Monday, June 1, 2009

Rescuing "sustainability" from the vaccuum of meaninglessness

(Below is a piece I submitted to the KQED Perspectives program about the Stanford Sustainable Development Study. Unfortunately they thought the focus was too narrow for the broader Bay Area, but I still think it's worth getting the word out. -Brian)

Everyone talks about "environmental sustainability," but do we know what it really means? Claims of sustainability may amount to little more than greenwashing, with no more content or definition to them than being "Earth-Friendly".

This problem has happened in Santa Clara County, with an unfulfilled promise made by Stanford University. In return for massive development rights, the university promised a Sustainable Development Study to consider the sustainability of future buildout on its core campus land. Stanford recently turned in its Study and the County approved it.

The problem? Stanford refused to study the effect of buildout for more than twenty-five years into the future. But sustainability, if it means anything at all, can't ignore the effects beyond a single generation. Climate change, for example, would drop considerably as a priority if, like Stanford, we refused to consider development and consequences for more than twenty-five years. Stanford might not want to consider long-term sprawl effects, but is a short time frame sustainable?

These aren’t questions about an academic exercise but about the essential meaning of sustainability. Here's how little importance Stanford placed on sustainability – they refused to even define "sustainability" in their Sustainable Development Study. Good definitions exist – just ask former Stanford professor and Obama science advisor John Holdren – but here the long-term timeframe of sustainability definitions lost out to the desire to leave the door open for expanding development.

Being "Earth-Friendly" may now mean almost anything, but we can still rescue sustainability. For example, Stanford did accept that it would do another Sustainable Development Study for its next major permit. Next time, Stanford's famed academic rigor could be applied to the Study itself, with sustainability defined, with measurement criteria included, with performance analyses developed, and with defensible conclusions about the long-term sustainability of its land use. The next Study can still do it right.

If the concept of sustainability is itself going to be sustained, we must give it meaning, and we can't start too soon.

With a Perspective, I’m Brian Schmidt.

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