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The Rallying Cry of a Generation
As an academic writer, my work demanded that my essays avoided conjecture, and all arguments were rendered cogent because of their discussion in relation to scholarly, peer-reviewed research. This is how I was trained to think, write, and speak . . . or so I thought. When I began my exploration into the vast world of sustainability, I realised that my knowledge was severely limited. Like so many millennials, I’ve preached to my baby-boomer parents about the merits of conscious and conscientious consumerism, living greenly and recycling. Judging by the (mis)information that circulates in popular culture, these seemed to be righteous deeds that I wanted my family to respect and integrate into their lives. Individual, actionable pursuits that seem to address systemic problems gave me a sense of power that I could help instead of harm my world (my parents’ ears notwithstanding). In spite of not truly comprehending the complexity and convolution of this highly politicised debate, I ignorantly disseminated some sensationalised folktales about living, buying and breathing sustainably. As I researched, I realised that I wasn’t the only well-intentioned but confused ‘do-gooder’ who was led to believe that sustainability is obscure, expensive, redundant and necessary.
Origins and Cultural Etymology
I’ve carefully defined the parameters of many an essay by contextualising my diction according to definitions located in the Oxford English Dictionary. When I consulted the highest order of the English language, I was surprised to find a somewhat vague description of sustainability: “The property of being environmentally sustainable; the degree to which a process or enterprise is able to be maintained or continued while avoiding the long-term depletion of natural resources.” Environment. Maintenance. Depletion. Natural resources. For such a complex concept, used differently in different contexts, I knew that this was incomplete.
Deeper research led me to the most quoted definition of sustainability. In 1987, the United Nations established a special commission that released a report, Our Common Future. “Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” This statement is heavily cited as representing the essence of the movement, and I found myself deeply affected by the sentiment of responsibility to strangers. The definition itself isn’t prescriptive, and it doesn’t offer a global panacea to our changing world. And while we are free to interpret its meaning and implementation for our own national contexts, the report focuses on our global duty to correct inequitable challenges to the lives of those living in poverty, and how global environmental concerns are connected to food scarcity, species and ecosystems, and energy and industry. What the UN implies, UCLA’s Sustainability Committee explicates to consider the use and waste of natural resources, and how practices must support ecological, human and economic health and vitality.
Three dominant and intimately woven themes became apparent: environment, economy and equity. No author could discuss one theme independently of the other two, and I realised that my determination to berate my parents for not living ‘greenly’ enough revealed one of my big blindspots: I hadn’t yet grasped how environmental challenges, economic costs, and social inequity constellated ‘green,’ eco-friendly, conscious discourse.
The Holy Trinity of the Sustainability Movement
In her book, Sustainability: Principles and Practice, Margaret Robertson considers the triple bottom line: environment, economics, equity. Broadly speaking, they form the dominant points of discussions about sustainability. As I read, I found embedded in these dialogic foundations blindspots that had led me to conflate environmental conservation with preservation, and green economy with an ethical economy (yes, this appears to have been a rose-tinted fabrication of my imagination!), without any nominal consideration for the social implications of either one.
Twelve years after dallying as a pseudo-scientist at GCSE, the environment has since become sensationalised as a sacred, virginal entity that we should abstain from using as much as possible. Everywhere I turned, social media was dominated by images and statistics chastising humanity for its irresponsible, avaricious and selfish behaviour towards the environment. This information was so reactionary that I understood how religiosity of environmental conservation can detract from the conversation about sustainability. Whilst conservation is generally associated with the protection of natural resources, the natural environment and biodiversity, abstinence isn’t synonymous with this idea. With very limited public transport in Boulder, I couldn’t abstain from using my car, but I could modify my behaviour and bring my own insulated coffee mug and reusable water bottle.
One facet of the problem is that the earth is sometimes viewed as being replete with resources and services that have been gifted to us for our sustenance. “We must see our own species as neither victims nor masters, but as active members of the interconnected webs of all living things.” Robertson’s idea corresponds to the notion of environmental stewardship that neither abstains nor greedily consumes resources, but instead asks that we consider the limitations of each microsystem, or its carrying capacity, so that we can interact with our environment appropriately.
