Mar 9, 2007

The Reality of Sustainability

"Even when we are trying to aid the environment, we are not willing as individuals to leave the system that we know in our heart of hearts is the cause of our problems. "


"We’re willing to be generous in order to 'save the world' but not before we’ve insured our own survival in the reigning system."

So writes Curtis White in the current issue of Orion magazine. I take his point painfully well: I'm becoming increasingly aware of my unique position to "aid the environment," to design not just gardens but environments that help put things right rather than add to the problems. Yet I'm driving around in an SUV that gets 18 mpg. If estimates are correct, I've sent about 20,000 disposable diapers to the landfill so far (and counting). And I can't help it: I really think landscape lighting is an important element in your yard, even though it does increase your carbon footprint.

I would like to think I can help change the reigning, unsustainable, system. My job, unlike many others described by White's essay, probably has net environmental benefits. But I'm nowhere near being able to live sustainably in my own home, much less overhaul the lifestyles of my clientele who still believe they need massive lawns and impermeable paving everywhere.

I wish White would provide examples of people, companies or roles that he feels are breaking the system. But even so, the larger context of our society and culture places an unfortunate emphasis on "the convenience of money"; so the statement I feel most sympathetic with is White's closing:

"We are not ready. Not yet, at least."

Postscript 3/26/07: Alex Steffen writes a provocative piece on "strategic consumption":
You can be heroic in your efforts, but at the moment it's essentially impossible to live a North American consumer lifestyle and do no harm. You can buy only organic food, recycled products, and natural fibers and you won't get there. You can even trade your car for a hybrid, harvest your rainwater and only run your CFLs off your backyard wind turbine, and you still won't get there, both because the waste associated with consumerism is so massive and because the systems outside your direct control upon which you depend -- from your local roads to your nation's army to the design of the assembly lines used to build your car, rain barrel and windmill -- are still profoundly unsustainable. You quite literally cannot shop your way to a one-planet footprint. The best you can do is nudge the market in that direction.

Yeah. What he said.

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