Sustainability: redefining the problem
I find the word "sustainable" being used quite often these days, as if it has been newly minted for the 21st century. I don't think Henry Ford was thinking about sustainability when he invented the automobile, as the amount of untapped oil and gas must have seemed endless.
Ford probably realized that the growing cities could not sustain their existing mode of transportation via horses and keep the cities and their citizens clean and healthy with all of the manure piling up daily on busy streets with hundreds of people trying to not step in the wrong spots.
Ford also redefined the way we work together in businesses when he thoughtfully created the assembly-line method of manufacturing. While he redefined the meaning of work and improved our collective economic productivity as a nation with his new thought model, he created other problems we are forced to deal with today, like the repetitive movement health syndrome and global warming.
In our 21st century, a newly expanded thought model of "cradle to cradle" is evolving as part of our understanding of true sustainability, as we continue to invent, design and build homes, products and businesses. Questions come up like how long will this last and be usable? How will this product return to its original state (dust to dust preferred)? Where did the resources to make this come from? Will the design be "timeless" and useful for more than a brief moment in time? How much energy and what kind of energy was used to make this creation happen? The questions seem endless and overwhelming.
Simply put, we are given the necessary challenge of trying to do more with less and therefore reduce our human footprint of destruction of the natural resources we come in contact with. Why? We are running out of natural resources at an unsustainable rate.
As parents, we get upset when we have not managed to teach our own kids how to leave their room in good shape and working order, yet we have not always carried that same principle to our greater problem of what shape we leave our little planet in from our own human activities over many decades.
We seem to be setting goals to alleviate human-created conflicts between economic growth and environmental health. We need to think beyond "alleviating." We need to solve the natural conflict between economic growth and environmental health and safety. For example, America's natural underground gas reserve is the latest new idea to alleviate our dependency on foreign oil. At our current rate of use, we have 90 years before we run through all of our natural gas that can only be obtained by "fracking." This only delays our problem of dependence on oil. However, fracking as a process creates its own environmental issues as we desperately try to get at the gas so deeply embedded in the ground.
We seem to be setting goals and employing practices that sustain a fundamentally flawed system of thought, almost like a "chocaholic" or an addict. For example, many businesses often treat their employees as pieces of machinery that are to be consumed until they are "used up" and then replaced. Companies like that are eventually unsustainable and die.
Since America's economic backbone is mostly made up of small businesses, why are many business owners not preparing to make their company sustainable beyond the life of the founding owners? The community and younger employees would benefit. The local economy would be more favorably shaped by longer-term businesses that are consistent and dependable through multiple generations.
If sustainability were a value we hold dear, we would take a longer view and be further along in our redefinition of the problems of the world and in our thoughts and actions of how to solve some of our perpetual conflicts. Sustainability in its full meaning simply raises one question: If we keep living our lives as we currently are, can we sustain that way of life ad infinitum?
We have reinvented the world with the creation of the "cloud" and the Internet. We have it in us to relook at our current ways of living to figure out a more sustainable way to progress without killing our natural environment (our "home") along the way.
Sometimes our greatest inventions come from redefining our problems. For more thought-provoking ideas about this topic, look at what Sustainable Silicon Valley is talking about at their WEST Summit on May 24.
Iris Harrell is CEO and president of Harrell Remodeling, Inc. in Mountain View (www.harrell-remodeling.com). She can be reached at 650-230-2900 or email@example.com.