Sunday, December 03, 2006

How can we assess "sustainability?"

On Friday, December 1st I went to Southface's monthly breakfast roundtable and learned how organizations are designing and implementing sustainability principles.

So what do I mean when I say something is "sustainable?" I like the definition which says it is a practice which could be continued indefinitely without any degradation to the environment or future generations. In Native American tradition, for example, every decision would be weighed based on its impact on the next seven generations.

The first speaker, Susan Garrett, told us about The Natural Step. She has studied it extensively in Sweden, where it originated. The Natural Step is a methodology for assessing the sustainability of something. The criteria were developed over a period of 15 years by scientists who kept refining what they call the "system conditions"--the conditions that are necessary for a society to be sustainable.

She gave an example of how she was applying the principles to an upcoming conference. It is being held at a major hotel. She focused on how they were going to feed everybody. Ideally, it would be with local, organic, and affordable food. So the first thing that she did was call Georgia Organics. The farmers told here that there wasn't a lot of surplus crops available in March--but she could have all the kale she wanted. So that was the first "aha." Gatherings mean mouths to feed, and so there is a reason to pay attention to the seasons. The second aha came when she explained what the farmers said about the animals. 100 pork loins means slaughtering 50 pigs. Couldn't they use the whole animal? But of course the kitchen wasn't set up for that.

One of the goals of doing this assessment is to figure out how to "build capacity" for the future when you come up against such systemic blocks. So in this case, it would mean rethinking the scheduling and the food processing. What would it take for the chefs to create a menu that used the whole animal? And to change the expectations of the diners, as well?

The second speaker, Paula Vaughn, shared what her architectural firm, Perkins + Will have done towards their goal of becoming the greenest design firm on the planet. She gave us a brief tour of their Green Operations Plan, which covers:
  • transportation (both commute and company fleet)
  • office water use
  • office energy use
  • office consumables
  • indoor air quality
  • office renovations and new construction

They did away with most of their fleet, and have mandated buying hybrids in the future. They are replacing all of their plumbing fixtures with low-flow models, and have made substantial savings. Energy use starts with educating people--for example, turn of the computers, turn off the overhead lights, turn on the task lights.

Office consumables has been their biggest challenge. They still use a lot of paper, but now print everything they can on both sides, and make that a criteria for any new printers and plotters. They bought a tester for indoor air quality, and the results of that will drive their decisions in the future. And finally, the same principles they apply to their clients' projects, they will apply to their own.

In the Q&A afterwards, somebody said that when they compared the impact of a ceramic cup to a consumable cup, they discovered that you would have to use the cup over a thousand times before it "broke even." Vaughn said that they had many points of view in this category, but that they did do things like include the dishwasher, detergent and hot water in their calculations. Garrett pointed out that if you used the Natural Step criteria, anything that put pollutants out (like manufacturing Styrofoam) would be automatically discarded.

So my understanding of "what is sustainable?" has gotten bigger and more complex. I am starting to understand that there are no absolutes, that each choice has to be weighed. And this of course includes the human systems, both external and internal.

I am grateful for this opportunity to hear what others are doing, and am excited about learning how to apply these principles to my own life.

3 comments:

Peggy said...

Although we all need to do these things the goverments should help rather than just tax everybody, I use a wind generator and although it is not always on it has reduced my electricity bill ( and there consumption from fossil fuels stations) considerably, my garden is quite large and mostly lawn with floer beds and a nice argos garden furniture set, the bottom is a vegetable patch where I grow carrots, runners, and cabbages, I have a couple of fruit trees and always eat whatever I grow, I know I need to do more.

Swing Hammocks said...

I also use a wind generator I have no propblems with using this form but I have to agree that instead of taxing everyone the goverments should help more, every crisis is an excuse to raise taxes.

اليوتيوب said...

Swing Hammocks :
yes me too and i agree with you