As an American living in the green-conscious city of Portland, OR, I see the words “sustainable”, “green” and “eco friendly” perhaps dozens of times when I go shopping at my locally owned grocery store. But are products wrapped in excess packaging which have traveled possibly thousands of miles from their point of origin where they were mass produced in a large industrial facility really sustainable, green, or eco-friendly? What about products which are grown locally but which may not be organic? While recycling is great, wouldn’t it be better to eliminate the need to recycle in the first place by getting rid of the need for disposable containers? Can a person live a truly sustainable lifestyle while still being an active member of a consumerist society? In this paper, I shall discuss the concept of sustainability as a holistic approach, encompassing all aspects of life: social, economic and ecological by considering the city of Portland, Oregon as a model for sustainable development.
What is Sustainability?
So what does sustainability mean? Some part of the definition can be found in popular slogans like “reduce, reuse and recycle” and “think globally, act locally.” But is it just a matter of recycling and buying things with post-consumer recycled content in the packaging? Callum Hill illustrates in An Introduction to Sustainable Resource Use: “Using a natural fibre-reinforced polymer in a car makes almost no difference to the environmental impact associated with its manufacture. However the use of natural fibre-reinforced composites may make us feel a little less guilty when we purchase the car” (188). While some parts of a product may be environmentally conscious, if all parts of the process are not equally conscious, the overall result may be negligible. As a word, sustainability evokes ideas of longevity and wisely managed usage. In a sustainable system, usage of any given product never exceeds its healthy output; in other words, nothing is used to exhaustion or driven to extinction.
When applied to the aggregate of this earth and everything on it, sustainability encompasses every aspect of life, not just ecological concerns. Hill elaborates:
In 1974, the World Council of Churches held a conference on the subject of the use of science and technology for human development, at which they proposed a definition of a sustainable human society and examined what sustainability meant (Dresner, 2008). The key issues were:
- There should be an equitable distribution of physical resources between all the peoples of the planet.
- All people should have the opportunity to participate in social decisions.
- The global capacity to supply food should exceed demand.
- Emissions of pollutants should not exceed the carrying capacities of ecosystems.
- The use of non-renewable resources should never exceed the increase in availability due to technological innovation.
- Human activities should not be negatively influenced by variations in global climate.
These show the necessity for human development and human concerns as an essential component in any definitions of sustainability. Without addressing these human needs, environmental concerns were seen as a luxury (3).
The goals of sustainability are first and foremost focused on the betterment of humanity as a whole. Ecological concerns aside, sustainability means improving the quality of life for every person now while also providing for generations to come. But how do we do that in a consumerist society? It is unlikely that rich people will give up their wealth or that we shall all suddenly wake up tomorrow and find that all debt has been erased, all people have enough to eat and all have access to equal education. How do the lofty ideals of a sustainable world translate to a capitalist framework?
Business Practices: Triple Bottom Line
Traditional business practices in a capitalist framework focus exclusively on profit as the bottom line. This means that manufacturers attempt to create or source products in the least expensive way possible and sell them for the greatest profit, often with little or no concern for the quality of the items, the probable harm of the processes themselves, or the welfare of the workers who manufacture the products. Businesses are encouraged to exploit every possible angle, which can be detrimental in the long term, leading to possible exhaustion of available resources, labor pools and the resultant loss of profit.
A sustainable business may adopt a triple bottom line. Instead of profit as its sole goal, the focus is broadened to three equally important facets: people, profit and planet. In this model, businesses look for the welfare of not only themselves, but to the betterment of all facets of the process. Ensuring that employees have fair wages and access to health care and education assistant programs, the business invests in a workforce who becomes motivated, loyal, happier and more productive. In taking care that the processes which produce the product are not detrimental to the planet, businesses make certain that the resources of which the products are comprised will be available over the long term. By investing in the people and the planet, businesses invest in their continued success as a profitable enterprise.
Sustainable Living: Keeping Portland Green
The city of Portland, OR provides a concrete example of the ways in which sustainable ideals can be constructively harnessed in a capitalist framework to improve the quality of life for all citizens. Even with a struggling economy, Portland remains a destination city for people who want to live a more ecologically friendly lifestyle. Where the sprawl of car-centered American culture has strung cities out into endless suburbs, strip malls and housing developments, the city government has made it a priority to reclaim Portland from the cars and instead focus it on the people who live there. Under the auspices of the Climate Action Plan, which originated in 1993, the city plans on eliminating eighty percent of greenhouse emissions by the year 2050.
