HOW CAN I TELL WHAT IS SUSTAINABLE?

30 11 2009

I struggled to find a definition for the question what is sustainable development, and now following suit in equal ambiguity is the question, “How can I tell what is sustainable?”  I believe a simple way to address this question could involve analyzing a scenario and rating each aspect it encompasses against the three imperatives of sustainability:

Social: the quality of life, health and well being, equity/justice, community engagement

Environment: challenge of climate change, maintain crucial ecosystem function ability

Economics: lowering cost of solutions, less resource use, drive for innovation, competitive edge, economic diversity, resilience and adaptability (Chris Ling in-class powerpoint presentation, October, 2009).

“Now, sustainability has been applied widely and carelessly enough that it verges sometimes on meaningless” (Turner, 2008).   So, this said, what does the criteria for sustainability look like when it is put into practice? I would like to focus on a case that is successful/ striving to be sustainable in the many of these categories.   Looking at a positive or successful case may help in determining sustainability “parameters”, however, it is crucial to address that every unique space and place on the earth will have its own story of sustainability, due to the natural differential nature of every imperative that is being measured.  Communities may be rooted in thousands of years of tradition and culture, or they may be brand new settlements –in the process of developing their own culture and grounding in society.  Touching on this subject, further opens a huge discussion on the importance of community . . . which will certainly be addressed in future blogs.  The Geography of Hope opens with major focus on the small island of SamsØ, Denamark.   Perhaps this illustration of sustainability can act as a template, and determine parameters for both the developed and developing world.  Denmark has one of the highest standards of living and social equity in the world.  However, the small island of SamsØ is unique in that its inhabitants are strongly grounded in their own culture, heritage, and sense of belonging to the land.   

The island community of SamsØ has become the first carbon-neutral community in the world. The citizens of Samso built 11 onshore, and 10 offshore wind turbines, and converted 70 percent of their homes to use biofuels or solar for heating.   The island is even produces surplus electricity and sells it to the mainland of Denmark.   The residents of SamsØ took the initiative to make these changes as their own personal investment, with no help from the federal government.  Crucial themes in the transformational change include neighborly trade, and active participation of the community residents in deciding how their land, homes, and work practices are developed.

SamsØ may be, “the most ambitious experiment of renewable energy that the world has yet seen” (Turner, 2008).  Turner’s description of the island creates a vivid image of technology— wind turbines and solar power— harmonized in a quaint landscape of tidy farmhouses, men in overalls, and vegetable stands.  Although international collaboration and government policies will be fundamental for major sustainable measures to proceed, I believe that real sustainability will happen on the local level.  Instead of joining the stagnant debate on climate change, small villages-collectives of the farmers and residents of SamsØ -came together and decided together, that they were going to make a radical change.  With very few natural resources, Denmark relies almost entirely on human resources.  T ‘old-fashioned’ social characteristics of the residents, paired with limited resources initiated a sustainability revolution that started with friendly conversation and a few bottles of cold beer.  This really leads me to believe that the criteria for “sustainable” should encompass greater, returning to a simpler more community based way of life.  Innovative technology may replace oil; however, if we do not alter our consuming habits, which ultimately revolve around a “me” lifestyle . . . how can any part of that scenario be sustainable?

 SamsØ illustrates the marrying of technology with farmhouses, cold beer and hard work; macro-trade and neighborly exchange, local produce and imported resources—neighbors working together, small villages working together, an island working together, with national support.  If this same illustration can be uniquely reproduced in a different land, economic conditions, and group of people, maybe these epicenters will radiate out to the international level.  Perhaps then, we might get a clear picture of the faces of sustainability—the people.  Perhaps then, it will become easier to determine what is not sustainable, rather than what is.

References

Turner, C. (2008). The Geography of Hope: A Tour of the World We Need. Toronto, Canada: Vintage Canada

Sustainable Cities.(2008). Samsoe: A role model in self-sufficiency. Retrieved in October2009 from: http://sustainablecities.dk/en/city-projects/cases/samsoe-a-role-model-in-self-sufficiency 

Sustainable Cities in Denmark: http://sustainablecities.dk/en/city-projects/cases/samsoe-a-role-model-in-self-sufficiency

Information about wind power and renewable energy on Samso: http://www.energiakademiet.dk/flashmap_uk.asp

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