Rethinking Sustainability

A few weeks ago I came across an interesting experiment. One that is not in the slightest scientific or methodical, but nonetheless can provide interesting insight. I propose that you can get a reasonably accurate sense of modern public perception of any given idea by taking a look at the first page of its Google Image results.

As a test drive, let’s look at a neutral, uncontested, simple term: wildlife. A Google Image search of “wildlife” looks like this:

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I’d say what we see here is a pretty fair representation of the modern public’s mental image of wildlife. It includes all the large, charismatic species we usually associate with the term, the species we tell our children about and that nature documentaries typically focus on. What it doesn’t include is equally interesting; none of the above pictures show insects, despite their domination of the animal kingdom by nearly every measure. The images also focus on species that are located unusually distant from modern civilization, rather than include urban denizens like raccoons and squirrels which fit every definition of wildlife.

What’s more, beyond its individual elements, the page as a whole has a feeling to it. This is especially noticeable when you try a bunch of different words right in a row. It may be an inaccurate, romanticized, or grossly oversimplified feeling, but it’s one representative of the notions of the modern global public. Google is showing us what we want to see when we want to see wildlife.

I don’t want to spend too much time on this experiment, though I invite you to play around with it. The food page looks determined to terrorize nutritionists, and music seems to be in the midst of an identity crisis between its classical  side and some new-age, ethereal feeling. You might try comparing love with hate, or hero with villain. The experiment doesn’t always work of course, as trying to get a good feeling for the modern public’s perception of the future will instead turn up mostly images of Future, the rapper.

And so, perhaps you can understand my frustration when I decided to search “Sustainability.”

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Oh dear. Where do I start? If you think that’s a reasonable representation, let’s check the definition from Dictionary.com:

Sustainability (noun)

The ability to be sustained, supported, upheld, or confirmed.

 

Well that’s a bit weird, and I’m not sure what “the ability to be confirmed” means. Thwink.org puts it a bit more simply:

“Sustainability is the ability to continue a defined behavior indefinitely.”

 

That’s it. That’s all. If you’re doing something that can be continued indefinitely, you’re doing something sustainable. The word itself has no inherent connection to environmentalism, and is a perfectly good and applicable word in many contexts. If you’re walking down a beach, that’s sustainable. If you’re walking towards a cliff, unsustainable. When I look at the hard-and-fast definition of sustainability compared to what Google Images turned up, two main things come to mind:

  1. A vast majority of the practices in our lives are not sustainable. Consider the fact that when companies provide a good and they do so sustainably, it’s a huge sales point, so they’re pretty much guaranteed to point it out. Then consider all the goods exchanged that you would never even expect to have a “sustainable!” sticker attached to. They are, by default, generally unsustainable. Which means a vast majority of the goods that support our way of life cannot be continued indefinitely. This really hammers home the point that our lives will be changing radically in one way or another over the next few decades.
  2. Somewhere along the line, the marketing team for sustainability decided it meant green, cutesy imagery. This idea has stuck and now co-opted public understanding of what the term actually means, despite there being nothing in that definition that says lime green, hands holding seedlings, or children circled around the earth.

This second point is what I want to focus on, and it’s not just because of a Google Images page. It’s a phenomenon I’ve noticed nearly everywhere, from my curriculum and activism at USC to my role as a modern consumer in Los Angeles and Chicago. You can see it in ads down at the grocery store or imagery used on nightly news. I even feel a twinge of it myself when I tell my dad’s friends that I’m interested in working on sustainability. I hesitate for fear of a self-imposed label as a naive, tree-hugging, kitsche-addicted, never-seen-the-real-world flower child.

An important clarification: For those of you who are into images of children holding the earth, for those whom the color lime green gets you out of bed in the morning, and who believe in a bubbly, green future; Keep doing your thing. I have nothing against you. It’s just that that image captures none of what I find cool about sustainability.


 

What I Find Cool About Sustainability:

We’re talking about the future of humankind.

Allow me to back up. In case it hasn’t been brought to your attention, the past decade has largely been a story of The Future being materialized before our eyes. I’d say we’re well past having our foot in the door, and are now in the main hall taking off our shoes and gawking at the beautiful home of Mr. and Mrs. Future.

When I say The Future, I’m not just talking about a timeline, but about the chrome-laden and tech-bedazzled image of Future that people have been tossing around in their heads for years now. Little bits of it can be seen in past books, shows and movies (The Jetson’s, Minority Report, Star Trek, etc.), merely slight twists and adaptations of an overwhelming (and for the most part, reasonably consistent) imagination of The Future; a time when our earthly limitations and struggles would be seen as primitive, having been transcended by a new realm of humans with a technology to address every obstacle and create fascinating new ones.

Maybe this is just me, but I distinctly remember as a child having the idea that at some point we would all walk around with some magical universal device in our pockets or on our wrists that could open doors, dim the lights, and schedule appointments. I never imagined that we would call them “phones” and am surprised to see that obsolete label hasn’t fallen away yet, but the idea was there. Video calling was a favorite of futuristic movies, often restricted to government big-wigs and spies whereas now it’s available enough that Jane Doe can Skype her Pomeranian while on a business trip. Remote-control drones managed to pass the “Oh God what is that flying robot and what does it want from me” phase into the “Hey look a drone” phase amazingly quickly and with hardly a peep about the implications.

