (and an acceptable return on investment) without depending on continual growth. (And also with all its ‘outputs’ being fairly priced, including negative ones.) For a community to be sustainable in an environmental context it must at least stay within the carrying capacity of it water, air, and food-"sheds".

To this answer, my questioner at Rotary responded, "Well, then it’s common sense!" I just had a chance to say that, in a way that’s right, when we ran out of time. Thinking back on it I wished I’d added that if people had used common sense when first considering oil as an energy source we might be in a better spot today so far as global warming and the dependence on oil of our economy, transportation, food systems, and land use patterns are concerned.

As a footnote, after the meeting an architect came up and told me the response he gives to this question: "Sustainability can and should be considered to some extent at every level. Basically it equates to "responsibility" as custodians of our environment for future generations with decisions, actions and consumption."

So how do *you* define ‘sustainability’?