Sustainability 101: A Green Reality Check

Sustainability 101

©2012 Michael Lucas Monterey
Crestone, San Luis Valley, Upper Rio Grande Bioregion
March 31, 2012

"Insanity is doing something over and over again yet expecting different results."
"We cannot solve a problem with the same kind of thinking that created it."
 – Albert Einstein

This is a response to the general confusion about sustainability and the meaning of "green" that stubbornly persists in many parts of the USA. Some of the confusion is understandable, given the colossal daily barrage of often conflicting information, propaganda, shibboleths, and nonsense polluting the paradigm. Some of the confusion seems to be systemic and more or less subtle, and some doubt may be justified, since humans are normally not endowed with perfect perception nor complete knowledge nor supreme wisdom.

So, has greenwash made "green" meaningless? Is anything really sustainable?

Every thing changes, and whatever begins ends. Change is one of the most basic constants of nature, enforced by universal creativity, relativity, and the nature of energy. So, why are most of us obsessed with sustainability and permanence, especially the permanence of our favorite personal fictions and social games, the most illusory "things" in the universe?

What we need is the least difficult rate of change and the most effective adaptation for the best possible evolutionary success. That requires realistic perspective, based on life-enhancing values, good attitudes, compassionate wisdom, valid knowledge and appropriate responses, with effective ways and means.
Half-hearted efforts, shallow learning, incomplete understanding, ill-informed decisions, faux quick fixes, and semi-green options that seem "good enough" for a few decades or so are all part of the problem, not the solution. We need a green paradigm makeover and an upgrade of modern culture, especially the economy. That requires sustainable compassion and responsibility for more than a generation or two.

Five basic factors affecting the fate of any and all civilizations were revealed in Dr. Jared Diamond's sobering yet inspiring book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. Those five crucial factors are:

1.  Environmental impact
2.  Climate change
3.  Neighbouring allies and enemies
4.  Loss and gain of trading partners
5.  Society's responses to all the above

All our choices, causes, and effects are interactive; all relating to use and misuse of our brains. Failed cultures of the past indulged in misconceptions, misunderstandings, and terminal defects in common, misusing inner and outer resources. They missed too many opportunities and two essential prerequisites.* The two prerequisites give us seven essentials of evolutionary success and cultural longevity:

1.* A viable paradigm supporting life-enhancing values, thought, communication, and activity
2.* Loving respect for nature, humanity, children, wise elders, leaders, and guardians
3. Biospheric awareness and empathy, fostering the best quality of life for all generations
4. Awareness of adverse climate change and active commitment to minimizing or reversing it
5. Sustainable peace, positive dialogue, and dynamic harmony with allies and enemies
6. Thriving by upgrading policies, laws, institutions and enterprises for green affluence
7.  Positive responses to whatever challenges sustainably healthy success

We, the people, decide to rise or fall. With healthy values and abiding commitment to lively culture and general well-being, success can grow out of near disaster. Sustaining effective concern for the wellness of children, elders, humanity, and community is impossible without healthy values and attitudes. Success depends on wise choices and proactive responses, but are we choosing to succeed?

Superior alternatives, embodying only a tiny fraction of the negative impacts of most modern materials, technologies, and activities have existed for ten millennia. For example, there are caravanserais (walled towns) at oases in Africa still standing after more than 4,000 years. Some towns and temples in Asia have been maintained for over 2000 years. We have much more to learn from the best of the past than we do from most of the "new" research and development performed for and funded by the financial-industrial society that created our global crisis.

Often, what seems like confident expertise and enthusiastic brilliance, masks well educated ignorance and arrogant disregard for sustainable cultural success for the sake of temporary professional success. After all, most engineers and inventors are more or less normal human beings, with typical desires, needs, ambitions, fears, and flaws. The more saintly pioneers and holistic thinkers are typically the least successful by normal financial standards. Why?

