Is Resiliency the New Sustainability?

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Is Resiliency the New Sustainability?

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Whateverrrrrr do these words even mean anymore?  I can’t for the life of me remember!  Maintaining merely a local view of resiliency and sustainability might be at least itself unsustainable.  Maybe a better question is “What is unsustainable?”  For us in the US, our approaches suggests that sustainability includes things that can be maintained over time while developing the best efficiency, greatest life span and lightest footprint.  We’ve wrapped it up in a nice neat bow, and called it the Triple Bottom Line, that with the greatest economic, social and environmental good.  But that horse is really quite dead.  What new ideas and approaches are trotting along the path of the cutting edge if not the bleeding edge?  What are some new ideas?  What’s the next big idea?

Let’s boil this down a bit.  We’ve applied The Triple bottom line of P3, people, prosperity and the planet to almost everything!  How do we get the most and best out of everything, I mean everything!  It’s all fancy stuff to sell!  In some cases its marketing!  Everything from architecture to cities to power to cars, to TV’s to bathroom cleaners is sustainable or resilient!  I’ll wager that if you opened the website of every single architectural, planning, urban design and landscape firm on the web, you’d find the familiar words…green, sustainable design, LEED, Green Communities, Green Globes or Passive Haus plastered all over it.

Well, then there’s that word “green” when it comes to buildings and cleaning products and maybe eggs and milk and stuff at the grocery store.  “Green” often refers to the exorbitant cost by its detractors, but to those enlightened Kool-Aid drinkers, it conjures up all sorts of stuff with low this and long that, and reduced this and outlasts that and recycled this and recyclable that and requires little to keep it around for its long life.  This is what we have come to.  The Triple Bottom line applied to absolutely everything to make it more efficient, with a lighter footprint.  We want light footprints.  Light!  Footprints!  Even Donald Trumpers!  Don’t worry, they’re not reading this blog anyway.

Consider this.  Yeah, REM sang it, but consider the cost of your stock portfolio.  How much did it cost?  Huh?  What?  That question doesn’t compute does it?   With stocks and bonds you invest!  You focus on solid future returns on your investment.  So goes it with sustainable design!  We Americans since the last World War been slopping at the trough of prosperity and established the fiefdom of consumption such that we now know we consume the most per capita many times over worldwide.  We all know this!  Some of us are proud of that and some ashamed.  It’s even part of our current political debate!  As we’ve seen, if this is really the debate then there’s a vast “No Man’s Land” between the two sides.  The conversation has shifted from practical to political.  In short, it’s time for a change…a change of labels, of ideas, of approaches, of understanding, of talking points, technologies, discussions, polemics of hyperbole.  Ah, but what to call it now that the ol’ horse has been beaten to death?  We need, desperately need a language of inclusion not ex.  We need to change the conversation.

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Some facts.  According to www.public.wsu.edu (check out the link) we are 5% of the world’s population and consume 24% of the world’s energy.  Not new news.  And some of us believe some of us need to do something about it.  That’s our cultural bias of resiliency and sustainability.   A simple title… “Less is More!”…but I believe an architect Mr. van der Rohe came up with that title 75 years ago as a precursor for minimalist designs!   Well, never let it be said we Americans don’t emulate!   “Less is More!”…is this sustainability?  Is that resilient?  Not likely.

Sustainability is what I do, or you might say who I work for.  Sustainability employs me, it pays my salary!  I’ve watched over the last half century (now I sound like all our parents) as the conversation has shifted.  The one thing I remember clearly was an esprit de corps that is totally lacking today.  Esprit de corps vs. polemics, yep, that’s it.  There were opposite opinions and approaches but, there was a sense of “us and we” not “me and I”.  There was a “we may disagree…but” attitude missing today.  Maybe that esprit remained from winning a major war in the post-war era, maybe it was the “Brave New World”, maybe we could beat the Russians and tell ‘em to get the hell out of the Caribbean and fly of all things to the moon.  Whatever the basis, there was a cooperative nature to discussions of the day and the budding ideas of what would be eventually called sustainability.  It seemed we could solve anything!  Anything at all!

Let’s shift gears for a minute.  There is an evolution of the sustainability concept in Americana, and I hate to admit that I’ve watched it unfold.  I’m really not that old!  Long ago in the 1950’s, while still not a word, the concepts of sustainability waxed poetically vibrant.  Born out of an earlier time of less is more, it defined a way of life, the way we worked together, cooperatively.  Before there was a word, the ideas of sustainability were not connected to the meanings of today of reducing and efficiency, but to broader more “global thinking” principles of networks and social life.  The ways we shopped and related, how we discussed and worked, the ways got together and moved around, created partnerships and cooperation, all were set within the principles of resiliency and sustainability.  It was a social concept where community remained the focus.  I grew up in the suburbs in the 1950’s and 60’s as did I suspect most of you.  It was a neighborhood in every sense, we ate and played and talked together in a vibrant tight knit community.

