Sustainabilities

My last post discussed one of the great problems of sustainability today and our conceptual laziness in distinguishing between reuse and recycling. Sustainability as a concept can also lead to lazy thinking because like economics, there are different levels of sustainability.
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I read today about all of the green products at the International Builders Show in Las Vegas, lovely bamboo “socially conscious sinks”, sinks made out of recycled enamel, and tiles made out of 10-100 percent recycled glass (depending on the color), and the quickest shortcut to green heaven, the CFL bulb.
Of course, we have the reuse versus recycling problem here: It is swell that building materials are made out of recycled materials and that sinks can be made from bamboo, but where are they coming from and what is their carbon footprint? How much energy was used to remelt and reform those glass tiles? How much to forge that sink enamel? How much to ship that bamboo sink halfway around the world? And then you have the whole problem that a new building has a big carbon footprint no matter what it is made out of, and if you removed an old building to build the new building, odds are the project won’t become carbon neutral in your lifetime.
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But the bigger problem is that there are two sustainabilities and we are only thinking about one of them. We think about the material, but we don’t think about the economy. How do you make a sustainable economy based on sustainabile practices? The Obama economic stimulus admirably looks at fixing things – bridges, roads – as well as developing new energy technologies that aren’t dependent on trucking and shipping tons of oil halfway around the world. That is good, but I am not sure it addresses an intrinsic aspect of our economy that is not sustainable.
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After World War II, we purposely built a new economic model more dependent on consumerism. This is why in 2001 after the terrorist attacks we were encouraged to go shopping – to save the economy. This is why we have had “planned obsolescence” in manufacturing and distribution of consumer goods since before I was born. It is a good model for building wealth. But it is not sustainable as an economic model, since it is based on large amounts of waste and products that do not last a long time.
Motorola – the company – was in dire straits 18 months after it released the most popular telephone in the world. Why? Because it didn’t follow up the Razr with an equally successful fad product. Technology has become the latest arena of rapid obsolescence, and thus it has been the productive part of our economy. Our economic model requires growth, and the patterns of growth we have developed over the last 60 years are focused on short lifespan products – the shorter the better, for the economy.
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Wal-Mart and other big stores did remarkably well with the obsolescence economy because they sold products at prices so low, you never had to fix or even hold on to those products for very long. You could just throw them out and buy a new one.
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Historic preservation is about fixing things, which went out of fashion after the Second World War and the advent of the obsolescence economy. Even houses and buildings of the 1950s and 1960s were often built remarkably less durably than their predecessors of the 1920s. No developer of modern houses on the periphery has ever told me that those houses are supposed to last any longer than their initial mortgages.
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This is good for the economy as we have designed it, based on waste and constant consumption. So it is only natural that our foray into “sustainability” is based on the same model. Make a bamboo bowl in China, ship it halfway around the world and install it along with lots of recycled materials in a new house with weathertight windows. Of course, we should be grateful that technology allows us to weatherproof buildings – one of the SCARIEST aspects of the proposed stimulus bill.
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We have the technology today to make buildings as tight as vacuum tubes, thus losing less energy. So these buildings will run on lots less energy than historic ones, right? And old buildings with insulation and new windows can be more efficient than they ever were, right? They will use less energy than when they were built, right? Actually, no.
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See, in the postwar era of planned obsolescence and consumer economics, we also introduced a whole set of new “needs” that were once luxuries. Cars had arguably become “needs” prior to the 1950s, but one new “need” that only arrived late in that decade was air conditioning. Invented only a century ago and available to most people for the last 40 or 50 years, air conditioning added a whole new set of energy requirements that never existed before. This is why we need airtight buildings nowadays – much more than heating costs, which the Victorian architects addressed in the 19th century with double-glazed window systems, many of which exceed the modern double-glazed sash in efficiency. (That’s not fair – it is much easier for two old windows with 3-4 inches between their panes to beat a modern thermal pane all by itself. Give the thermal pane the installation and frame insulation it needs, and it will be competitive.)
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It is the same problem presented by the 6,400 square foot “green” house. How can a house that big be efficient in historical perspective unless it is occupied by 12 people and passively cooled? It can’t. It can be efficient in comparison to other houses of similar girth built five or ten or even 30 years ago. But it can’t touch a greystone with decent tuckpointing, caulk around the window frames and modest individual space requirements.
The real challenge is building a new economy, one that employs people to make things that last, fix those things, and reuse things for new purposes. Like buildings. That is much more than any stimulus package can offer, and much more than can be achieved given the existing models of production and consumption.
But the impulse to preserve and conserve may be able, over generations, to build this new economic model, one infinitely more sophisticated and subtle than the one I grew up with, because it was entirely dependent on marketing and the creation of “needs” where none existed. The new one will need to be based on future needs – real needs – because that is in fact the definition of sustainability.

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