Knute Berger begins his column in the Seattle Weekly with the concept of “sustainability.” He writes:
The general idea is that "sustainable" development is progress without the negative impacts of consumption, a way to orient consumer society so that it doesn't devour its own tail, much less its head. But as the term gathers currency in the corporate and political worlds, it seems to suggest eco-gloss that can be used to cover business as usual, a buzzword.
In my dictionary, the Webster’s New World, “sustain” means “to keep in existence; keep up; maintain or prolong; to provide for the support of,” etc. A thing would seem to be “sustainable” if it could be maintained or prolonged. A crop of trees that you cut down and that grew back, could be cut down again, etc., would be a sustainable crop.
In Politically Correct Speech “sustainable” seems to mean anything sanctioned by the environmental movement. I was in the dentist’s office a few weeks ago, and there was a magazine of stuff for the polo set, and there was an ad for sustainable counter-tops. What made these particular counter-tops sustainable? They had a certain recycled content. I don’t remember how much; maybe 50 percent recycled paper. Something like that. And I thought: why does that make them “sustainable?”
The radical environmentalists say the human race is wrecking the earth with industry and our gluttonous habits of consumption. But the intended readers of the magazine in my dentists’ office were not radicals. The target market was wealthy people with a soft and fuzzy notion of the environment--people who don’t want to give up their nice kitchens, but instead of a granite counter top they’ll have a sustainable counter top. Instead of paper made from pulped trees, they’ll have paper made from de-inked waste paper, which was earlier made from pulped trees.
Several questions come to mind. Did the “sustainable” counter top really use fewer resources than the other one? If it took more labor and energy to make, maybe it used more. Did the paper use fewer resources? It costs labor and energy to collect recycled paper, to sort it, to de-ink it, and otherwise to use it in the paper-making process. If it did use less energy or wood fiber or chemical, was it enough less to make even a presumptive difference?
And more: if the buyers are affluent, and they build a 3,900-foot house, and it has “sustainable” counter-tops in a giant kitchen, are these people in possession of more environmental virtue than the non-anointed in an 1,100-foot house with all components ordered from Home Depot? And, given the development of the rest of the world, with the rise of China and India and other places that itch for hot water, air conditioning and a set of car keys, can the adoption of “sustainable” counter tops matter? Is this worth thinking about at all?
I’m not a scientist. But I can see that the people all wrapped up in this sustainability stuff are mostly not scientists, either, and in any case they do not seem to be thinking scientifically. They have an idea, and following that idea makes them feel good. I have no objection to what they’re doing, but I wonder if “sustainability” is really an honest word for it.
Respond to Bruce.