A Journal of The Human Environment
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DESIGNER/builder Magazine - Viewpoint
DESIGNER/builder Magazine - Viewpointo sustain something, in a broad sense, implies activities that protect rather than deplete resources through actions that are sane, rational, healthy, balanced, kind, and earth-loving. It suggests a wholistic approach that is community based and ripples out in concentric circles to eventually encompass the whole planet.

In the evolution of language, however, over time certain words become so overused and abused, so tortured, twisted, and misapplied that they lose their meaning. That moment has come for “sustainable.” Our discourse today is so distorted that almost every field has co-opted the word and turned it into just another marketing mantra. Architects casually claim their houses are sustainable, planners speak glibly of creating sustainable cities, and developers market sustainable communities. Countless manufacturers, magazines, mail order companies, resorts and spas, and health practitioners allege their products and services are about being sustainable. And Books in Print lists 2,759 books that include the word “sustainable” in their titles and 871 books that use the word “sustainability.” All of this serves to demonstrate advertising’s enduring belief that words, when repeated often enough, can create their own reality.

The fact is this society is not sustainable, and therefore no one aspect of it can be. True sustainability is based on necessity, taking only what you need and no more, letting the resources replenish themselves, and while doing that, replenish others. But we live in hedonistic times, constantly looking for that next fix, be it electronic, four-wheeled, sugary, or super-size. We are consumers, no longer citizens, lulled into complacency by the promise of the next form of gratification. We keep needing more and more because none of it is satisfying. We can look down on ourselves and see the destruction we wreak, yet instead of facing it and correcting it, we embrace denial. We diet to hide our gluttony. We read feel-good material and fantasize that we are part of its compassionate message. We have appropriated a lexicon to excuse our behavior. And we have convinced ourselves we need the things we know are destructive.

The SUV, the second home, the extra 2,000 square feet: we rationalize their seeming advantages. But the oil we need to fuel our appetites has taken more than 100,000 lives in Iraq alone at a cost of $100,000 a minute. The celebrity culture that saturates the media only creates many subtle forms of self-loathing. And all the urban remedies that make the city look nicer for the already-privileged only displace and punish those the “improvements” swept away.

The question today among the privileged is not “What do you need,” but “What do you want?” And for those who can afford it, there is no limit. Christmas shoppers last year were encouraged to hop a Continental Airlines flight out of Newark at 9:05 Thursday night for a nonstop run to New Delhi for a weekend of shopping before returning to New York at 5 p.m. Monday. If you were staying home for the holidays you could have joined the trendy crowd at Chicago’s Reserve lounge and dance club and ordered up a Reserve Ruby Red cocktail for $950 served with a genuine ruby embedded in its swizzle stick. If you are feeling a little cramped for space you could buy an 8,360-square-foot, eight-bedroom co-op in the renovated Stanhope Hotel on New York’s Fifth Avenue for $35 million. If that’s too tight, most of that co-op could fit on the 8,000-square-foot outdoor space with private pool and “summer kitchen” that comes with a 21,500-square-foot condo in Boca Raton. And if you’re in a hurry, you can slip behind the wheel of a 1,001-horsepower, $1.2 million Bugatti Veyron, and zip from zero to 60 in 2.5 seconds.

Several years ago we wrote a story about the sub-Saharan country of Niger. According to the U.N.’s “Misery Index” of that period, Niger was a perennial leader in poor quality of life. Yet, to a Peace Corps volunteer who had worked in the southern part of that West African nation, nothing could have been further from the truth. What he found was an immensely resourceful population able to do amazing things with very little. And the social well-being and strength of community were unparalleled.

Everyone either owned property or had permanent access to it. Two of their central beliefs were that patience and laughter are the medicine of the world. In the face of amazing physical and environmental challenges, their greatest resources were ingenuity, entrepreneurship, sharing, a powerful positive attitude, and the enduring strength of family and village units.

The people of these villages worked very hard for what little material goods they had. They wasted nothing. By recycling all the money within the region, they strengthened the independence of the area. And because their economies were still so locally based, they enjoyed a natural social net so no one fell through the cracks. Everyone was taken care of. The village was basically one giant daycare center.

Sustainability manifests itself in very incremental, evolutionary, little things. It builds on both self-reliance and interdependence, on social wealth and community wealth, while not compromising ecological health. Whatever gets developed through the resourcefulness and independence of the group does not degrade or deplete the ability of future generations to continue. And profits are reinvested in conservation and social development. If the truth be told, sustainability can only be realized in a socialistically based system that strives to benefit the whole community.DESIGNER/builder Magazine - Viewpoint