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Top10Mythsabout Sustainability
ByMichaelD.Lemonick

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Evenadvocatesformoreresponsible,environmentallybenignwaysoflifeharbormisunderstandingsofwhat "sustainability"isallabout

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Whenawordbecomessopopularyoubeginhearin iteverywhere,inallsortsofmarginallyrelatedoreve unrelatedcontexts,itmeansoneoftwothings.Either thewordhasdevolvedintoameaninglessclich,or ithasrealconceptualheft.Green(or,evenworse, goinggreen)fallssquarelyintothefirstcategory. Butsustainable, whichatfirstconjuresupa similarlyvaguesenseofenvironmentalvirtue, actuallybelongsinthesecond.True,youhearit appliedtoeverythingfromcarstoagricultureto economics.Butthatsbecausetheconceptof sustainabilityisatitsheartsosimplethatit legitimatelyappliestoalltheseareasandmore. Despiteitssimplicity,however,sustainabilityisa conceptpeoplehaveahardtimewrappingtheir mindsaround.Tohelp, ScientificAmericanEarth3.0 hasconsultedwithseveralexpertsonthetopictofin outwhatkindsofmisconceptionstheymostoften encounter.Theresultisthistakeonthetop10myths aboutsustainability.Andafterthisintroduction,its clearwhichmythhastocomefirst.... Myth1:Nobodyknowswhatsustainabilityreallymeans. Thatsnotevenclosetobeingtrue.Byallaccounts,themodernsenseofthewordenteredthelexiconin1987with thepublicationof OurCommonFuture ,bytheUnitedNationsWorldCommissiononEnvironmentand Development(alsoknownastheBrundtlandcommissionafteritschair,NorwegiandiplomatGroHarlem Brundtland).Thatreportdefinedsustainabledevelopmentas developmentthatmeetstheneedsofthepresent withoutcompromisingtheabilityoffuturegenerationstomeettheirownneeds.Or,inthewordsofcountless kindergartenteachers,Donttakemorethanyourshare. Notethatthedefinitionsaysnothingaboutprotectingtheenvironment,eventhoughthewordssustainable and sustainabilityissuemostlyfromthemouthsofenvironmentalists.Thatpointleadstothesecondmyth.... Myth2:Sustainabilityisallabouttheenvironment. Thesustainabilitymovementitselfnotjustthewordalsodatestothe Brundtlandcommissionreport.Originally,itsfocuswasonfindingwaystolet poornationscatchuptoricheronesintermsofstandardofliving.Thatgoal meantgivingdisadvantagedcountriesbetteraccesstonaturalresources, includingwater,energyandfoodallofwhichcome,onewayoranother, fromtheenvironment.Theeconomy,saysAnthonyCortese,founderand presidentofthesustainabilityeducationorganizationSecondNature,isa whollyownedsubsidiaryofthebiosphere.Thebiosphereprovideseverything thatmakeslifepossible,assimilatesourwasteorconvertsitbackinto somethingwecanuse.
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Iftoomanyofususeresourcesinefficientlyorgeneratewastetooquicklyfor theenvironmenttoabsorbandprocess,futuregenerationsobviouslywontbeabletomeettheirneeds.SaysPau Hawken,theauthor(hislatestbookis BlessedUnrest:HowtheLargestMovementintheWorldCameintoBeing, andWhyNoOneSawitComing)andentrepreneur(hesacofounderoftheSmith&Hawkengardentools company)whohelpedtofoundthesustainabilitymovement:Wehaveaneconomywherewestealthefuture,sell itinthepresent,andcallitGDP[grossdomesticproduct]. Ifpeoplecontinuetopourcarbondioxide(CO2)intotheair,forexample,wewontnecessarilyexhaustresources (theresplentyofcoalstillintheground),butwewillchangethe climateinwaysthatcouldverylikelyimposehuge burdensonfuturegenerations.Thesame,ofcourse,goesforthepoisonousbyproductsotherthanCO2fromall kindsofhumanactivity,frommanufacturingtominingtoenergygenerationtoagriculture,thatgetdumpedontoth landandintostreams,oceansandtheatmosphere. PAGE1|2|3|4|Next

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Top10Mythsabout Sustainability
ByMichaelD.Lemonick