Later on…say a quarter century ago when the word sustainability was coined, we got to define the meaning more specifically.  Now after decades of overuse, the word has become as stale as moldy bread.  Remember NPR voted it the most over used word of the year over half a decade ago!  It became so very PC and referred to everything relating to “anti-overabundance”…how’s that for a new word!  We tried to rename it “resiliency” and that too got old quick.  Just substitute the word “resilient” for “sustainable” and you’re up to date!  A kind of Word Search.

Hell, the most recent episode of Frontline on PBS www.pbs.org/frontline, (remember, check those links!) a highly enlightened news program in my opinion, discussed the merits of a “resilient federal policy” creating “resilient solutions” towards flood victims from Hurricane Sandy, through “resilient neighborhoods”!  Talk about PC speak!  By the end of the program I had lost any sense of what the hell “resiliency” actually means!  Is it just synonymous with “good stuff”?  Popularized buzz words lose all meaning after a while.  The Mad Men series, itself a pop culture phenomenon reminds us that pop culture buzz words and catch phrases wither away faster than grapes on the vine!  So let’s look at some concepts and ideas instead.

We Americans luxuriate in the options of sustainable living.  It’s our choice!  Some say yes!  Some say no way!  We get to choose what sustainable things we do.  So we can patronize, and utilize, support, include, opt, and choose this stuff.  It’s another option, something nice, something to feel good about.  On the flip side, in the “politics of polemics” that we seem locked into these days, sustainability is more of a tool for discourse, creating disagreement, a political platform and label synonymous with dirty Liberals.  On the practical side, some of us can go ahead and like green power, use low energy stuff, use recycled things and utilize solar energy.  Some can even design and build LEED buildings and walkable streets and Transit Center Shopping Districts and TOD’s.  Detractors can also choose to ridicule the solutions and widen the schism between us.   We as Americans get to choose!  No matter if it’s political, or principled or practical, sustainability is an option not a necessity.

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Well what about the costs?  Those that design and build our buildings, projects, cities and places get to include sustainable and green concepts, paying for them as investments…or not.  Design concepts that focus on healthy urban lifestyles have costs.  Ultimately consumers can choose to pay a little bit more, considering it as a kind of tithe, financially supporting their prinicples.  If it’s pretty, so much the better!  If enough of us choose to buy, then there is a market for green and sustainable projects and products.  So in the world of design, maybe the architecture is cooler, the cool guy designs more high performance, the windows face a bit more south, and the streets become more walkable.  Maybe the shopping is a bit more crowded and the pedestrians a bit more diverse, maybe the trip to the airport or downtown becomes a bit easier, faster, cheaper with lower impacts.  Maybe the cars guzzle a little less gas or electricity and cause less pollution.  Maybe our chairs are filled with a bit less off-gassing stuff and of all things…some of us feel more responsible by recycling our bottles and newspapers.

It’s nice and easy and something to choose or not.  It’s something to use as a conversation piece or political sword.  It’s permeated our buildings and projects, affected our cities and neighborhoods and impacted our ideas.  Sustainability is an option, it’s become a market share, seeping into our business, social fabric, politics, technology, defining the edges of extremes for consumption, stewardship and responsibility.  It’s all very nice and fun.  We can buy it.  We can pluck it out of a catalog, or a display case.  It’s exactly like buying I Phones or HDTV’s or coffee makers.  Its imagery and marketing, it’s a commodity and a point of discussion.  It’s all very nicely pedestrian in a broad use of the term.   It’s all a uniquely…American conversation.

“Why Eastern Europe?”  Eastern Europe remains a place of necessity.  Sustainability is not a luxury, but an absolute way of life.  Right up until today, the economic, social, environmental and let me add in the political, issues remain dire.  Eastern Europe has remained the door mat for East vs. West for millennia. Their lives past, present and future may help us redefine what is sustainable into a more fundamental concept.  In Eastern Europe or more specifically the X Soviet Union, you don’t choose from a laundry list of options, your choices are far more fundamental and immediate.  This is not to suggest that the place is inferior to the American approach, it’s just different and fundamentally so!  The continuum of human history plays out into a complex fabric that must be considered in any of today’s approaches.  There’s that TB Line again…only now it’s not all gussied up and perdy. Its rough and tumble and old and a continuum of social evolution.  But it works.

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