The solution to this ambitious goal will be reached through a variety of approaches. As of the 2009 Climate Action Plan, it is worth noting that although the population of Portland had increased by thirty percent, emissions had already been reduced to one percent below 1990 levels (Climate Action Plan, 7). Some of the other current results of this project include: the highest concentration of LEED certified buildings in the US per capita; highest hybrid vehicle ownership; mass transit ridership up eighty-five percent, bike commuter numbers quadrupled and vehicle total miles traveled down seven percent since 1990, resulting in a thirteen percent reduction of gasoline sales per capita (Deisner). There are eight areas that the Climate Action Plan targets. The first area is that of buildings and the energy they produce. Goals include reducing building energy use, encouraging buildings to produce more on-site renewable energy, and creating and retrofitting buildings which can adapt to a changing climate. To this end, one of the programs initiated was Clean Energy Works, which provides low cost financing for home energy efficiency upgrades. The pilot program retrofitted 500 homes, and when successful, was adopted as a state program with a 26M dollar revolving loan fund. As a result of this program, 1,300 metric tons of CO2 have been saved, or the equivalent of emissions from 3,023 barrels of oil. Loans from the program are paid back via the utility bill, making the program accessible for all home owners and ensuring maximum loan repayment success.
The second area is urban form and mobility. As mentioned earlier, most American cities today are focused on cars instead of people, with wide streets, fast lanes and ample parking everywhere. The city of Portland is committed to giving the city back to the people, and has an objective of making certain that ninety percent of city residents can easily walk or bike within their neighborhood to meet all basic daily non-work needs, including businesses, shopping and entertainment. With this in mind, the city has plans in motion to increase the availability of mass transit. As of the writing of this paper, crews are even now laying track in the streets of Portland to extend the light rail out to the southern reaches of Portland by 2015. There are also plans to increase the streetcar system, and increase the city’s bike-friendliness. The city plans on making it safer for all people to bike, thereby increasing total ridership twenty-five percent by the year 2030. To do this, there will be fifteen more miles of greenways – or streets whose main traffic is bikes – created, the installation of more bike lanes, and bike parking made more readily accessible (Deisner).
Consumption and solid waste reduction comprise the third area targeted by the Climate Action Plan. Goals include: a reduction of total solid waste generated; an increase in the use of things which are re-usable, durable and repairable; and a reduction of materials that go to waste, including food. The city intends on recovering ninety percent of all the remaining waste generated, and to do it in a way which minimizes what will go to the landfill. A food scrap and composting program is currently being piloted in the Portland metro area, and should be rolled out city-wide by early 2012. This shall result in a marked reduction in landfill waste, and has been successfully implemented in other cities, including Seattle and San Francisco.
The fourth area of focus is that of urban forestry and natural systems. In addition to being aesthetically pleasant, trees are also very useful: their root system protects dirt from being leached away, and their large, shady boughs provide a measure of climate control, cooling the area in hot months, thereby cutting down on the need for energy expenditure with air conditioning and fans. One of the peculiarities of cities is that almost all of the ground area is non-permeable; that is, that water cannot pass through into the earth, as it is covered by pavement and buildings. The earth provides a natural filtering system, removing impurities from the water, but most water in an urban environment does not go through this process. Instead, it goes directly into the sewers. This excess water then causes the sewer to overflow into the river, polluting the existing ecosystem with human waste. The Climate Action Project is combating this by creating more permeable surfaces like eco-roofs, bioswells and introducing more trees to the urban environment. One of these initiatives is the “Tree Project”, a code project which removed barriers and plants trees in their place. Other actions include tree stewardship classes and the planting of 100,000 new trees and shrubs.
Closely tied to these environmental concerns is the fifth area of focus: that of food and agriculture. Decreasing carbon-intensive foods and increasing dependency on local food options will both be better for the environment and the local economy. Carbon intensive foods are those which have a high carbon-output as the result of the process from their raw state to finished food product. The most carbon intensive foods are red meats, with beef being the single largest culprit. The environmental cost involved in the production of each pound is notable – from the cost of the upkeep of the cow through its life, resultant slaughter and processing, transport to the grocery and ultimate destination with the consumer. Poultry and game meats are less carbon-intensive, with produce being the least carbon intensive products. Pre-packaged and highly processed goods also often have a very carbon-intensive output. Purchasing locally produced, minimally processed foods minimizes the carbon footprint of the food we eat. To facilitate this, the city has created 225 new community garden plots (Deisner), and is developing a zoning code project which addresses barriers to urban food production.
The sixth area of focus is that of community engagement, and finding ways to encourage people and businesses to change their behavior in ways that reduce carbon emissions. A non-traditional approach called community-based social marketing has made Portland successful in affecting sustainable measures. As illustrated in the case with the Clean Energy Works, by making projects accessible to the general population and focusing on the money a home owner might save, the ease of loan repayment and making the entire process as easy as possible, the end goal of carbon emissions is reached in a manner profitable to all involved. While educational messages of environmental stewardship are utilized, they are not the only approach. In Fostering Sustainable Behavior, Doug McKenzie-Mohr notes that “numerous studies document that education alone often has little or no effect upon sustainable behavior. As a consequence, programs that make use of information intensive approaches, such as bill-stuffers, flyers, and direct mail have very little likelihood of changing behavior” (McKenzie-Mohr 3).