The world suffers an anti-green financial infection that generates a kind of psychosocial AIDS, perpetuating the parasitic sociopolitical system it reinforces. Our social auto-immune disorder persists because most of us are creatures of habit who hate changing, no matter how stupid, destructive, or miserable it makes us. So, the "Free Market" is driven by greed and fear, mainly fear of change. Most corporate executives, stockholders, brokers, and politicians clealy care more about profit than people. Until the quality of life is more important than profit and winning (despite disastrous damage), anti-green business, massive pollution, insane waste, and cultural illness will continue. Still, the negative economic game had a beginning and it will end, one way or another.

Poisoning the air, waters, and soil with tar sand and oil shale mining (and conversion to low grade fuel oil and gasoline) are neither sustainable nor really affordable. Increased burning of fuel will release much more CO2 and GHGs and toxic residues as more people are able to drive cars. Most cities now encourage waste, structurally, discouraging energy efficiency, self-reliance, walking, and mass-transit. The Arctic ice-cap protects about 30% of Earth's oil, but not for long.

Many average American energy addicts now think oil powered technology is OK, and drilling for the good stuff seems best. So, what...?

Methane frozen under the ocean floor and virtually locked in millions of cubic miles of melting arctic tundra can be unleashed by more global warming. Methane (over 22 times more potent than CO2) can cause runaway global super-heating and acid-rain strong enough to wipe out most ocean species, land animals, and plants for a million years. How much more CO2 will it take to push the temperature past the limit? That is unknowable.

Ignoring or overlooking the millennial successes of the past is neither affordable nor sustainable, nor is it wise or even sane. Though none of us know how much time we have, we really have no time to waste on deliberate ignorance or insanity posing as normality.

The Chinese will double the area of their built environment by 2030, about 18 building seasons from now. With population and economic growth rates of India close to China's, and the rest of the "Third World" catching up fast, the amount of human habitat built over the last 5,000 years will double in just over 200 months. Unrealistic planning and deficient design could double or triple the use of conventional bricks, concrete, pavement, machines, trucks, and cars, doubling or tripling the amount of carbon released in the production and use of those materials.

Annually, ordinary bricks and mortar account for over 80 billion pounds of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. The amount of CO2 released by production and use of conventional concrete mixes equals from 1 to 10 times the weight of the concrete itself. That means an increase from 81.6 billion to more than 96 billion pounds of extra CO2 pollution, yearly. Related processes and construction operations now produce billions of tons of other greenhouse gases (GHG), many already pervading the global food chain, including us.
Don't go numb now. Keep thinking, feeling, and caring. Sane alternatives, both new and ancient, are available, but we need to sustain courage, humane intelligence, and some humility.

Above all, we need to resist the temptation to embrace every slick or impressive high-tech "quick fix" approach that seems to be a perfectly engineered, one-size-fits-all solution for all people and places. Many inventors and engineers fail to consider all the real, direct and indirect impacts and costs that will be incurred over the whole life-cycle of their products and projects and the required production processes.
Obviously sustainable ancient and next generation green buildings, superior materials, and superior energy technologies exist now, but bioneering inventors now go begging for adequate funding or go broke. Why?
Some new materials are perfect for beautiful, ultragreen, ultralow-maintenance buildings that will inspire and endure for 10,000 years or more, but replacing all, or even most of our anti-green materials will take time. All relatively clean ways to keep carbon out of the sky are critically important now. Ultragreen materials are great, but nothing is greener than wise use and minimal waste. Minimizing waste in all we do and build can minimize demand for more fuel and new power plants, while decreasing destructive impacts and costs by 90% or more. Yet, many politicians, business owners, and stock holders are failing Sustainability 101, which may as well be called Reality 101.

Unwise decisions, and misuse of knowledge, design, technology, land, water, and wasted opportunity waste over 80% of the toxic fuels we burn. Instead of 7 billion, 9 billion hungry energy junkies may soon be living here. The impact of each wise and unwise action multiplied by billions amounts to a massive total impact, daily, yearly, constantly. Compassionate carefulness and realism are very valuable and, potentially, much more powerful than mass stupidity. Consider this, the sun provides thousands of times more energy than our civilization needs, daily. Maximizing building energy efficiency for solar panels over rooftops and parking lots will allow enough electricity for all our future needs. Optimal solar energy systems, millennial planning, ultragreen building materials, and appropriate construction techniques can minimize GHG emissions and toxic pollution by over 90%.

