It's a word that's often bandied about, and nearly always with a favorable connotation. But what does sustainability really mean?
And if we accept this defintion — the quality of not being harmful to the environment or depleting natural resources, and thereby supporting long-term ecological balance — can modern human activity ever be truly sustainable?
I ask because the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) — comprising folks who sincerely care about environmental issues — is convening in Hawaii now. And it's done a very good of patting itself on the back for creating a “sustainable” 10-day conference — with media like Hawaii Business unquestioningly playing along.
Indeed, the IUCN has an eight-page PDF outlining all of its conference-specific green goals.
But what does that really mean? Especially when you consider that nearly all of the estimated 9,500 participants will have flown to Hawaii — the most isolated inhabited landmass in the world. So it would seem that they're starting in a pretty deep carbon emissions hole.
Yes, they're seeking to neutralize the footprint by purchasing carbon mitigation from the Cordillera Azul National Park Project in Peru. But that only applies to IUCN staff and delegates. Otherwise, it's a voluntary contribution.
On-site, they're touting things like “use of Speedi Shuttles for airport transfers, free bus passes, free bike use, electric cars/buses, biodiesel.” True, any one of those choices produces fewer emissions than a rental car. But not one of them is truly sustainable, especially in Hawaii, where all fossil fuels are imported. Even the bikes are made someplace else and shipped in.
At the venue itself — the Convention Center — they are counting things like “automatic dispensers for sink faucets, hand towels, hand soap and hand sanitizer,” while never considering that these dispensers and their contents are also imported.
The green guide goes on to note: "Assure that the waste water is treated in the best way." Except, there's only one option for such treatment in Honolulu, and no mention of mitigating the water use or treatment required to accommodate all the low-water flushes and hand washes required by 6,000 persons over 10 days.
They're also shooting for zero waste — no plastic of any kind — and calling for either reusable cutlery, which requires water-electricity to clean, and “recyclable/compostable cutlery.” Except, so far as I know, there's really no place in Hawaii to recycle or compost cutlery.
They also call for “composting of organic waste (to produce soil fertilizer, or supplying to farmers for livestock feed ). So what, do the pig and veggie farmers drive in Honolulu to pick up food waste at the convention center? Or will it be burned like most of Oahu's opala?
There's a demand for “electronic means” to reduce paper waste, which is great, but the production of tablets, smart phones, laptops, etc., is certainly not sustainable, nor is the electricity generated to power them up.
As for those freebies — usually cheesy — that are part of every conference, IUCN is encouraging “giveaways that convey a green and/or socially responsible message, are reusable and which have been produced ethically, using environmentally- friendly materials, such as organic unbleached natural fibers.” Though many of us would question whether organic fibers are inherently environmentally or ethically friendly, especially when produced with child labor and shipped half-way round the world.
Turning to the menu, they're offering many vegetarian and vegan options, and otherwise calling for “locally sourced, seasonal and sustainable food provided as much as possible.” Which is fine, except no food in Hawaii is produced sustainably. Not when you consider that soil inputs are imported, as is the fuel for farm machinery and transport.
Does food necessarily have a smaller carbon footprint, just because it's produced locally? Especially when you consider that Hawaii is unable to achieve economies of scale.
I especially liked this: "Only endemic, non-endangered potted plants are used for decoration within venue". How many endemic, non-endangered plants have you ever seen potted in Hawaii? What about the plastic pots?
And I'm sorry, but even if you don't wash your sheets and towels daily, and the shampoo is in a dispenser rather than a little bottle on the sink, there is no way that any hotel in Hawaii can be considered either green or sustainable. They are inherently unsustainable, because they're not producing any of the resources they consume.
Which is not to say that I'm critical of the convention itself — it's great for good minds to come together — or dissing the desire to have as little impact as possible. We all need to be conscious of the toll that our lives take on the natural world.
But let's not kid ourselves that any of this stuff — air travel, cities, convention centers, catered meals, tourism, electronic devices, etc. — is truly sustainable.
Why perpetuate the delusion that bringing 6,000 people from all over the world to an Island in the middle of the Pacific can be achieved without serious and significant environmental impacts?
Pretending otherwise is merely a distraction, a way to make people feel good about what they're doing, even when it doesn't mean anything.
I had a phone chat with a University of Washington professor the other day on the topic of sustainability. It's something that scientists often consider. Most recently, however, the conversation is moving toward whether it's too late to be talking about sustainability as realistic, attainable goal.
It seems to me that we're already well past that point. A planet with 7.4 billion people — most of them addicted to fossil fuels, consumer goods and war — is not sustainable.
Yeah, we can delay, mitigate the pain with technology and conscious choices. But if you look at the history of humans on the planet, we seem incapable of living without harming the environment or depleting natural resources.
So let's start talking about what that really means for the future, for the way of life that so many of take for granted, instead of making like it can all be mitigated and made “green” by insisting a vendor sign his/her contract with non-toxic ink.
It seems a suitable subject for the IUCN to tackle. But while there is of much of interest scheduled, I didn't see that particular topic on the program.