In the U.S. and Canada, many residential builders use the word “sustainable” as a synonym for “green.” We hear about sustainable development, sustainable homes, and sustainable building products.
Now that the word “sustainable” has become ubiquitous — even at the Green Building Advisor web site, where a new $736,000 home on the coast of Maine is described as a “sustainable spec house” — it’s time to take a step back and consider the word’s history.
Originally, it applied to forestry practices
In 1713, a German author, Hans Carl von Calowitz, used the phrase “nachhaltende Nutzung” (sustainable use) to describe forestry practices that limit woodcutting to the forest’s average annual growth. Many historians consider this to be the first use of “sustainable” in its modern meaning.
Later, regulators proposed limiting catches of marine fish to levels which could be maintained over the long term, a system referred to as “sustainable fisheries management.” In the management of forests and fisheries, debate continues over the methods used to determine sustainable harvests. However, use of the term “sustainable” in these contexts is easily understood.
Is the U.S. lifestyle “sustainable”?
Foresters generally agree that one cord of firewood per acre per year can be sustainably harvested from a Vermont hardwood forest. However, it’s much trickier to determine whether the practices leading to the construction of $736,00 spec houses in Maine are “sustainable.” How many $736,000 spec houses can be “sustainably” built per year in coastal Maine? After a thousand years of “sustainable” spec-house construction, what will coastal Maine look like? (If scientists’ predictions of rising ocean levels prove accurate, cynics might note that the problem of $736,00 spec-house development in coastal areas is self-correcting.)
For those of us living in North America, it’s easy to lose perspective when considering an appropriate definition for a “sustainable” lifestyle. About one-third of the world’s population eats fewer calories than necessary for health, defecates outdoors, and has no access to clean drinking water, electricity, or a telephone. At the same time, about 80% of the world’s resources are consumed by 20% of the world’s population. (Yup, that means us.)
As Himalayan glaciers shrink and huge chunks of Antarctic ice crash into the ocean, Americans continue to consume a disproportionate share of the earth’s resources. Our lifestyle clearly threatens the stability of the planet’s climate. We already have too many cars, too many televisions, too many swimming pools, and too many houses.
The 2,000-Watt Society
Some European environmentalists are acutely aware of the shameful contrast in resource use between rich and poor countries. For example, a group in Switzerland has calculated that the current level of worldwide energy use amounts to 2,000 watts per capita, equivalent to twenty 100-watt bulbs, burning continuously. In the U.S., per capita energy use is about 12,000 watts — six times the world average. In Bangladesh and sub-Saharan Africa, the figure is well under 500 watts.
Swiss environmentalists have founded the “2,000-Watt Society,” a non-profit group founded on the moral principle of global equity and dedicated to reducing European energy use to 2,000 watts per capita. This goal has been adopted at the highest levels of Swiss government. Among those embracing the 2,000-watt-per-capita goal is Walter Steinmann, the director of the Swiss Federal Office of Energy — roughly analogous to the U.S. Department of Energy.
Of course, the 2,000-watt goal is itself open to criticism. The main problem with the goal is that current levels of worldwide energy use are clearly unsustainable. But at least the Swiss have considered global equity when making their calculations.
Imagining a “sustainable” house
Considering the twin crises of Third-World poverty and global warming, who knows what a “sustainable” house would look like? If the house measures 400 square feet and includes cold running water, a single light bulb, and a toilet, it would be a huge step up the ladder for much of the world’s population. Unfortunately, achieving that goal would probably strain global resources to the breaking point.
I don’t believe that every American needs to live in a shack out of solidarity with the world’s poor. But it’s important to be honest. Our lifestyle is clearly unsustainable. As long as we’re moving in the right direction — that is, beginning to lessen the adverse environmental impacts of our lifestyle choices — there isn’t any shame in living an unsustainable lifestyle. But as we struggle to move toward a new future of improved global equity and environmental balance, let’s avoid the temptation to pat ourselves on the back.
Every time I hear a North American builder use the word “sustainable,” I cringe. As typically used, the word is self-serving, self-congratulatory, and deeply insulting to the world’s poor. So unless we’re talking about forestry or fisheries, let’s avoid using the word altogether.
Last week’s blog: “Forgotten Pioneers of Energy Efficiency.”