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Environment/Sustainability Tue Dec 21 2010

So Many Shades of Green

As the first decade of the new century comes to a close, the term "sustainability" deserves inclusion on the long list of buzz words and popular trends that have made up the cultural canvas in recent times. All sorts of green boosterism has arisen in the past few years as a clever marketing tool, especially from companies most vulnerable to the march towards sound environmental practices, as seen in commercials from the likes of BP and Toyota. The use of the word sustainability as a catchy marketing term doesn't diminish the legitimate intent behind the process that seems to be taking place, but its lazy application is reminiscent of 19th century bloodletting or perhaps more aptly, the mid-'90s Saturday Night Live "Crystal Gravy" commercial. Remove the direct impediment -- the bad blood, the heavy brown sludge of gravy, the easily seen sprawl of space and pollution of unclean energy -- and the problem is magically solved.

Again, there's no doubt that the intentions behind the greening of resource use is a real and noble purpose, but the problem with the majority of the current commercialization tactics being employed is that it makes something serious and concretely needed feel like a fad. The call for sustainability is being treated as an emotional argument, which tends to create a chasm between those who intrinsically feel compelled to agree with sustainable practices, and those who don't. Therefore, it ends up becoming a divisive issue between those who "get it" and those who fall on the periphery of the argument.

It is not enough to play to the better angels of people's consciences to enact wholesale change. There is a better way of getting people involved though that includes a much more stirring rationale as to why green development and wiser resource usage is needed. Luckily, it maintains an emphasis on green as well -- the green that fills one's pocket. This slight change in tone takes back the word sustainability to be used in its proper sense, as an economic term that means being able to produce and deliver in the most efficient manner. Money being the strongest barometer for feedback, everyone has an incentive to join the discussion then. And there is a growing treasure trove of data that reveals both scientifically and demographically the economic advantage in more sustainable living, in which cities are at the heart.

In last Sunday's New York Times Magazine, physicist Geoffrey West is profiled at length describing his work that strips narrative away from cities and looks at them on a scientific system level. West's findings indicate that cities are like elephants. The article by Jonah Lehrer states "while an elephant is 10,000 times the size of a guinea pig, it needs only 1,000 times as much energy," which correlates to West's work that "the indicators of urban "metabolism," like the number of gas stations or the total surface area of roads, showed that when a city doubles in size, it requires an increase in resources of only 85 percent." Extrapolating his findings, West concludes that "creating a more sustainable society will require our big cities to get even bigger." Keeping the economic efficiency principle of sustainability in mind, nothing could be more sustainable than increasing maximum output with lesser uses of resources and energy.

This is compatible with information just released from the American Community Survey data from the U.S. Census Bureau, which shows large increases in median income levels in city centers all across the country. In addition to the rise in income, opportunities are becoming more concentrated and properties are holding onto their value in urban areas better than exurban ones. While these maps do indicate a concern for the squeezing out of poorer communities in urban areas, and the creation of larger tracts of impoverishment, this assemblage of money is also an opening and competitive impetus for civic bodies to invest in the capital of its infrastructure, and most importantly, its human capital (particularly in minority and immigrant populations) to educate them in preparation to enter the emerging cluster of city-centric economies.

At a round-table discussion earlier this month at the Global Metro Summit here in Chicago, Mayor Daley was joined by Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa as they openly examined the ways in which cities have to move forward on a daily basis, regardless of the political environment that surrounds them on a county, state or federal level. Mayor Nutter provided the most succinct press quote of the day when he stated that mayors must abide by a principle "...called G.S.D., get stuff done. That's what we do." This practicality that city leaders must employ dictates that the most pragmatic solutions to solving a city's problem should by default become the prescriptions followed, regardless of the political bent to them. As cities continue to emerge as the economic bellwethers for the nation out of the recession, and as sustainability seemingly goes hand in hand with urban development, this makes it easier to see how sustainability becomes the reflexive option and a simple economic, not emotional, choice.

