In the last decade, the idea of sustainability has been thrust into the collective American worldview. In response to growing awareness of climate change and its increasingly obvious effects, many environmentally-conscious individuals began applying sustainable principles to their daily lives: composting, water conservation, buying locally, greener transportation alternatives, recycling. The Inconvenient Truth-inspired thought is that if everyone were to adopt greener practices, the cumulative effect would sufficiently offset the global climate trend, with each person’s actions contributing in small part to reducing the overall negative impact on the world while reducing the individual carbon footprint. It gives power to the movement if individuals can have an impact. To further bolster greener choices, there is a monetary incentive associated with climate-consciousness: minimizing electrical/water usage decreases utility bills, driving less reduces the cost of fuel and car maintenance, and converting to a minimalistic lifestyle allows one to reduce the reliance on objects with a resultant savings. Some conservationists are more radical than others—as individuals, we have the ability to pick and choose to what degree we want to be sustainably active—but the belief is that collective consciousness is moving in the right direction.
According to worldofmeter.info, as of 3:00 pm PTZ on August 29, 2017, the global population is 7.53 billion. This year alone has brought 97.8 million births and 38.3 million deaths, creating a growth rate of 2.5:1. If we are to use the term “sustain” literally, this is an unsustainable growth rate (watch the number grow at www.worldofmeters.info/world-population). Globally, the United States is ranked third in growth with a fertility rate of 1.89, a rate it has maintained since 2015, but this means we add approximately 2.3 million people to our national population annually.
In 1931, James Truslow Adams popularized the idea of the American Dream in his book The Epic of America, in which he described “that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement.” In 1987’s Our Common Future by the Brundtland Commission, sustainability was defined as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” These two ideals seem to work towards a similar goal.
However, somewhere along the line, America morphed from an agrarian society to an industrial society to a technological one. The American Dream became contorted into a fantasy that is inherently unsustainable. Families vie for ever-larger homes, expansive lawns, three or more children, and several vehicles to cart them around ever-expanding suburban sprawl. The demand for labor following World War II and the introduction of the credit card in the 1950s-60s has led to the rampant consumerism of American culture. Americans are encouraged by advertisers to clamor for more: more cars, more houses, more children, more vacations. Without limits. To the detriment of common areas: parks, pathways, and the common morality that emphasizes the community over the individual. And to the detriment of so many other things.
The gradual adaptations we are making towards being more sustainable individuals are being undermined by the sheer quantity of resources required to sustain such a personalized and partitioned way of living. Annie Leonard’s twenty-minute video, “Story of Stuff,” (http://storyofstuff.org/movies/story-of-stuff/) talks about planned obsolescence, a profit-driven lifestyle to market to consumers: to continually buy and consume more than we need. This custom of disposable items and quick consumables is what has driven the small-scale solutions used to address the global climate crisis. And although these individuals’ choices and small changes do accumulate and add to the solution, there is a systemic problem with the isolated lifestyles we have adopted over the last hundred years. The small changes we make on individual bases are hugely offset by our societal susceptibility to the marketing that drives consumerism and capitalism’s need for unlimited growth in a finite world, to support Big Agriculture, Big Pharma, Big Oil, and Big Waste.
How then can we rethink the American Dream and the way we live so that we can continue to sustain and support the growing population? The solution is not simple, but some cities around the world are paving the way. To make a difference takes equal effort from citizens and government to make major reformations of our national values. It is important to remember that the Industrial Age is over and we live in the Information Age now.
By refocusing our efforts from generalized expansion and reorienting that drive into creating a higher quality of life, both mentally and physically, as well as improving our communal cohesion, we may begin to live truly sustainable lives that give back and restore the global environment.
In David Owen’s 2004 article “Green Manhattan,” he makes several claims. Although traditional high-density urban cities as a whole are a major drain of resources and, designed as they are now, create urban heat islands, compared to a suburban home, a city apartment is incredibly efficient. He argues that each suburban home needs an immense amount of infrastructure (water, power, gas lines), municipal amenities (trash and sewage removal), and personal vehicles to transport its dwellers to any nearby necessities. A city dwelling is much more efficient, as the density of units concentrates infrastructural and municipal requirements, decreases the need for heating and cooling as the building has better temperature retention and, due to the density of the city, there is a decreased need for personal transportation.
Friends of the Highline in Brooklyn revitalized the community and raised the property values in the neighborhood by creating a sustainable park on the old railway (http://www.thehighline.org/about).
At the beginning of the twentieth century, 10% of the world’s population lived in cities. Today, that worldwide number has risen to 50%. The trend is called re-urbanization and it is worldwide. As a technological innovator, America has the responsibility to offer solutions to the challenges of architecture, agriculture, city planning, transportation, pollution, and infrastructure.
There are some companies that are taking this a step further and bringing agriculture back into the urban environment. Freight Farms (www.freightfarms.com) retrofits old shipping containers into vertical gardens that can grow year-round vegetables anywhere a shipping container can be stored. Buildings can also be wrapped in vegetation with living walls and roof gardens to reduce the Urban Heat Island effect and increase carbon dioxide conversion into oxygen. It has also been studied that robust urban forests can improve mental wellbeing as well as increase overall biodiversity.
Friends of the Urban Forest’s website lists more sourced benefits to increased vegetation in the urban environment (https://www.fuf.net/about-us/).
Colleges are leading the way in environmental experimentation. Tiny House in My Backyard (THIMBY) is “an interdisciplinary team of UC Berkeley graduate and undergraduate students that worked together to design and build an affordable, off-grid, 100% solar-powered “tiny” house at the Richmond Field Station in Richmond, CA. The house generates its own electricity, and is small enough to fit in the unused portions of urban lots. Cities around the world face the challenge of housing a growing population while the size, cost and carbon footprint of homes continue to rise. THIMBY is a 170 square-foot, one-bedroom, one-bathroom home that is designed to serve two residents and aims to demonstrate the compatibility of affordability and sustainability. This project represented an opportunity for students from diverse departments to learn about sustainable design principles through hands-on experience in all phases of development, from design to construction to performance evaluation. The house is compact, but provides a comfortable and inviting home environment, with a focus on energy and water efficiency.” See article below.
In the oil-rich United Arab Emirates, steps are being taken for the society when the oil is gone. In the city of Al Ain in Abu Dhabi, the Sheikh Zayed Desert Learning Center, a museum and research facility was designed by two Austrian architects. The vestibule is cool, even in the desert heat, due to thermal design. In an area with no rainfall the potable water is recycled onsite. Some of the building is subterranean and uses geothermal heat exchangers to pre-cool the ventilated air. The topography and culture of Al Ain was studied as a first step in developing a megacity comprised of “little villages.” It is 10-20 degrees cooler in this prototype—urban heat islands are unable to form. (Smart Cities Paul K. Kreska).
Yet these are only steps. We, as a global community, need to foster an increased sense of community involvement, governance, and stewardship. We need to both hold each other accountable and support one another. Yet with the current political discord and radical racial discrimination, we are divided more than ever. If the emphasis remains on individual consumption the worldview cannot shift to a community oriented lifestyle that perpetuates change. Our personal over-indulgences have muddled and distracted America from the fact that humanity is ever encroaching the point of no return for environmental collapse.
Sustainability will never have an end-game, a solution. Environmental consciousness is an ongoing path. Like the rest of the world, sustainable practices in the United States must be constantly adapting and evolving and they require people actively pursuing new frontiers in social sciences, environmental studies, public policy, and technological revolutions to sustain it.