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Two Cheers for Sustainia

Arnold Schwarzenegger. Bill Gates (or, at least, Microsoft). Cisco and Philips, SAS and IKEA, Rajendra Pachauri and Gro Harlem Brundtland. What they have in common is called Sustainia. And what that attempts to be isn't common at all right now, but aspires to be so in the future. The near future.

March 8, 2012

Arnold Schwarzenegger. Bill Gates (or, at least, Microsoft). Cisco and Philips, SAS and IKEA, Rajendra Pachauri and Gro Harlem Brundtland. What they have in common is called Sustainia. And what that attempts to be isn't common at all right now, but aspires to be so in the future. The near future.

Formally announced Wednesday, Sustainia is a multi-pronged marketing program.  The target audience may include the populations of all developed countries, but it's probably centered on North America and Western Europe.  What the the program's backers have it in mind to market is a vision of an attractive and sustainable future.  That is to say, they have the intent to market, even though they don't have the specific product content figured out yet.  Of course, marketing folks don't really have to know what sort of steak it is, they just have to be able to imagine how it sizzles.  The sizzle has been designed in the form of an online virtual world (available later this year), a book laying out the principles of that world (early edition available here), and a "Nobel prize for sustainable development" (details to follow).

One loud cheer for the initiative, because of its intent to provide an attractive vision of a sustainable future and its recognition that the target audience needs to be marketed to.  Modern marketing has demonstrated the ability to create demand for things people never before knew they wanted, much less needed.  If the populations of developed countries can come to believe that what they need is an environmentally, socially and economically sustainable future, and begin to demand technologies, infrastructure and societal patterns that approximate those characteristics, your children and mine will benefit for decades to come.  The cheer is all the louder for the fact that fifteen major corporations and five NGOs are backing the effort, and that someone was savvy enough to get Schwarzenegger to make the announcement.

A somewhat gentler cheer because the design of the marketing program per se seems well done.  I'm no judge of such things, and the proof will come when the first visible, virtual, almost-directly-experienceable depiction of the future goes online.  But I like the fact that whatever that first depiction portrays is already being described (at least implicitly) as a sort of version 0.8.  An early public beta.  A skeleton partially filled out, clearly needing completion, perhaps requiring major modification, inviting input from all and sundry.  A mechanism both to create a positive image of sustainability in people's minds and to begin to reconcile "what we want it to be like" with "how the heck we can make that happen".  An external design specification which can (with luck) help generate the public ownership and political will to support the effort necessary to re-engineer developed society writ large.

But the third cheer will have to wait for now.  Part of the difficulty with designing the external aspects of a new system (any new system) before the underlying technologies are fully understood is that nobody fully understands how all the pieces will fit together.  Which means that nobody truly understands whether the pieces will fit together.  Or even whether all of the pieces can even be constructed as envisioned.  And the early edition of the book linked to above makes it clear just how incomplete the authors' current understanding is.  Not to say that my, or anyone's, understanding of how a sustainable future might be constructed is comprehensive and accurate, just that the vision (or, more accurately, the guidelines for constructing a vision) presented are particularly in need of work.

First, let's start with what the book ("Guide to Sustainia", hereafter "Guide") includes.  Subtract the structural bookends (foreword, welcome/intro and bibliography) and we have four substantive chapters: Cities, Homes, Energy and Transportation. 

The chapter on transportation is actually pretty good.  It includes three scenarios which describe how three very different people in three very different parts of the world use arguably sustainable transportation systems.  The scenarios are fleshed out enough to be both engaging and potentially eye-opening.  An attractive vision of a more or less sustainable future is at least suggested.

The other chapters are notably weaker.  The whole thrust of the Sustainia campaign is to move the conversation away from the numbers and specifics which make up the steak, so that political momentum can be built up around a shared aural image of sizzle.  Part of the reasoning is that most people are put off by numbers and complexity -- you can't convince folks by confusing them, so even necessary quantitative elements can only appear implicitly.  The problem is that those quantitative elements -- hard requirements that they are -- still have to be fulfilled.  The current Guide not only doesn't describe a world that fulfills them, it studiously avoids even defining them while presenting an internally inconsistent picture consisting almost entirely of ineffective components.

For example, the chapter on homes mentions compact fluorescent bulbs.  Not a bad option if you're still using grossly inefficient incandescent lighting, but hardly an example of a truly sustainable technology.  The chapter on energy talks about pretty much every renewable source you've ever heard of, and tosses out some grossly misleading numbers about, for instance, how much solar energy is available to replace fossil fuels.  (For a more realistic take on this issue, check out David MacKay's free book.)  And the chapter on cities puts far too much emphasis on parks and beaches (seven of the ten "city ideas that inspired Sustainia") and far too little on the aspects of city life that can actually make it functionally friendly and convenient while at the same time efficient.  I know that we want to paint a pretty picture for people, but it needs to be a picture of life, not just of trees and flowers and oceanfront.  And what numbers there are simply don't work.

But what's most importantly missing from Sustainia is any mention of the 62% of energy usage and greenhouse gas emission which takes place away from the cities, homes, and transportation evident in people's lives.  The almost two-thirds of energy burden which is embodied in the goods we use every day, rather than the house we use them in or the car we carry them in or the outlet we plug some of them into.  Food.  Toothpaste.  Clothing.  Magazines.  I guess if you're trying to attract funding from major corporations who thrive by selling consumable goods to consumers, you don't start the conversation by saying you you're going to undercut modern patterns of consumption in wealthy societies.  Even when that's the largest single root cause of the problem you say you're trying to address.

Still, on balance, two cheers.  The basic perception (we've got to market a sustainable future as a desirable good) is profoundly true, and the apparently intended execution seems relatively well designed.  The third cheer may yet come if thoughtful, knowledgeable, well-intentioned people can flesh out the vision, fill in the blanks, get the numbers right and force the model to address major issues like consumption and major constraints like resource renewal rates. 

Sounds like a job for faculty.  And students.  And sustainability wonks.  Oh my!


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