Sustainability on the Rise

It’s exciting to see more and more people embracing sustainability.  St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay recently demonstrated leadership in the area by convening a Sustainability Summit December 6-7 at the Missouri Botanical Garden and the Missouri History Museum.  The event brought both experts and interested citizens together to discuss their ideas and formulate a plan.  Similar initiatives are underway in cities across the globe.

While it’s hard to find someone who is “against” sustainability, it’s easy to find people who are confused about its definition.  One of the most popular definition was first used at a 1987 UN conference, which stated simply: “meeting present needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.”   Using that definition, we might all agree to the value of such forward thinking, but the debate begins over which of our current practices falls into the “unsustainable” category.

We all recognize that fossil fuels are finite resources, even if we can’t agree on the amount of coal, oil and natural gas that remain in the earth.  It seems as if our country is addicted to these dying forms of energy, and we are getting increasingly desperate to secure a steady supply of the drug.  In our desperation, many rationalize that coastal drilling, mountaintop removal and “fracking” for natural gas are necessary measures to sustain our current lifestyles.  The notion of “peak oil” – when oil production peaks and supply drops as demand continues to rise – will drive prices up dramatically and wreak havoc on everything, since energy prices are fundamental to all industries.  Given this lack of sustainability, it seems prudent to support a strong investment in alternatives forms of energy.

“Renewable” energy, such as wind, solar, hydro/tidal, geothermal and biomass, is naturally occurring forms of inexhaustible energy.  Someone recently questioned the amount of energy that goes into the manufacture of a solar panel, and suspected it would take years for a solar panel to achieve its “energy payback.”  His impression was far from accurate: most solar panels generate as much energy in a year as it takes to produce that module.  That seems to fit well into the definition of sustainable. 

Given the spectacular surge in technology over the last 50 years, I think many people simply hold on to the promise that technology will ultimately be our saving grace.  Perhaps we’ll find a way to harness nuclear energy using fusion, with no radioactive waste.  Perhaps we’ll find a way to feed the masses with organic hydroponics, requiring no soil or dangerous chemicals.  Perhaps we’ll find a way to clean up toxins using specialized micro-organisms.  Perhaps climate change can be mitigated by blankets of algae on our oceans.

Any of these ideas may be remotely possible.  Yet so many of us are content to lead a largely unexamined life, and fail to consider the sustainability of our lifestyles.  I remember reading Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat years ago, and wondered where we would get the resources to supply the growing demand of the world’s new markets in India and China.  It wasn’t until ¾ of the way through the book that the author even mentioned limited resources as a consideration.

In ancient Mesopotamia, largely considered to be where modern civilization began, they unwittingly cut down virtually all their trees and had to invade the lands of neighboring tribes to secure a source of wood for fuel and construction.  It’s interesting to see similarities, as our domestic oil resources dwindle, in how we have sought to “protect our interests” in foreign lands to ensure the flow of crude.

I invite you to stop and think about your own lifestyles, and see if there are things you can do to meet your needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.   In the coming months, we’ll explore some ideas.  Please join the dialog and movement toward a more sustainable future.

This was  published in the Going Green section of the January 2012 issue of Spirit Seeker magazine.

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