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.
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
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
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
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
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
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,
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
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
That’s vision. That’s opportunity. That’s a chance to get better lives as
well as solving the environmental crisis.