Ways & Means is a weekly column by Mark Alan Hughes on economics, politics and sustainability in Philadelphia.
Last week, as you may recall, I wrote about Johannesburg Mayor Mpho Parks Tau’s efforts to broaden the sustainability conversation so that we remember that a high rate of murder, just like a high rate of carbon emission, is not conducive to long-term stability, or in another word, sustainable.
That idea leads to a question: what’s at the core of this notion of sustainability? If you can analyze public safety within its bounds, what can’t be considered within its frame?
My answer is, well, not much. Sustainability differs from simple environmentalism and even from a triple bottom line approach that considers the holy trinity of the environment, economy, and equity. (Though we’re getting warmer when we start to think about how systems like each of those “Es” interact with each other.)
Sustainability is not about content. That’s why it is possible to discuss almost anything under its rubric. Sustainability is ways of thinking about content. Let’s discuss three.
First, sustainability pays attention to resource efficiency. It employs rules that help us get the most out of scare resources in many ways. Recognizing that resources have renewal rates (including zero) encourages us to deplete them at a rate that allows us to use them for as long as possible: Groundwater withdrawals that are matched to the recharging of the courses, recognizing that CO2 in the atmosphere dissipates very slowly encourages us to avoid accumulations that will make the Earth uninhabitable to humans (or should), and so on. Recognizing that “waste is food” encourages us to recover waste: Waste materials through recycling, waste heat through combined heart and power, and so on. Recognizing that decisions made today have differing costs and benefits tomorrow encourages us to think in terms of “lifecycle costs”: A more expensive heater might save money over the years by operating more efficiently, eating cheap fatty foods might shorten your life and decrease its quality, and so on.
Second, sustainability pays attention to system integrity. By the standards of resource allocation above, it’s perfectly possible to have a sustainable murder rate — just so long as it’s not so high that we run out of victims. But sustainability is alert to connections and linkages that may lead to catastrophic changes in the system. A murder has a cost far broader than the obvious tragic human cost. It has a ripple effect with cumulative impact that extends far beyond a single grieving family. If murders are concentrated in a particular community, their cumulative impact will certainly lead to a catastrophic change.
Sustainability recognizes that it’s worth understanding linkages within and between complex systems and conditions.We must understand the connections between seemingly disparate things like air and water, obesity and sidewalks, mortgages and gas prices, because only with that understanding will we be able to direct resources in ways that improve both system and condition. Seeing the connections also alerts us to potential for catastrophe — catastrophe that, like a murder, can be prevented.
Both of these ways of thinking are about balance or equilibrium. But there is a third way of “sustainable thinking” that I find even more useful. Sustainability is an organizing device that allows innovation to emerge while maintaining the balance of resource efficiency and system integrity. My favorite example is Greenworks. (Disclosure: As Mayor Michael Nutter’s founding director of sustainability I helped create the program.)
Under the leadership of Katherine Gajewski and her many colleagues inside and outside government who have led Greenworks for the past three years, the framework has adapted to new discoveries and continuously improved. I always insist on calling Greenworks a framework and not a plan because it was designed to foster exactly that kind of change rather than to present a path to a fixed destination. It was a set of initial conditions designed to discover and absorb innovations as Philadelphians’ capacity and confidence grew under the protection of leadership. It’s not a machine that just spits out new stuff. It’s an organizing device that empowers smart people to learn and act in ways that no one could predict.
So, yes, Sustainability is “about” everything and therefore, in a sense, about nothing. But the value of Sustainability doesn’t come from “what” but rather the value comes from “how” and “who.” Sustainability is about ways of thinking that empower people to solve problems.
Mark Alan Hughes teaches at PennDesign and was Philadelphia’s founding Director of Sustainability.