Musings on the Meaning of “Sustainable” and “Green”

The current state of our green, sustainable building “movement” may amount to nothing more than rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

Seeing the words “sustainable” and “green” used without much precision and diluted more and more as advertising adjectives, I’ve been a little obsessed recently with what these words really mean or should mean.

For me “sustainable building” speaks to the balance of inputs and outputs within a closed, and resource limited, eco-system, whether it be an island, a continent, or planet earth. It’s all about carrying capacity.

Sustainablity recognizes limits and in the context of our homes and built environment, it should be taken from the meaning of sustained yield used in forestry and agriculture. Used with precision, sustainability must mean capable of being sustained for millennia in the context of a closed eco-system, and limiting factors must include both population size and available resources.

It is usually only politically correct to speak of population growth as being a problem in the context of third world countries, but population growth in any country is eventually unsustainable and in the U.S. we have only been able to sustain our own growth by importing our “carrying capacity”. Economist Kenneth Boulding postulated an interesting and sobering set of theorems on population growth.

1st Theorem: “The Dismal Theorem” If the only ultimate check on the growth of population is misery, then the population will grow until it is miserable enough to stop its growth.

2nd Theorem: “The Utterly Dismal Theorem” This theorem states that any technical improvement can only relieve misery for a while, for so long as misery is the only check on population, the [technical] improvement will enable population to grow, and will soon enable more people to live in misery than before. The final result of [technical] improvements, therefore, is to increase the equilibrium population which is to increase the total sum of human misery.

3rd Theorem: “The moderately cheerful form of the Dismal Theorem” Fortunately, it is not too difficult to restate the Dismal Theorem in a moderately cheerful form, which states that if something else, other than misery and starvation, can be found which will keep a prosperous population in check, the population does not have to grow until it is miserable and starves, and it can be stably prosperous.

All this sounds more than a bit depressing, however commenting on the work of Thomas Malthus, Boulding puts the population issue in a more positive light. “… the [Malthus] essay, punctures the easy optimism of the utopians of any generation. But by revealing the nature of at least one dragon that must be slain before misery can be abolished, its ultimate message is one of hope, and the truth, however unpleasant, tends not to create despair, but activity of the right kind.

In looking for other works that might inform my search for a better definition and understanding of sustainability for housing, I ran across the work of A. A. Bartlett. In his paper Reflections on Sustainabiity, Population Growth, and the Environment (2006), Bartlett postulates twenty some Laws of Sustainability. In the Bartlett Laws that follow, where appropriate, I’ve added my own sustainable housing corollary in italics.

First Law: Population growth and/or growth in the rates of consumption of resources cannot be sustained.

U.S. urban sprawl and the growth in home sizes and the associated energy and resource consumption is not sustainable

Second Law: In a society with a growing population and/or growing rates of consumption of resources, the larger the population, and/or the larger the rates of consumption of resources, the more difficult it will be to transform the society to the condition of sustainability.

Retrofitting over 100 million (mostly energy inefficient) homes in American to a condition of sustainability will be a monumental task.

Third Law: The response time of populations to changes in the human fertility rate is the average length of a human life, or approximately 70 years. (Bartlett and Lytwak 1995) [This is called "population momentum."]

Since our housing stock could easily double in 70 years, new and retrofitted homes should only be built to net zero energy standards.

Fourth Law: The size of population that can be sustained (the carrying capacity) and the sustainable average standard of living of the population are inversely related to one another. The higher the standard of living one wishes to sustain, the more urgent it is to stop population growth.

The size of population that can be sustained (the carrying capacity) and the sustainable average size and resource consumption of our homes are inversely related to one another.

Fifth Law: One cannot sustain a world in which some regions have high standards of living while others have low standards of living.

The U.S. cannot sustain average home sizes that are more than twice the average size of other developed country’s.

Sixth Law: All countries cannot simultaneously be net importers of carrying capacity.

Seventh Law: A society that has to import people to do its daily work (“we can’t find locals who will do the work.”) is not sustainable.

Eighth Law: Sustainability requires that the size of the population be less than or equal to the carrying capacity of the ecosystem for the desired standard of living.

The importation of such a large percentage of our carrying capacity makes the U.S. sprawling suburban style of living extremely vulnerable.

Ninth Law: ( The lesson of “The Tragedy of the Commons” ) (Hardin 1968): The benefits of population growth and of growth in the rates of consumption of resources accrue to a few; the costs of population growth and growth in the rates of consumption of resources are borne by all of society.

The benefits of suburban sprawl accrue to the developer and auto companies; the benefits of poor energy efficiency accrue to energy companies and utilities; but the costs are borne by us all.

Tenth Law: Growth in the rate of consumption of a non-renewable resource, such as a fossil fuel, causes a dramatic decrease in the life-expectancy of the resource.

Inadequate U.S. building energy standards are contributing to a rapid depletion of our natural gas and other fossil fuel resources.

Eleventh Law: The time of expiration of non-renewable resources can be postponed, possibly for a very long time, by:

  • technological improvements in the efficiency with which the resources are recovered and used
  • using the resources in accord with a program of “Sustained Availability,” (Bartlett 1986)
  • recycling
  • the use of substitute resources

Net zero building energy standards will be necessary to slow the depletion of fossil fuels in a post peak oil and gas world.

Twelfth Law: When large efforts are made to improve the efficiency with which resources are used, the resulting savings are easily and completely wiped out by the added resources that are consumed as a consequence of modest increases in population.

The retrofitting our existing housing stock to a much higher energy standard will be completed negated by even a modest growth rate in new homes, however energy efficient those new homes may be.

Thirteenth Law: The benefits of large efforts to preserve the environment are easily canceled by the added demands on the environment that result from small increases in human population.

Smart growth is an oxymoron.

Fourteenth Law: (Second Law of Thermodynamics) When rates of pollution exceed the natural cleansing capacity of the environment, it is easier to pollute than it is to clean up the environment.

Fifteenth Law: (Eric Sevareid’s Law); The chief cause of problems is solutions. (Sevareid 1970)

Sixteenth Law: Humans will always be dependent on agriculture.

Building should restricted on agricultural land. The highest and best use of land is for agriculture.

Seventeenth Law: If, for whatever reason, humans fail to stop population growth and growth in the rates of consumption of resources, Nature will stop these growths.

Energy shortages due to peak oil and gas will stop housing growth and force the transformation of our existing housing stock.

Eighteenth Law: In local situations within the U.S., creating jobs increases the number of people locally who are out of work. (Newly created jobs in a community temporarily lowers the unemployment rate (sayfrom 5% to 4%), but then people move into the community to restore the unemployment rate to its earlier higher value (of 5%), but this is 5% of the larger population, so more individuals are out of work than before.)

Nineteenth Law: Starving people don’t care about sustainability.

People living in slums don’t care about sustainable housing.

Twentieth Law: The addition of the word “sustainable” to our vocabulary, to our reports, programs, and papers, to the names of our academic institutes and research programs, and to our community initiatives, is not sufficient to ensure that our society becomes sustainable.

The addition of the phase “sustainable housing” or “sustainable development” or “green” to our vocabulary is not sufficient to ensure that our built environment becomes sustainable.

Twenty-First Law: Extinction is forever.

The current state of our green, sustainable building “movement” may amount to nothing more than rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

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