Saturday, 1 June 2013

The ethereal nature of sustainability.

I was having an interesting discussion the other day on green buildings, when I was suddenly made witness to some jarring words. Uttered by a fellow sustainability enthusiast, I have to admit this statement snapped me out of my comfort zone:

"The word 'sustainability' doesn't actually mean anything."

I should provide some context; this was not meant in any way to deny sustainability any meaning, but was instead referring to the difficulty in pinning the concept down. Nonetheless, I couldn't help be disappointed by this choice of words.

Granted, sustainability IS difficult to grasp in any tangible form. Mostly, I'd argue, because it means so many different things to different people. If you consider sustainability by its three grounding elements (for those who haven't been keeping up, those are environment, society and economy), then that makes it rather all-encompassing! And what does a vision of sustainability look like? This will obviously change depending on whose behalf you are considering this question... your company, your country, your family, your home?

Safety, equilibrium, potential, innovation, logic, altruism, Masdar... these are just some of the words I associate with sustainability. You probably would take a different angle.

So why would sustainability not mean anything. Surely, it's the complete opposite, it does mean anything. It could even mean everything. The only thing that could limit your vision is your own perspective. (And note, I'm referring to the concept of sustainability here, not the approach to achieving it, which is significantly more constrained in reality). It all comes back to whether the glass is half full or half empty...

That is why I find those words upsetting. Vision precedes action. If sustainability doesn't mean anything, then what are we actually working towards. How can any positive concept be brought to life from a negative standpoint. I know I'm most likely being pedantic here, that person probably just used those words without thinking, and I don't want to assume I understand how that individual sees sustainability.  But it does bring to light an interesting question... how do people actually envision sustainability? And how do we make sure sustainability doesn't become something so ethereal that nobody believe they can strive to achieve it?