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Is Sustainability an Impossible Dream?

6/23/2010 12:00:00 AM

Tags: sustainability, consumption

We claim to live sustainably if we can harvest or extract the earth’s resources without depleting or permanently damaging them. By that standard, no one in a country that devours coal, oil and water—and uses up a quarter of the earth’s resources—can live sustainably. Our collective footprint is just too huge.

To live sustainably, we first need to be part of a greater, systemic transformation toward a culture that regards that as a worthy goal. According to green marketers, 10 percent of the U.S. population believes we will always have enough resources, so we’re not going to engage them in the sustainability conversation. Twenty percent are very sincerely trying to minimize their massive American footprints, but their reducing and recycling efforts are futile if they can’t convince the other 70 percent that sustainable living is a better way. Recent events, from the BP oil spill to the banking meltdown, have begun to tip the balance.

Unsustainable consumption has come to a screeching halt (no credit, no stuff), and Americans are nesting as they haven’t in decades. “It’s the end of the era of conspicuous displays of wealth,” historian Steve Fraser told The New York Times in October 2008. “We are entering a new chapter in our history.” For the first time in decades, Americans are building smaller homes and requesting green-built certification because they understand that energy efficiency and durable, nontoxic materials will save them money over time. They’re growing their own food, in backyards and as part of urban community gardens, passing up high fructose corn syrup and flavorless strawberries sprayed with pesticides by poorly paid workers 1,500 miles away. This new chapter  has sustainability written into its DNA.

We celebrate small steps because they move the collective balance. “Change happens not by attacking what we do not find pleasing, but by living the example of what we ourselves believe,” architect Sarah Susanka, who launched the small-is-better housing movement with her Not So Big House books, wrote in Natural Home magazine in 2002. Sarah’s message that building smaller, better homes is both more sustainable and more satisfying was prophetic a decade ago and right on target today.

Change happens. Sustainable living in America is an attainable dream.

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