What do we mean when casually referring to sustainability during environmental conversation? Many people – news organizations, teachers, students governmental officials and the general public – often refer to sustainability as the Golden Mean, meant to solve all of Earth's pollution woes. But is this idealism pure fancy, or is there some salvageable content to be found in the hub-bub over solar cells, wind turbines, and alternative fuels?
If sustainability entails reducing one's environmental impact – the ominous footprint – then just what is going through the minds of people who purchase hybrid cars and solar panels in order to reach a goal of sustainability? After all, won't solar cells reduce dependence upon coal? Won't hybrids use less gas during their lifetimes? Yes, these realities may be true in the fight against the pollution boogieman, however there is an added, more sinister, element which deserves due consideration. Production and Lifetime Value.
Buying a hybrid may seem immediately "sustainable" as we've said. Using less gas saves gas. This equation of savings automatically gets tangled in a mire of sustainable talk since minimalism seems to be at the core of most sustainable arguments and thought processes. This hybrid sense of security simply gives, in part at least, a false sense of sustainability. Better gas mileage, at the cost of what? It takes the same amount of industrial metal, rubber and electronic gear to make hybrids as it does any gas-guzzler. So, what?
We, the general public, politicians, marketers and manufacturers, tend to equate sustainability with the new and improved. But here's some contrastive food for thought? Apply sustainability to a 1970 Mercedes compared to any 2008 hybrid. Which is more sustainable if both have been in running condition up to the present date? The shocker is that the Mercedes beats out the hybrid. This isn't brand favoritism, no. Rather it's a critique of consumerism, i.e. the most environmentally unsustainable behavior in the whole greenie movement.
Observing the Environmental Protection Agency's definition of sustainability, one can see that sustainability means totally different things within particular contexts. Concerning the environment, sustainability strive to maintain practices that reduce the adverse environmental impact that humans and animals place on a particular environment. Oppositely, from a commercial stance, economic sustainability is synonymous with encouraging the consumption of products to sustain monetary markets. Both applications of the "S" Bomb are apropos, given their particular contexts. However, let's consider the Mercedes vs. hybrid example.
By maintaining the longevity of an older car, you are actually offsetting the energy and raw materials used to supply new hybrids to consumers that replace their hybrids every three years. That's not to say one shouldn't consume. In fact, it's probably impossible not to consume in order to survive. However, this example sheds light on the paradoxical synergy struck between the different applications of sustainability. Longevity and efficiency seems to be the key. So, while putting solar cells on your roof may not provide the most beneficial environmental impact – since it takes a great amount of energy and toxic chemicals to make solar cells – the real benefit blooms from the lifetime of a particular investment. A solar panel that lasts 50 years with easy repairs and low upkeep? Now that's sustainable. With all the environmental hype, know the difference the next time someone choses to drop the "S" Bomb. Think sustainable; think longevity. Unfortunately, environmentalism isn't the quick fix purchase we would like it to be.