The Optimistic Futurist: Sustainability makes sense

Published 12:00 am Friday, March 30, 2012

By Francis P. Koster
“Scarce as hens’ teeth” has little meaning to children who have never seen a live chicken and don’t know chickens have no teeth. “Friending” someone on Facebook is a word now in common use, but it was unknown a few years ago. New words enter a society, and old ones fall out of use.
One of those new words is “sustainable.” What the heck does it mean? How does it apply to your life and the life of your family? Is it just advertising hype?
The word means that you can keep on doing something forever. Unsustainable means you cannot.
There is economic sustainability: On a personal level, your household or local economy cannot spend more than it brings in. You cannot send more money out of the community to buy energy than the community brings in from another source. It is an unsustainable behavior.
And there is environmental sustainability: Your area cannot use or export more water than falls on it or you will drain your lakes and aquifer and suffer. If we burn more polluting fossil fuels than the atmosphere can absorb and clean, human health will suffer. It is an unsustainable behavior.
And there is the sustainability of supply chains: If your food rides diesel trucks thousands of miles, the price of oil may impact the sustainability of that practice. Just look at your recent grocery bill. How long can you keep that up?
Sustainability is the recognition that there are limits — not to growth, as was once thought, but rather to certain kinds of growth. If you don’t practice sustainability, growth stops — often with a crash.
Examples of unsustainable behavior are all around us: Using chemicals that cause falling testosterone levels among men (down 45 percent over the last 16 years, according to the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology); developing islands of plastic garbage bigger than Texas (and growing) in the middle of the oceans, killing our edible fish. These are unsustainable.
Communities around the country are taking steps to develop new behaviors.
One leader in this area is Burlington, Vt. Burlington and its surrounding area have a population of about 200,000. Ten years ago, Burlington had a handsome but fading small-town downtown with lots of vacant store fronts and a high unemployment rate. Sound familiar?
A group of citizens held a retreat to set up a roadmap for local sustainability. Among their goals were having a vibrant urban center, expanding local jobs, creating economic self reliance and creating a more robust local food supply. They issue an annual report on progress and have every right to feel proud of themselves. Among other noteworthy accomplishments, local food production is up, and the number of empty buildings downtown is down. Burlington had an unemployment rate of 3.8 percent in December 2012, when the rest of the country was close to 9 percent.
The Sustainability Office of Des Moines, Iowa, had its Parks and Recreation staff cultivate the dormant land in neighborhood parks and around schools and community shelters. They planted fruits and nuts because once settled in, they require considerably less maintenance than annual vegetable crops.
Des Moines’ reasons for turning public space into food gardens are profound: bolster food security, improve economic self-sufficiency, increase community access to nutritious food, encourage longevity and maintain the viability of the local food system. They want to make sure that the art and science of growing food do not vanish from their town as concern about sustainability of global food security grows.
Both of these cities are regularly found on “best places to live” lists. People move there because of the strong quality of life.
In other parts of the country, citizens came together to identify and fix older housing that has a lot of air leaks. For a modest investment these homes are caulked and weatherized, reducing energy consumption 30 percent and keeping an average of $300 per home per year in the local economy. Since these savings circulate, a big cash multiplier effect occurs in the local economy.
Each of these examples of sustainability resulted in lower costs to citizens, higher employment, a healthier population, increased knowledge base and peace of mind in the face of the threats created by unsustainable practices elsewhere. These examples can all be copied.
Sustainability is not hype. It is common sense that only seems uncommon because it is not practiced as widely as it could be. We can change that.
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Francis P. Koster, Ed. D., lives in Kannapolis. For more information, visit