Beyond what’s common now, there are a handful of technologies that are really starting to get their footing and on the tipping point of becoming widespread, commercially-available forces with tremendous potential to radicalize our lives. I think of these as “Precipice Technologies,” and to give you the short list: virtual reality, self-driving cars, 3D printing, artificial intelligence, genetic engineering, biomechanics, and the recently announced Hyperloop are all capable of changes on a scale we can’t imagine. There are a few more that are further out on the fringes, but border on science fiction impossibilities and would utterly shake things up (electron entanglement and quantum computing, I’m looking at you).

Of course, it would be incredibly naive and 21st-century-centric of me to think that this is the only time society has been on the verge of technological revolution, that there is only one Future and it’s the one we are currently stepping into. It has indeed happened before. The end of the 19th century was an equally insane time for the average modern consumer, with the first ever electric lighting, telephone call, recorded audio, motion picture, and heavier-than-air flight happening all in the span of a few decades. Think of how mind-bending the transition must have been from “you are a person bound to your immediate surroundings” to “you can hear, see, and talk to people who aren’t even here.”

And what fuelled the ensuing revolutionary change in the life of the modern consumer? Every environmentalist’s best friend, fossil fuels. There might be people in my major who would have me excommunicated for saying this, but the burning of coal powered the most monumental shift in the average human experience since the agricultural revolution. One could put up a solid argument that it was even the best decision humans ever made.

At least, it was for a while. Our relationship with fossil fuel has followed the course of most relationships; Initially, a honeymoon phase, when we were amazed at our new lives with our beautiful new partner, both of us going through amazing stages of growth every day, merrily looking past any faults. Then, a seasoning stage of really getting to know each other and figuring out how to work together, though not without some major hiccups and compromises to push through. Tragically, we’ve come to the really-only-staying-together-out-of-comfort phase. Fossil fuel make us literally sick, and hangs the threat of climate change over our heads like a breakup that will only get worse the longer we put it off. Besides, what good fossil fuel has to offer is literally running out, and we must dig deeper and deeper to find the person we fell in love with each day.

Fortunately, we have a better-looking, smarter, and easier-to-be-around partner lined up and waiting for us to give the signal: Sustainable energy. It’s only by severing old ties and making a difficult transition that we can afford to undergo the next revolution, leaping forward once again into The Future cleared of baggage and gleamy-eyed at what this one has to behold. And if we make that transition just one time, we’ll never have to deal with it again. Why? Well, because it’s sustainable!

It’s worth pointing out that I’m focusing on sustainable energy here, only one component of a complex equation. I made the choice to do so because, 1. It’s the cornerstone of sustainability, the one issue that will literally power all the other necessary changes, 2. It’s the one I understand best, and 3. It gets the point across the most clearly:


Sustainability is the backbone of The Future.


Now, if your version of that future involves holding hands with olive-colored papercraft children encircled by leaves and girlish fonts, I invite you to pursue it. But don’t conflate that with the system poised to uphold The Future itself. That system is so much more. One day I’ll write an article spelling out why it is that sustainability works so much better – How coal companies externalize costs and internalize profits to give the appearance of cheap energy, how industrial agriculture plunders the earth of value to give the appearance of abundance, how everyone including corporate leaders would be better off if we viewed natural resources as infrastructure and made decisions on a 20-year projection – but for now it must suffice to say that sustainability is a system that works better, for everyone involved and the indefinite future.

So then, how does one go about marketing a “system that works better” or a “backbone for the future?” What should the Google Image page for sustainability look like, if not its current eco-wonderland? The first step is to push this conversation. I’ve spelled out what sustainability means to me here, but what does it mean to you? What sort of feeling do you want it to project back out when you do an image search? If these questions aren’t asked, they’ll fall in the hands of marketing teams who pander to the target demographic only, which is how we’ve gotten in this mess in the first place.

The only other wisdom I can give is an example:

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Mmm, look at those curves.

I have to tread carefully so as not to turn this article into Elon Musk fan worship, but one of the most inspiring things about Tesla’s boom to me has been the messaging. They don’t have to stamp a green leaf on the back telling you it’s electric, you KNOW it’s a Tesla. The logo doesn’t invite you to take part in an environmental movement, it stands proudly in the future and dares you to join it. The Model S couldn’t have been as successful as it is with only the electric factor to go on, they fleshed it out as a product of the future from every angle. It’s a system that works better.
Inspiration vs. emulation is a tricky game to play, and I’m not telling every marketing exec of an environmental or sustainable company to switch to sharp fonts, bold colors, and laser-cut curves. Let it simply stand as a message that it can be done right, that the future’s backbone has a style and it’s one people are drawn to. The thing about the environmental movement is that it can’t be conquered by a small group of dedicated experts, everyone has to be onboard. The green imagery might work for now, but the longer it stays around the more we pigeonhole ourselves, excluding everyone who doesn’t acknowledge that feeling as part of their identity. In short, it’s unsustainable.

2 Comments

  1. Connor Mitchell

    You’re a fantastic writer Zach. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this post and found your point about sustainability not being just “green and cutesy” but actually something cool to be quite apt. Thanks for sharing and I’m looking forward to the next one!

    Reply
  2. Paul Weber

    Very well written Zach and insightful. I thought of you when I read Gates’ thoughts on how we should do more basic investment: http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2015/11/we-need-an-energy-miracle/407881/

    Reply

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