Sometimes, you can understand a problem or a process better if you focus (at least in part) on what it's not.
For example, I'm deeply interested in some of the social problems of rural areas in North America. But the problems I'm interested in haven't been studied muchin rural areas -- that's part of what interests me. So I haven't found much in the way of published literature (scholarly or otherwise) that's on topic.
What I have found (and found in abundance) is research and literature on similar problems in cities. Lots of research universities are located in cities. Lots of social researchers live in cities. Problems in cities are visually obvious (unlike much rural poverty) and telegenic. And urban problems are concentrated, so it's easy to get a large n without a large travel budget.
So I read urban research. And I ask myself how urbanity, itself, plays into the patterns revealed. And I consider how rurality might play into similar patterns (or, at least, similar outcomes). And my hypotheses are tenuous, but they're better than having no hypotheses at all. At very least, they help me break down large and amorphous situations into something my mind can grapple with.
So it came as a bit of a shock to me when I realized that I haven't done a similar "logical 180" when it comes to thinking about problems of sustainability. Or, rather, I have -- but not often enough. Or not in enough dimensions. Or something.
What triggered this realization was the announcement of Rematerialise (so maybe it should be "realisation"?), a catalog of sustainable building design and construction resources based on research conducted at Kingston University, London. The catalog lists over 1000 sustainable building materials and such, identified during 17 years of research. At the very least, it can make utilization of sustainable building materials far easier than was previously the case.
The main criterion for inclusion is that the material be recycled (not just recyclable), or made from feedstocks which are readily replenished, or made from feedstocks which are currently greatly underutilized. And it's this last bit that got me thinking.
Materials which are recycled are sustainable on the basis that they require nothing in the way of virgin feedstocks. (Hey, there's a catchy slogan for resource reduction: "stop sacrificing the virgins".) And materials made from readily replaceable feedstocks are sustainable so long as we (all of us) don't use them up faster than we can replace them. Materials made from resources which are currently underutilized may or may not be sustainable in the long term, based on the rate at which those raw materials can themselves be replenished -- we might seem to have a lot of it available, but maybe that's just because there isn't a lot of demand. For instance, the planet's stores of fossil fuels seemed virtually infinite at the beginning of the industrial age. So did the atmosphere's ability to absorb carbon dioxide. "Greatly underutilized" is an impression based on a particular set of circumstances, and may not stand up in the long term.
Still, the combination of utility, ready availability, and low current demand does raise the hope of an environmentally (and perhaps socially and economically) preferable substitute product. The substitute products might provide at least a stop on the path to truly sustainable long-term solutions. At the very least, having substitute products available can free up our thinking about just what sorts of products (and technologies) we require.
Thinking about underutilized resources and substitute products can open up discussions around sustainability. Too often, the deeper issues of sustainability (consumption/destruction rates vs. replenishment rates, all constrained by available technology) get overpowered by a false dichotomy of "green" vs. "not green". Seeing that the coin has more than two sides just might help.