Sunday, September 24, 2006

Sustainability and Design

Eric T. Freyfogle is the Max L. Rowe Professor of Law at the University of Illinois College of Law, and a proponent of giving the word "Sustainability" the heave-ho. His argument centers on the "exceptional vagueness" of the term and that it is "just plain dull."

And yet, he is also clear (all of this coming from a "Point of View" essay called The Sustainability Sham in the May/June 2006 issue of Orion) that there is an enduring definition of the word "Sustainable", which is "Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."

From a Permaculture perspective, it just doesn't get much more exciting than that - sustainability becomes the point on the horizon - the place where human communities flourish within the larger natural community, also flourishing. The problem from my perspective is not the use of the word as a goal, or as an area of study (similar to terms like "zero-waste" or "cradle-to-cradle") but the use of the word as a here-and-now adjective. There are no sustainable cars, and most buildings calling themselves sustainable aren't even close. Even further, there are no programs that can both maintain a vigourously healthy ecology AND feed 6 billion people.

Hence the point of this blog entry - the problem with the term sustainabililty is that it's used by everyone who isn't, and who aren't very concerned with being sustainable. As Dylan says,"The ones who jump on the wagon / Just for a while 'cause they know it's in style / To get their kicks, get out of it quick / And make all kinds of money and chicks". You can see it on Inhabitat and, dare I say it, Treehugger. The same design firms and architects making the same egocentric buildings and furniture, only now with a southern orientation and reclaimed materials.

On the other hand, I recently found a great lecture (.pdf) by Christopher Alexander given to the good folks at the E.F. Schumacher Society that turns green architecture on its head; a great essay on "Deep Sustainability" that connects green consumption (still buying Horizon Milk?) to economics, culture and spirituality, and a great blog, Transition Culture, that does the same.

The conversation is just beginning, but for us there's little doubt that sustainability is an important term, and one that needs to be fought over. How deep can you go? More later...

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