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l l l l

RISKFREEISSUE DIGITALSUBSCRIPTIONS GIVEAGIFT CUSTOMERSERVICE

Evenadvocatesformoreresponsible,environmentallybenignwaysoflifeharbormisunderstandingsofwhat "sustainability"isallabout

RISKFREEISSUE GIVEAGIFT

Thenonenvironmentalrationalesforsustainabilitygetalittlesquishierwhenwetalkaboutintangibles,suchas thebeautyofnatureorthevalueofwilderness.Inwildnessisthepreservationoftheworld,wroteHenryDavid ThoreauthenationalparksmovementthatbeganintheU.S.attheendofthe19thcenturyandhassincespread internationallyspringsfromthatidea.Inmodernterms,becausehumansevolvedinanontechnologicalworld,we seemtoneedsomeconnectiontonaturetobecontent.Thatconceptistoughtoprovescientifically.Nevertheless, saysNancyGabriel,programdirectorattheSustainabilityInstituteinHartland,Vt., IfyoulookatWesternsociety, youhavehugeratesofdepression,isolation,[and]peoplewhoaredisenfranchised.Ithinkthatreconnectingtothe landisanimportantwayofreestablishingabasiclevelofhappiness. Thatkindofintangibleconnectionhasled towns,citiesandstatesallovertheU.S.,butespeciallyinbuiltupareas,topreservelandforopenspace. Arelatedbutseparatemythis.... Myth3:Sustainableisasynonymforgreen. Althoughtheresafairamountofoverlapbetweentheterms,greenusuallysuggestsapreferenceforthenatural overtheartificial.Withsomesixbillionpeopleontheplanettoday,andanotherthreebillionexpectedbythemiddle ofthecentury,societycannothopetogivethemacomfortablestandardoflivingwithoutaheavydependenceon technology.Electriccars,windturbinesandsolarcellsaretheantithesisofnaturalbuttheyallowpeopletoget around,warmtheirhousesandcooktheirfoodwithrenewableresources(oratleast,amuchsmallerinputof nonrenewables)whileemittingfewernoxiouschemicals. Itsprobablymoredifficulttoseenuclearpowerassustainable.Unliketheotheralternativeenergysources,ithas longbeenanathematoenvironmentalists,largelybecauseoftheproblemofstoringradioactivewaste.Butnuclear reactorsarealsoahighlyefficientsourceofpower,emitnopollutantgasesandwithsometypes,anywaycan bedesignedtogenerateminimalwasteandtobeessentiallymeltdownproof.ThatswhyPatrickMoore,aco founderofGreenpeace,hasbecomeanuclearboosterandwhymanyotherenvironmentalistsarebeginning sometimesgrudginglytoentertaintheideaofembracingnuclear.Callingitgreenwouldbeastretch.Callingit sustainableismuchlessofone. Myth4:Itsallaboutrecycling. Igetthatalot,saysShanaWeber,themanagerofsustainabilityatPrincetonUniversity.Forsomereason, recyclingwastheenduringmessagethatcameoutoftheenvironmentalmovementintheearly1970s.Andof course,recyclingisimportant:reusingmetals,paper,woodandplasticsratherthantossingthemreducesthe needtoextractrawmaterialsfromtheground,forestsandfossilfueldeposits.Moreefficientuseofprettymuch anythingisastepinthedirectionofsustainability.Butitisjustapieceofthepuzzle.Idealwiththepeoplewhorun therecyclingprogramhere,Webernotes,butalsowithpurchasing,diningservices,thepeoplewhocleanthe buildings.Themostimportantareasbyfarintermsofsustainabilityareenergyandtransportation.Ifyouthinkyou arelivingsustainablybecauseyourecycle,shesays,youneedtothinkagain. Myth5:Sustainabilityistooexpensive. Ifthereisan800poundgorillaintheroomofsustainability,thismythisit.Thatsbecause,asGabrielobserves, theresagrainoftruthtoit.Butonlyagrain.Itsonlytrueintheshorttermincertaincircumstances,Cortese says,butcertainlynotinthelongterm.Thetruthliesinthefactthatifyoualreadyhaveanunsustainablesystem inplaceafactoryoratransportationsystem,forexample,orafurnaceinyourhouse,anincandescentlightbulb inyourlamporaHummerinyourdrivewayyouhavetospendsomemoneyupfronttoswitchtoamore sustainabletechnology. PAGE1|2|3|4|Next

