Is Sustainability Sustainable?
Sustainability. The word has been bandied about, used interchangeably with "green" and as a synonym for environmental responsibility. It’s substituted as a catch-all phrase in all its permutations for our collective desire to do the right thing, save the planet, free us from our dependence on foreign oil, preserve our forests, clean our air, remove toxins from our buildings, preserve precious resources . . . and all the rest.
I’m guilty, quite often, of linguistic overuse of the word. Repentance aside, I will continue to do so for there really isn’t another term to succinctly and adequately express exactly what it is we’re about. Many have tried.
Bill McDonough years ago grumbled about the appropriateness of the word when he jokingly challenged his listeners to be satisfied with describing their marriages as "sustainable." His point: sustainability isn’t an exciting enough goal. He’s unquestionably right; yet, it’s where we are.
The in-vogue concepts at the moment are regenerative and restorative thinking, which means going beyond simply sustaining what we have to elevating our condition to a new level of that which must be sustained. Sustainability is, therefore, a moving target. A living building, for example, is one that has no net impact on the environment produces more energy than it consumes, purifies more air and water than it pollutes, and uses locally sourced materials so it’s not doing damage elsewhere.
That’s high-level thinking, beyond LEED, beyond Platinum. It’s where we need our concept of sustainability to be, a redefinition of what characterizes green design. As we address our projects it’s up to each of us to stretch and reach for more.
As McDonough said, "The Stone Age did not end because humans ran out of stones. It ended because it was time for a re-think about how we live."