What does sustainability mean? It used to mean meeting our present needs without diminishing the ability of future generations to do the same. That is no longer good enough, if it ever was. Sustainable integrity and healthy, compassionate humanity now means thriving while enhancing the ability of all generations to thrive as well. Massive restoration programs are needed before that becomes the new norm.
Only the best green design and building for the best quality of life will produce the best results, the healthiest, happiest, brightest future for all generations. To achieve that, first we need to realize and sustain the two essentials of sustainable success...

1. A viable paradigm that fosters life sustaining values and culture
2. Real respect for nature and humanity, all future generations, sustaining health and sanity

Active commitment to truly compassionate wisdom and loving kindness for the sake of ourselves, our children, and our neighbors (of all species), will inspire us to learn what we need to learn. Then we can and will support millennial planning for a civilization worth sustaining.

Sustaining the basics of sane living sustains us while fostering biospheric consciousness, awareness of destructive climate change, and cooperation to minimize harmful effects. Upgrading policies, laws, institutions and enterprises for the greenest innovation and general affluence supports effective responses to whatever challenges healthy success. Supporting an anti-green socioeconomic paradigm that only supports profit, compound interest, destructive debt, and pandemic poverty ensures failure and collapse. Whole life-cycle cost assessment will inform superior strategy, policy, alternatives, and options, enabling true cost pricing of all we use, build, and waste. China has proved that, getting rid of plastic bags, etc., accordingly. Did it harm their economy or slow it down? Not a bit...

This condensed review of green sustainability began with a quote and a question. The question was answered, but are most of us doing the kind of thinking needed for a real solution?  With over 5,000 years worth of destructive cultural habits, can we really achieve a healthy, sane civilization? Can we stop or slow down and quit doing the same things over and over again while expecting different results?

Not all insanely self-destructive societies collapsed and fell. Dr. Jared Diamond and his team of researchers discovered five [relatively unknown] ancient cultures that recognized the approach of terminal disaster, stopped what they were doing, and then did what was necessary to succeed, sustainably. Expressing and enacting the essentials of healthy cultural viability, personally, in groups, families, and communities, we optimize our odds for a happy outcome, for ourselves and our world. However it seems to be going on any given day, doing our best enriches, enlivens, and ennobles our civilization and ourselves.

Yes, high quality causes produce high quality results. So, are we going to choose sustainable success? The answer to that question will come from each of us, with each decision we make in each moment of interactive presence.
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Bio: Michael Lucas Monterey

Michael Monterey's training in the fine arts began in 1952 and, at 15, his training in architecture, building, and development, leading to ongoing study of the history of building, culture, religions, and spirituality. Ongoing interest in mindbody medicine and natural healing began in 1967. In the 1970s, while working in architecture, engineering, and a series of successful art related business startups, he began combining creative dreaming, creative problem solving, and design, enjoying many extra hours of nightly productivity. Studying the works of Malcolm Wells, Paolo Soleri, and other innovative bioneers, led to Monterey's research and development (R&D) of ecotecture, neo-primitive design-build techniques, new green materials & technologies, sustainable community planning, and evolutionary social theory from the early 1970s on. Freelance work and startups in jewelry design and manufacturing gave way to R&D of new paradigm economics in 1986. While succeeding with fine art print and greeting card design, publishing, and distribution, in 1988 writing became an increasingly major focus. That led to his first successful book project, Awakening 101, a hit at Borders Bookstores for over three years. Monterey developed formulas and samples of his millennial Ultradobe and Ultracrete building materials from 2003 to 2009. In response to the Meltdown of the economy and culture, Monterey began writing for The Economics of Compassion, then Emergency: How to Create a Healthy New World (both forthcoming). The Greenbook, an evolving sustainability solutions resource text for greening the world was first published online in 2011. Monterey enjoys living in the Upper Rio Grande Bioregion, providing green design, planning, and innovative solutions for local and global sustainability.