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ByMichaelD.Lemonick

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Evenadvocatesformoreresponsible,environmentallybenignwaysoflifeharbormisunderstandingsofwhat "sustainability"isallabout

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Ingeneral,governmentsandcompaniescantakethatstepmoreeasilythanindividualscan. Overthepastseven years,Corteseexplains,DuPonthasmadeinvestmentsthathavereduceditsgreenhousegasemissionsby72 percentover1990levels.Theyvesaved$2billion.ThePentagonisdeterminedtocutitsenergyusebyathird, bothtosavemoneyandtoreduceitsdependenceonriskyforeignoilsupplies. Myth6:Sustainabilitymeansloweringourstandardofliving. Notatalltrue.Itdoesmeanthatwehavetodomorewithless,butasHawkenargues, Oncewestarttoorganize ourselvesandinnovatewithinthatmindset,thebreakthroughsareextraordinary.Theywillallowustoachieve greatlysuperiorratesofresourceproductivity,whichinturnallowustobeprosperous,fed,clad,secure. Moreover,heandothersmaintainthattheinnovationattheheartofsustainablelivingwillbeapowerfuleconomic engine.Addressingclimatechange,hesays,isthebiggestjobcreationprogramthereis. Myth7:Consumerchoicesandgrassrootsactivism,notgovernmentintervention,offerthefastest,most efficientroutestosustainability. Populargrassrootsactionsarehelpfulandultimatelynecessary.Butprogressonsomereforms,suchascurbing CO2emissions,canonlyhappenquicklyifcentralauthoritiescommittomakingithappen.Thatiswhytaxcredits, mandatoryfuelefficiencystandardsandthelikeareprettymuchinevitable.Thatconclusiondrivesfreemarket evangelistscrazy,buttheyoperateontheassumptionthatwastefuluseofresourcesandthedestructionofthe environmentiswithoutcost,whichisdemonstrablyuntrue. Tocitejustoneexample,economicdevastationisverylikelyundereventhemildestplausibleclimatechange scenarios,intheformofdisruptionstoagriculturefromshiftsinrainfallpatternsandgrowingzonesdensely populatedcoastalareaswillberenderedunlivableassealevelrises,andsoon.Yetthepricecurrentlybeing chargedtopeoplewhoaddgreenhousegasestotheatmosphereiszero.Puttingapertontaxoncarbon emissionswouldbewildlyunpopular,butitwouldforthefirsttimeaccountfortherealcostsofunsustainable energyuse. Freemarketpuristsalsoarguethatwithrespecttothedepletionofnaturalresources,risingpriceswill automaticallypushpeopleintomoreefficientbehavior.Trueenough butthetransitioncanbepainfuland disruptive.TheprimaryreasonU.S.automakersareinsuchtroubleisthattheyhavebeendependingforyearson highprofit,gasguzzlingSUVs.Whenthepriceofoilshotuplastyear,themarketforbigcarsplummeted(gas priceshaveonlycomedownsincetheninthefaceofaworldwiderecession,whichhasnthelpedtheauto industry).Socarbuyersmayhavechangedtheirbehavior,butonlyatthecostofpotentialdisasterforsomeof Americasbiggestcompaniesandtheiremployees. Still,risingenergypriceshavehadtheeffectofagaingalvanizingresearchintowind,solarandotheralternatives andifyouleaveeconomicdisruptionaside,wecanatleastcountoncarcompaniestomakemoreefficient vehiclesandonutilitiestofindmoresustainablesourcesofenergy.Butthatoutcomemayreflectanothermyth. Myth8:Newtechnologyisalwaystheanswer. Notnecessarily.Duringhispresidentialcampaign,BarackObamamadethetacticalmistakeofpointingoutthat propertireinflationcouldsaveAmericansmillionsofgallonsofgasolinethroughbetterfueleconomy.The Republicansridiculedhim,justastheydidPresidentJimmyCarterforappearingonTVinasweaterduringthe energycrisisofthelate1970s.BothCarterandObamawereright,however(California sRepublicangovernor ArnoldSchwarzeneggerhascalledforpropertireinflationaswell). PAGE1|2|3|4|Next

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Top10Mythsabout Sustainability
ByMichaelD.Lemonick