Seeing myself as both charged with the responsibility to conserve the environment, and seduced by the sensationalist media portrayal of energy consumption, I seamlessly found myself espousing the virtues inherent in renewable energies. Sustainable. Environmentally-friendly. Ethical. Earth’s salvation. After my aerospace engineer boyfriend laughed at me, he explained that one of the fundamental laws of physics states that energy is never produced and it never disappears; it only changes form. On Earth, all forms of energy are nuclear (because they come from the Sun). ‘Renewable energy’ is a misnomer, and I’ve spent years thinking that this nomenclature was both accurate and ethically sound. It is better termed low-footprint energy because carbon isn’t our only footprint. Perhaps it’s helpful to think of ourselves as centipedes making many footprints: labour costs, cleanup costs, ecological challenges, to name a few.
Consider solar panels, a common example of renewa . . . I mean, low-footprint energy. Like magic, they transform nuclear energy into electricity and we can rest well knowing that our actions didn’t increase carbon emissions, and therefore global warming. If we don’t hear those footprints, they didn’t happen. Not quite. Somewhere between ‘out of sight, out of mind,’ and ‘not-in-my-backyard,’ I’ve been guilty of turning a blind-eye to the fact that solar panels are 'Made in China' by individuals unprotected by comparable labour laws to the USA and UK, and that costs in sourcing raw materials, shipping, manufacturing and reshipping finished products, all have environmental and economic consequences, and far-reaching challenges to social equity. In addition, costs in installation, its young infrastructure and inefficiency of economic scale make this technology much less sustainable than marketing advertisements led me to believe.
Life in Boulder involves seeing many privately and publicly owned solar panels, the occasional wind turbine and ‘zero emissions’ cars. Boulder is a big advocate of low-footprint energy. Cars are tested for their emissions, and houses have to meet County regulations about their insulation use. I agree that we need to invest more in these technologies to make them more sustainable, but we compromise the integrity of the conversation by voluntarily becoming ambassadors to marketing propaganda, rather than to science.
Electric and hybrid cars are very popular in Boulder, and I found myself thinking that my next car must be better for the environment. I have a responsibility to the planet. After all, ‘zero emissions’ cars are sustainable, eco-friendly and ethical. No, nope, not quite. Our Prius’ and Teslas aren’t nearly as ‘good’ and ‘right’ as we like to think, at least not yet. The marketing strategist behind the ‘zero emissions’ campaign was brilliant. It has so much potential for a myopic view of how energy is used, which is becoming increasingly accepted when we consider different nations’ policies to mandate use of electric cars only. Perhaps economies of scale will render this an economically sustainable enterprise. Currently, a better working redefinition of ‘zero emissions’ is ‘deferred emissions.’ But, that doesn’t have the same auditory or sales appeal.
Like solar panels, electric cars have costs associated with the sourcing of raw materials, manufacturing and shipping. They are also driven by fossil fuels because electricity is generated primarily by coal and natural gas. In earnest, I lamented to the same aerospace engineer boyfriend, but what about electricity generated by wind power; is no low-footprint energy sacred? Again, he laughed and explained (again) that these forms of energy are supplemental at best and couldn’t sustainably power a town yet. To show how one ethical action begets an unethical outcome, consider that in North America, between 140,000 and 328,000 birds are killed each year by wind turbines. Wind energy is one of the most rapidly expanding energy industries.
When my friends plug in their electric cars at night and praise the clean Boulder air, I remember that someone, somewhere else in the world breathed hazardous fumes and worked in a factory that emitted carbon so that my fellow Boulderites could feel good about themselves.
As our Dad, Ollie, likes to say, "Learning all the time!"
Tune in next week to learn about the other E’s, (un)conscious consumerism and how we might create a world worthy of our children.