Instead of harping on the environmental problems, the Climate Action Program focuses on concrete projects which create real change in improving the lives of the population. While lessening carbon emissions is the ultimate goal of the program, it is almost superfluous to the individuals who engage in the projects. Their first concern is their quality of life, and if they byproduct of this is a cleaner environment, then so much the better. Author Doug McKenzie-Mohr further explains the process behind community-based social marketing:
Community-based social marketing is an attractive alternative to information-intensive campaigns. In contrast to conventional approaches, community-based social marketing has been shown to be very effective at bringing about behavior change…. This approach involves: carefully selecting the behavior to be promoted; identifying the barriers and benefits associated with the selected behavior; designing a strategy that utilizes behavior-change tools to address these barriers and benefits; piloting the strategy with a small segment of a community; and, finally; evaluating the impact of the program once it has been implemented broadly (8).
Seventh of the areas of focus is that of climate change preparation. The climate is in a period of change which has been exacerbated by human waste output. Even if we stopped polluting waste practices right now, the climate would still change because of the damage that has already been done. In the area of Portland, it is probable that summers will become hotter and winters more temperate, resulting in more rain and less snow pack. There is likelihood that there will be an increase in severe storms and a higher risk of forest fires. It is unknown what the ultimate effects will be, so the city is addressing the issue with an eye to habitat restoration and flexibility. As noted in the foreword of An Introduction to Sustainable Resource Use, “human beings have proven to be amply capable of exploiting natural resource supplies while ignoring the finite nature of those resources, thus leading to a misplaced sense of security” (Goodell and Howe, vii). That security is misplaced, and needs to be disregarded so that we may effectively plan for unexpected future challenges. Finally, the eighth area of focus is that of local government operations. By reducing carbon emissions from city and county operations to fifty percent below 1990 levels and reducing solid waste production by seventy-five percent by 2030, the government will successfully demonstrate their expertise as a leading model of sustainable development.
As Hill notes, “human ingenuity is the most powerful tool we have at our disposal, but that ingenuity needs to be empowered with financial backing and the necessary conditions have to be created by governments to educate people with the appropriate skills and do encourage this entrepreneurship to flourish” (183). When the considerable resources of the existing governmental infrastructure are brought to bear on the issue of sustainability, real change can be made. The act of shifting from an exclusively profit-driven model to one of people, profit and planet results in the betterment of life for everyone.
Capitalist business practices which focus on profit to the exclusion of all else have proven detrimental to the earth and the human population. As our population continues to increase, it is more crucial than ever to integrate sustainable ideals into the existing capitalist framework. As shown in the example of Portland, Oregon, sustainable practices and profit are not mutually exclusive. By addressing social justice and ecological integrity, economic security is assured. In 2000, Governor John Kitzhaber of Oregon said: “Imagine, if you will, three overlapping circles: one representing economic needs, one representing environmental needs, and one representing community social needs. The area where the three circles overlap is the area of sustainability, the areas of livability – the area where the threads of quality of life come together. If we are to ‘have it all’ we must recognize that these three circles are not separate, unrelated entities” (Kheirabadi). It is our responsibility – to ourselves and to future generations – to ensure that we create the best world possible. And it is our actions which make the difference, each little action providing the basis for big change. Whether it is walking to work in the morning, composting, or buying locally grown products, each of these actions contributes to something greater. The more sustainable actions and ideals that we incorporate into our lives, our businesses and our society, the better the end result will be for us all.
Deisner, Kyle. Climate Action in Portland. Bureau of Planning and Sustainability. Marylhurst University, Portland, OR. 23 July 2011. Guest Lecture.
Goodell, Barry and Jeffrey Howe. Forword. An Introduction to Sustainable Resource Use. By Callum Hill. Washington DC: Earthscan, 2011. vi-vii. Print.
Hill, Callum. An Introduction to Sustainable Resource Use. Washington DC: Earthscan, 2011. Print.
Kheirabadi, Masoud. Sustainable Development: A Global Approach. Marylhurst University, Portland, OR. 22 July 11. Lecture.
McKenzie-Mohr, Doug. Fostering Sustainable Behavior: An Introduction to Community-Based Social Marketing. Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Publishers, 2011. Print.
“Climate Action Plan 2009.” Portlandonline.com. Bureau of Planning and Sustainability, City of Portland, OR, 2011. Web. 15 Aug 2011.
The World Bank. The World Bank Group, 2011. Web. 15 Aug 2011.