by Colin Beavan
The task at hand -- to create a new reality; a new way of living with fewer resources while providing a prosperous life for every member of our growing population -- is going to require more than even the best technology that money can buy. It's going to require imagination, open-mindedness, a willingness to live and to understand life differently. With that significant challenge ahead of us, is "sustainability" the best weapon we can bring to the fight?
To illustrate my point, let me ask: is sustainability an inspiring call to action? Do you dream of a life that's simply "sustainable?" Or do you hope for something better, say, a happy life? One that's full of meaning?
Who among us would be satisfied with living a life that can simply be sustained? And if that's not what we want for ourselves, then why is it the word we use to pitch this lifestyle to the still-unconvinced? Sustainability, the way many on the most recent wave of popularization have tended to think about it, is nothing more inspiring than business as usual -- adapted so that we can do it forever. As usual.
I am aiming a punch straight for our "green" solar plexus. I want to knock the wind out of our guts. I want us take a deep breath and think of something better.
What I'm saying is that there are a lot of products and processes out there that could be made in a way that's arguably sustainable when, in fact, they do no good for humankind at all. To my mind, even if resources are used "sustainably," if they are not being used to improve human life, they are still, essentially, being trashed.
A new means of evaluating products and services in terms of their improvement to human life will be a necessary step in the evolution of "sustainability" -- if we want to use that term -- as an enduring philosophy.
When our measure of sustainability asks only if a given activity is something we can get away with doing -- and fails to ask whether that activity is worth doing at all -- we fail to see the larger picture.
Imagine a soda can. Sure, it's better for the planet if the can is both recycled and recyclable; it's even better if the local recycling program ensures that the aluminum used to make the can continues to loop through the process of use and re-use. At that point, the process of packaging soda becomes arguably sustainable.
But when we view that product in the interconnected world in which it lives, we still end up with obese kids buying sugary sodas from machines in their schools. Another example: No matter how green a car we drive, unless the system changes we are still stuck with suburbs and highways and spending 13 percent of our incomes to service those cars.
Business. As usual.
"Sustainable" implies something can be done, but it says nothing about whether it should be done. It says nothing about whether our precious resources are being used for our betterment.
In order to change the paradigm, I believe that we need to begin to include "life enhancement" as a measure of a product's overall worth in the world.
Consider, first, that reduced resource use and ecological lifestyles, on both the cultural and the individual level, need not mean deprivation. Let's assume, in fact, that there are synergistic solutions that can help solve both our lifestyle and our environmental crises.
Indeed, let's assume that such solutions are better than what we call "sustainable" because they have the added benefit of enhancing human life. I'm going to call these solutions, for the purposes of this post, "environmentally effective."
Environmental because it is less harmful to the environment. Effective because resources are effectively used to enhance human life. In other words, we get joy or life, quality or health. Or something else good. That's better than boring old "sustainable," right?
One simple example of environmental effectiveness on the individual level: cycling. Studies show that bicycle commuters are happier than car and transit commuters.
Research also shows that, at the cultural level, people who live in pedestrian-friendly areas tend to have more friends.
In both cases, the scenario that uses fewer resources results (directly or indirectly) in better quality of life. The happiness of people, therefore, does not depend on energy and material use. It depends upon whether materials and energy are used effectively to improve well-being.
You can argue, therefore, that a transportation system based on biking is not just sustainable, but actually environmentally effective.
In this next-gen version of ecological thinking, I'd like to propose that the ecologically responsible designer of products and systems go beyond the question of identifying the lowest possible energy and materials input. The real question is whether use of those valuable ecological resources can be justified in terms of quality of life improvement.
In mathematical terms, the "environmental effectiveness" (E) of a product or system might be represented by an equation that looks something like:
E = life enhancement / ecological resource use.
The more life enhancement (pleasure, health, contentment, security, community, connectedness) delivered per unit of resource, the higher the environmental effectiveness, and the more ecological the product. In other words, even a conventionally-grown apple has a higher environmental effectiveness than organically-grown tobacco.
And if you think about it, products like sugary sodas wouldn't score so well either. Carrot juice, even in the same throwaway container, would score better.
Here's another example: a coal-fired power plant. If we were to build one here in New York, say, where I live, we might be able to turn our air conditioners up and keep our buildings a degree cooler. But if we built the same power plant, say, in India, we could deliver electric light to villages so kids could learn to read at night.
The same power station is more environmentally effective in one case than the other. Though both examples have the same ecological resource use, the Indian case delivers more life enhancement.
We have become so short on environmental resources that we can no longer afford to be wasting them on things that don't even improve our lives.
Environmental effectiveness goes beyond sustainability and challenges us to ask whether or not we're using our resources to enhance life; because if we're not, isn't that the true definition of waste?
It challenges us to look deep into the environmental crisis not only for opportunities to use less, but also for ways to use better. It challenges us not to squander our limited resources on things that harm us or others but to value our resources enough to insist that they are used for our good.
That's vision. That's opportunity. That's a chance to get better lives as well as solving the environmental crisis.