01 October, 2008

And The New Universal Buzzword Is:

Sustainable . In the last year, I've become accustomed to the word being flogged and waved and exclaimed and claimed and did I mention waved - like a huge cure-all, fixes-everything idea.  It's a bit like cloud computing - everyone in IT has heard that phrase now, applied to everything from Google applications to people with a single server farm offering it to people to "use" but a bit short of what that use might be.

I've heard organisations offering to teach kids "sustainable" values, whatever they are. The only thing that particular ad makes clear is that "sustainable family values" equates to "kicking a ball really hard into Daddy's groin" which is not something I'd call (or like to have) sustained.

Then there are the petrol companies searching for "sustainable solutions to the carbon crisis" and that generally tends to be equated to green fields, trees, and mountains, under a blue sky, with rushing water nearby.  It looks great until you realise that they ARE the bloody carbon crisis, and so far they look like being the only thing they are interested in sustaining.

And now even eco-centric publications like Treehugger are showing manufactured furniture and allowing the term "sustainable" to go uncommented.  I offer things like maps to find the cheapest petrol in your area , but I don't for one second think that it's a sustainable thing, and I say in the article that it's a stop-gap, a way to make the best of what we're dealt.  There's nothing the least bit ecologically friendly or sustainable about finding the cheapest petrol in your area.

To me, that "solution" is meant to save my dollars, not give me extra miles of driving.  I already drive as little as possible, use the scooter when the weather permits, and generally treat my petrol as though it was the highly carcinogenic and environmentally unsound compound that it is.

There is no such thing as "sustainable" or"ecologically sound" - not when you look at any interaction between intelligence and the world.  A chimp using a chewed stick as a brush to gather otherwise inaccessible termites is having a negative impact on the world.

Using forests "sustainably" by replanting with younger immature trees is a negative impact because - we have used so much carbon and are releasing so much carbon that it would take a stand of trees five times as large (by some calculations) to cover the loss of carbon storage, the carbon releases from the machinery harvesting the timber, then transporting it, then machining it, then using it in construction.  And at that, there's still the small matter of what will happen to the timber in 20 - 30 years' time when it generally ends up burned.

Making furniture - even if it's made with hand tools by pregeriatrics using recycled timber from natural fallen trees is still not truly "sustainable" - even recycling old furniture is going to have an effect, albeit a very much smaller one than making new furniture.

Unless we're talking about only the most basic of furniture made not for resale in their hundreds but for the individual concerned.  Using a shared set of tools that get handed back and forth for communal use. Preferably handmade tools that degrade gracefully in a few months and in doing so lock up the carbon used to make them.

The term "sustainable" is thus not really easy to define.  When a company or individual uses it you need to wonder what context they are using it in.  "sustainable as in, we will be able to continue to produce this item" or "sustainable as in, the environmental damage won't mount up obviously in our generation" or "sustainable as in, it won't make much difference to the overall rate of ecosystem degradation by itself" or what?

You know about the law of supply and demand, don't you?  Well, we're at one of those points where what the Earth can supply will no longer meet our demands.  Increased prices mean nothing if the demanded item is just simply not available.  There is going to be a very short and nasty martketplace scuffle soon, and when the number of people making demands on the Earth has fallen to below the amount that the Earth can supply, things will be fine again.  Until the next time...

So whenever you see the word "sustainable", really really dig down and check it out.  It may be your chance to say "bullshit!" and keep someone honest.  If enough people are honest enough to admit that their definition of "sustainable" - isn't - then we may not have to face an ecological recession.

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