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.
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.
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…