Musings of a former Rocket Scientist

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Diluting the Green Label

What Does ‘Sustainable’ Really Mean?

GreenwashingSmokestack“Sustainability” has been all the rage for years now.  In fact, it has almost become passé.  The term has become so ubiquitous that most people don’t even notice it anymore.  Unless a product goes out of its way to advertise the fact that it is radioactive and should be kept in a lead box at all times, it is almost a given that its manufacturer will claim it is ‘green’.  In fact, there is a virtually inexhaustible array of arguments one can use to claim that anything is green.  Natural Gas is ‘green’ because it is better than Coal.  Coal is ‘green’ because it isn’t as dirty as it was in, say, 1890.  PVC is ‘green’ because it can (hypothetically) be recycled, despite the fact that almost nobody actually does recycle it.  This advertising strategy is commonly known as ‘greenwashing’; I presume that there is a whole chapter on it in most introductory marketing textbooks.

Don’t get me wrong – it’s great that people actually want things that are “sustainable”; it would be even better if they really understood that that means.  The fact is that in common usage, the term ‘sustainable’ has been diluted to mean anything that is less bad for the environment… not necessarily good, mind you, but LESS BAD. Maybe it uses less energy to make than it did 10 years ago, maybe it uses 10% more recycled material, or maybe it just doesn’t give you a headache if you happen to be shut up in a car with it for 20 minutes (the indoor air quality brand of sustainability).  A truly sustainable world would be one capable of functioning indefinitely without depletion of resources (including biodiversity, clean water and air).  A truly sustainable product would be made of 100% recycled or renewable materials, built with renewable energy.  It would be energy and water efficient to use, and when we were done with it, it could be disassembled and completely recycled, reused or composted.

I completely agree with those of you saying “well, we have to start somewhere”; Rome wasn’t built in a day, but we cannot let the “green” label lull us into a sense of environmental complacency.  The worse case scenario is that by labeling something as “green”, we actually believe that it is OK to use more of it, and can actually increase the damage we do to the ecosystem as a consequence.  You might have the impression right about now that I am a ‘glass is half empty’ sort of guy, but I do have a sunny side too.

My sunny side is that I believe humans are really very resourceful and creative when we are properly motivated.  I believe that we CAN create products, buildings, communities and so on that are actually GOOD for the environment.  And as effective as fear is in selling stuff (everything from deodorant to stealth bombers), I don’t believe that is the right marketing and education tool here.  Fear will only take us so far; it can inspire us to be less bad, but not necessarily to be good.  You can use fear to get a couch potato like me onto the stationary bike for 30 minutes 3 times a week, but those frightfully healthy looking people jogging through the woods every morning are motivated by something more hopeful.

The vision I share with many others is a world where all the stuff we make, use and throw away actually makes us and our ecosystem healthier and more prosperous.  This is not a world populated by talking mice and unicorns either.  This is something we can actually do if we put as much energy into NOT screwing up the environment as we have into trashing it in the past.  What would it take to do this?  Basic guidelines include:

  • eliminating waste by creating closed cycles of materials and energy
  • consume only what we can replenish (renewable resources)
  • make processes self-regulating and resilient
  • focus on win-win solutions
  • treat nature as a partner and teacher, not a servant

Granted, these basic ground rules are just a beginning.  We still have to figure out how to actually apply them to everything we do.  Some of this has already been figured out by clever and resourceful people, and what they have developed is the basis for a field known as regenerative design.

mud-hut vs. spaceship housing
two extreme visions of a sustainable future: back-to-the-earth vs. high-tech stand-alone – these are not the only two choices.


Creating a sustainable future does not mean living in a mud hut and rejecting modern technology, but this is not a future we can build based on technology alone either. Some people believe that if we just trust in commerce and industry, a high-tech solution will be found that allows us to continue operating outside of natural limits, extracting what we want from the natural world indefinitely (nuclear power, genetic engineering, waste incinerators, massive seawater desalinization plants, swarms of nanobots, etc.). A more moderate approach can be found in the study of permaculture. It is based on a developing a deep understanding the local ecosystem and harnessing those natural systems to produce food, medicine, clean water and other needs of the human population, but ALSO meet the needs of the plants, animals, insect and microbes that share our world. In this scenario, man is an essential and beneficial part of the ecosystem, not its master, not above it. Permaculture is the model of regenerative design that I am advocating here.

soleri's laloggia design
LaLoggia project by Paolo Soleri – designed for passive heating, cooling and agriculture


Some good resources for learning more about Permaculture

 Recommended reading:

IntroToPermacultureIntroduction to Permaculture Design by Bill Mollison – a great conceptual design resource  –





Gaia's GardenGaia’s Garden by Toby Hemenway  – also a grood resource, especially in selection of plant species and materials.