Tuesday, June 16, 2009

True Sustainability

I visited an ad hoc elementary school in Surakarta that used an old semi, a shipping container, a bus and train car as class rooms. The children had adorned every inch of them, painting murals and plastering them with homework assignments and art projects. The entire school was off every grid and built from virtually 100% recycled content. It made me think how silly it would be to even attempt LEED certification for a place like this. USGBC hasn't conceived of a rating high enough to encapsulate the social, environmental and economic innovation of this place. And so began a clearer sense for me of what true sustainability might be.

I suppose, we first have to ask ourselves what we're trying to sustain. To think we have the power to save the planet is probably a bit arrogant. And if we really wanted to, we might quickly conclude the planet is perfectly capable of sustaining itself with or without us. So, sustainability is really about sustaining ourselves, the human race, not because we're selfish, but simply because it's all we're capable of controlling. Of course the fear of this mentality is the pitfall of preserving human life at all costs. However, the one distinction we now make, versus decades ago, is that we are a part of nature rather than in opposition to it. We know the importance of a balanced ecosystem in our own survival.

This might lead us to see sustainability as the continuing survival of the human race through preservation of the environment. Wandering through that tiny school, though, made me believe sustainability is not purely biological, but rather the capacity for the human race to preserve humanity.
Perhaps sustainability should be less concerned with natural science and more with global health, social equity and economic stability. Perhaps, if we work to preserve humanity, we will inherently achieve ecological balance, just like that small school on the island of Java.

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