An application of how all this can work is laid out nicely in the Chicago-based think-tank Center for Neighborhood Technology's "Investing in a Better Chicago" report. A set of policy and priority recommendations for Chicago's leadership, the reports states in its executive summary what could very well be the mission statement of the Green Movement: "Chicago's next leaders have an excellent opportunity to demonstrate what the Center for Neighborhood Technology (CNT) has long understood: that sustainable development is economic development...Sustainable development means the efficient use of resources. Known as "productivity" in private industry, it is the hallmark of good business, whether for a 10-person firm or for the nation's third largest city. Chicago has a reputation as a sustainable city, but it has unrealized potential when it comes to increasing the productivity of its urban economy."

The report goes on to detail 22 precise policy points that will remedy many of Chicago's structural inefficiencies through the development and enforcement of sustainable measures. Many of CNT's recommendations are simply demanding Chicago follow-through on its own promises, such as the City's stated intention to retrofit 65,000 housing units per year to make them more energy efficient, or keep the city on track with its implementation of the Chicago Climate Action Plan. What "Investing in a Better Chicago" truly illustrates though is that the best way to green the economy is not to make an allusion towards some zip-a-dee-doo-dah plee towards a nicer tomorrow, but to underline the other green, i.e., money, within the argument. All the metrics scientifically, demographically and monetarily make the case for sustainability as the most pragmatic route. When viewed through such as lens, it will impel the political class and the general public to follow suit. Sold as such, it practically sells itself.

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WAJ / December 22, 2010 4:13 PM

This reminds me of all of the analysts who, in the early 2000's, reminded people that home prices could never fall.

"Sustainability" is just the latest rorschach test and catch all phrase for the academic class - all theories and no accountability.

It sounds smart and makes people feel good about themselves, and is a good way to get money to study something. Its a naive intellectualism.

If we seek to create sustainable endeavors, why are they so unsustainable without being subsidized by government funds?

Imagine, if federal money dries up, there is no need for the output of those endeavors. Is that efficient use of capital?

When we talk of these "green technologies", how many of them are dependent on rare earth minerals? Wind turbines, electric/hybrid car batteries, solar cells, phosphorous lightbulbs, etc, are all dependent on rare earch minerals. Who produces rare earth minerals? China accounts for 97% of the rare earth market, although there are many multinationals who operate mines in China. Why? Because rare earh mining is extremely polluting and China's government values their economic growth and cornering the market over environmental concerns.

Is shifting pollution from one area of the world to another really "sustainable" - especially when the latter has lower environmental standards than the former?

Rare earth minerals are also limited in supply (self apparent by the their name, no?), so what is sustainable about basing a future on technologies that are already known to have near term production and supply limitations (and they will run out long before carbon-based sources)?

I love the comments about productivity. Productivity is the measure of output per given input, so lets look at Chicago's productivity.

Is Chicago's pension liability, massively underfunded, equal to its output? Nope.

Is the output of the Chicago Public School system equal to its input? Nope (and that is a tragedy).

It doesn't seem like a city like Chicago is very sustainable. Everyone knows its finances are unsustainable, so is this just a game of "hope and pray".

The Geoffrey West article was interesting but there are two things that are necessary to bring up. the first is that you cite his estimate of marginal resource allocation as evidence of sustainability, when that relise on the assumption that the initial resource allocation is sustainable, which it clearly isn't. Secondly, he states that his models are predictive up to an 85% accuracy rate. Phrased differently, his model has at least a 15% failure rate. I don't begrudge his work, but that is an astonishingly high failure rate to try base anything substantial off of.

If a city is a netowrk of different systems, and the model you are using to describe those systems has a 15% failure rate, how many systems are required in order to make the predictive ability of that model the same as flipping a coin?


Is a city made up of only four systems? Of course not.

At the end of the day, the "green" argument always comes back to the emotional decision. Do you believe or do you not believe.

TJSmith / December 24, 2010 1:13 PM

Let us not forget that one of the biggest proponents of "sustainability" has helped institute a $7.7 billion subsidy which he now admits is bad policy and was based on his personal motives.

Al Gore: "It is not a good policy to have these massive subsidies for first-generation ethanol..." "...One of the reasons I made that mistake is that I paid particular attention to the farmers in my home state of Tennessee," he said, "and I had a certain fondness for the farmers in the state of Iowa because I was about to run for president."

So the US was sold "sustainability" in the form of ethanol and it has turned out to be complete BS and now we can't cut it out of the budget

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