J500 Media and the Environment

A Means to No End by IanN

The more I read and think about the concept of sustainability, the harder I find it to define. It seems too large an idea to encompass in a few words. I understand sustainability as strictly relying on renewable resources to support an organism or organizations indefinitely. If a system requires a resource for energy to operate or survive, the resource must be sustained otherwise the system comes to a halt. Therefore, sustainability is a means to no end. In theory this is simple, but in practice extremely hard.

To be successful, the concept of sustainability, the idea of reliance on renewable resources, has to be perceived as a process. This means framing issues as “more sustainable,” rather than the notion of total sustainability. One way to kill initiatives is to make people feel bad for not meeting almost impossible expectations. Like the “pro-life” movement, environmentalists have often been perceived as having an all or nothing, scorched-earth mentality. People and organizations need realistic and attainable goals. For instance, almost everybody on my street recycles because the city provides the service. Many Americans want to do the right thing, but don’t want to live in a tepee in Taos either, and also have limited time and budgets. Society is so complex that hardly anyone can live off the land. Christopher McCandless, the person who inspired the book and movie “Into the Wild,” gave up on our consumerist society and traveled to Alaska to live off the land. He was able to sustain himself for about six months.

For most of us who don’t live on communes or ashrams, or in Sweden, or Boulder, complete sustainability (or even marginal sustainabicommune2xlity) is almost impossible. As an example, it would cost tens of thousands of dollars to outfit my house with enough solar panels to power it, even though it might pay for itself in decades. This would just be one part of moving off the grid. I would then have to procure my own food (it is late to start a vegetable garden this year and I am not a very good hunter/fisherman) and borrow or steal a bicycle if I wanted to go outside my neighborhood. Then there is the question of plumbing. Also, I am not sure my wife would go for it. It was a battle to stop buying bottled water.

Sustainability is a great filter for making decisions that not only help the environment, but are also usually more efficient.  Ultimately, it is depressing to think that as an American living in Kansas City most of the resources I consume are unsustainable, except for the sunshine, produce and air. I do what I can, but a lot of time I feel like I don’t have too much choice about it. For now, I need gas to drive to work so I can sustain myself and my family.

–Ian N.


2 Comments so far
Leave a comment

Hi Ian,

I have run into the same issues you’re talking about – solar power to bottled water. (After watching “Into the Wild” my wife was afraid I might get some crazy ideas 🙂 ) But as I mulled over the issues, I realized that my trouble was trying to do the “big” solutions when so many smaller ones could be just as effective.
For example, using solar energy to power a lawnmower. It doesn’t cost as much and is easily doable over a few weekends. Or bicycling part-way to a co-worker’s house or a parking lot so you can share a ride.
Do you think several of these little things might be able to offset the big ones that are probably not ready for prime time yet?

-Victor V

Comment by victorvi

Hi Victor,

Thanks for your comment. I think the little things do have a limited impact and, like I wrote, I do what I can. But I don’t think the little things, like household recycling, offset industrial, oil, and coal pollution. It seems like so many of these things, such as where I get my household power, are out of my control. I think there are promising solutions, such as wind power and hydrogen fuel cells, but it will be a long time before technologies like these have a significant impact on our consumption of non-renewable resources.

–Ian N.

Comment by IanN

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