Friday, June 6, 2008

Different visions of sustainability

I thought this was an interesting response to a reporter's tough question.


Subject: Unity House

Hello, Mick,

I saw you speak in Belfast when Waterfall Arts had their symposium with
Pliny Fisk. I am a writer/editor for XXXX and
because I have a degree in landscape architecture I usually get
assigned the stories with that kind of slant. As you may know, a couple
of weeks ago we printed Tedd Benson's commencement address on our cover
and many people were captivated by his Rules for Living. Our publisher
wants to follow up on the story by having me drive to Unity and do
something on the current Unity House construction. But I feel < and
this is strictly MY feeling < that the project is very hyped up and I
honestly am struggling with finding the sustainability of a building
that uses five tractor trailers to deliver its components hundreds of
miles away. There doesn't seem to be much future in that. I also don't
see anything about how it will be heated, a major energy issue in

So, before I call Mark Tardiff and drive out there, I was wondering if
you'd give me some of your ideas on this project. Despite my RISD
degree, I'm much closer to your sensibilities, I believe when it comes
to sustainable building and while I appreciate the idea of what they're
trying to do with flexibility and use of HVAC systems, I am having
trouble seeing how this can be as sustainable as it needs to be when
oil reaches $400 a barrel.

If you can reply to this, I'd appreciate it It would be strictly for
my information and off the record.



Dear XXXX, thanks for the note.

It gave me food for thought, and I always appreciate that. And, if you like, this can be on the record. (There's no secret plan for sustainability.)

I'm going to say this as gently as I can, but it was a hard-minded question (my favorite kind) and so I know you won't mind if I give you a hard-minded answer.

I think we might be confusing "sustainability" with "de-urbanization and de-industrialization" here. Do you assume sustainability means "back-to-the-land". If so, I think you're plain wrong.

What this question really implies, or the question it begs, is, do you assume sustainability means doing away with factories and shipping of factory goods, and the towns and cities they serve?

I don't.

Factories, and the towns and cities that serve and depend on them are inherently more comfortable, more safe, and certainly capable of being as energy efficient as otherwise isolated self-sustainable farms and homesteads. They can also produce essential stuff, like housing or hospital equipment, as easily as they make nasty useless ticky-tacky. I think we will have to find ways of running factories on renewable energy, on sunlight, and ways of recycling the physical raw materials embodied in pretty much all consumer goods at the end of their life back into useful new goods. But I think these are actually questions of renewable energy production and of industrial process design. Even the recycling industry is an industry, using industrial processes and engineering.

I think we should keep industry around for the benefits it gives, but cut back on it for the sake of reducing its downsides. Prefabricating housing, the industrial case-in-point can be more energy and materially efficient than building housing on-site. I also think we might want to begin to get the population to go down, so the burden of running industrial civilization falls on a smaller part of the planet every decade.

So my overall understanding or vision of sustainability is not "back-to-the-land" but a reinvented industrial urban civilization, backed by a flourishing and more localized agriculture and forestry, and obviously a plan to reduce numbers by encouraging (not forcing) folks to not have quite so many kids per family.

Bensonwood experimented a bit in this direction by making a prefabricated building using renewable energy and recyclable materials. The building also has a longer useful life, which helps a good deal, and reduces the lifetime energy consumption, which is much more than the shipping energy consumption.

(Think about it: It takes a few hundred gallons of oil to ship an efficient, prefabricated, non oil-powered building, while a badly designed, on site-built, oil-powered building might burn millions of gallons of oil during it's lifetime.)

Although I didn't have much to do with it, I thought this was a useful experiment in moving industrial housing production towards sustainability, and certainly a high-quality finished product.

On ticky-tacky in general, I think we might want to even keep some factories that make otherwise wasteful consumer goods. Some at least.

I don't like much cheap plastic ticky tacky much myself, but I don't want to get in the business of saying who can have it and who can't. That seems a little totalitarian.

In this kind of theory, I'm pretty much a Dalian thinker, which is not surprising, since I was a Daly graduate student. You can read Daly and Cobb's 1994 second edition of "For the Common Good" to get the academic theory, if you are interested in going that far.

I will say I do enjoy practicing the "back-to-the-land" theory of sustainability, like that found in the works of the Nearings, for instance, in my home activities. But I wouldn't confuse that notion with, or advocate it, for the entire population. That would be unsafe and unwise, I think. I just do it for fun, for exercise, and for the pleasure of growing my own food.

It's also my family's plan B. If we don't fix industrial civilization on time and on schedule, it will fall apart and then we will have to do without it. But a lot of people will die or get hurt in that process. I tend to wonder about my friend who emigrated to New Zealand, or instance, to set up an intentional community. That seemed very selfish and non-communitarian, when I think we can save this current community called America, and save much of most other countries, and the people in them, if we rally. I prefer we fix it all properly and on schedule.

Never, ever despair! (Churchill.)

Be glad to talk with you more if you do come out.


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