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Evenadvocatesformoreresponsible,environmentallybenignwaysoflifeharbormisunderstandingsofwhat "sustainability"isallabout

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Inotherwords,sometimesexistingtechnologycanmakeahugedifference.Sometimesittakesacreative businessmodel.IsraelientrepreneurShaiAgassi,forexample,wantstoelectrifytheworld scarfleetwidely acknowledgedasabigsteptowardcuttingdowncarbonemissions notbyinventingabatterythatgets200miles onachargebutbyinventingabettersystemforlettingdriversgoasfarastheywantwithoutrecharging.His proposal,whichhasbeenadoptedonapilotbasisbyIsraelandDenmark,wouldcreatebatteryexchangestations alonghighways,analogoustothegascanisterexchangesthatpeoplenowuseforbarbecuegrills.Whatdoyou doifyouareoutontheroadandyourbatteryisrunninglow?Youpullintoastation,yourdeadbatteryisswapped forafullychargedoneandyoureontheroadagaininafewminutes. Hesdeliveringdistance,notbetterbatteries,saysMarkLee,CEOoftheLondonconsultingfirmSustainAbility. TheresanItalianutilitythatssellingitscustomershotwater,notenergytoheatwater.It sadifferentwayof measuring,anditgivesthecompanyanincentivetobemoreefficientsoitcanbemoreprofitable. Myth9:Sustainabilityisultimatelyapopulationproblem. Thisisnotamyth,butitrepresentsafalsesolution.Everyenvironmentalproblemisultimatelyapopulation problem.Iftheworldspopulationwereonly100millionpeople,wewouldbehardpressedtogenerateenough wastetooverwhelmnaturescleanupsystems.Wecoulddumpallourtrashinalandfillinsomeremotearea,and nobodywouldnotice. Populationexpertsagreethatthebestwaytolimitpopulationistoeducatewomenandraisethestandardofliving generallyindevelopingcountries.Butthatstrategycannotpossiblyhappenquicklyenoughtoputadentinthe populationonanyusefultimescale.TheU.N.projectsthattheplanetwillhavetosustainanother2.6billionpeople by2050.Butevenatthecurrentpopulationlevelof6.5billion,wereusingupresourcesatanunsustainablerate. Thereisnowaytoreducethepopulationsignificantlywithouttramplingegregiouslyonindividualrights(asChina hasdonewithitsonechildpolicy),encouragingmasssuicideorworse.Noneofthoseproposalsseems preferabletofocusingdirectlyonlesswastefuluseofresources. Myth10:Onceyouunderstandtheconcept,livingsustainablyisabreezetofigureout. Alltoooften,achoicethatseemssustainableturnsoutoncloserexaminationtobeproblematic.Probablythebest currentexampleistherushtoproduceethanolforfuelfromcorn.Cornisarenewableresourceyoucanharvest itandgrowmore,roughlyindefinitely.Soreplacinggasolinewithcornethanolseemslikeagreatidea.Untilyoudo athoroughanalysis,thatis,andseehowenergyintensivethecultivationandharvestingofcornanditsconversion intoethanolreallyare. Onemightgetabitmoreenergyoutoftheethanolthanwassunkintomakingit,whichcouldstillmakeethanol moresustainablethangasolineinprinciple,butthat snottheendoftheproblem.Divertingcorntomakeethanol meanslesscornislefttofeedlivestockandpeople,whichdrivesupthecostoffood.Thatconsequenceleadsto turningformerlyfallowlandincluding,insomecases,rainforestinplacessuchasBrazilintofarmland,which inturnreleaseslotsofcarbondioxideintotheatmosphere.Eventually,overmanydecades,theenergybenefitfrom burningethanolwouldmakeupforthatforestloss.Butbythen,climatechangewouldhaveprogressedsofarthat itmightnothelp. Youcannotreallydeclareanypracticesustainable untilyouhavedoneacompletelifecycleanalysisofits environmentalcosts.Eventhen,technologyandpublicpolicykeepevolving,andthatevolutioncanleadto unforeseenandunintendedconsequences.Theadmirablegoaloflivingsustainablyrequiresplentyofthoughton anongoingbasis.

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ABOUTTHEAUTHOR(S) MichaelD.LemonickisaseniorwriteratClimateCentral,anonprofitclimatechangethinktankinPrinceton,N.J.

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