A Sustainable Vocabulary

by Matt Bushey, January 26, 2011

The topic of sustainability has always been a heated source of discussion among architects and designers, but the recent conversation has shifted to the use of the word itself.  This is in part a reaction to the fact that Advertising Age recently named the word sustainability as one of the top ten “jargoniest jargon” words of 2010.
This is what they had to say about this ubiquitous term:
 A good concept gone bad by mis- and overuse. It’s come to be a squishy, feel-good catchall for doing the right thing. Used properly, it describes practices through which the global economy can grow without creating a fatal drain on resources. It’s not synonymous with “green.” Is organic agriculture sustainable, for example, if more of the world would starve through its universal application?
The commonly understood definition of sustainability is, if I may paraphrase, that which provides for the present without compromising the future.  Or, more precisely: that which meets our needs in the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs in the future.  Still, it is a broad definition because sustainability applies to so many different interrelated issues.  We have thus layered it with so many additional meanings that it has essentially become meaningless.  We speak of sustainable architecture, sustainable food, sustainable energy, and if you can believe it, sustainable growth.  (Can growth really be sustainable?  Or is true sustainability only found in equilibrium?)

But let’s get back to architecture.  The folks at Ad Age are correct in pointing out that sustainability is not synonymous with “green”.  This is a distinction that is not always recognized.  Upon first blush, it would seem that green architecture is simply a subset of sustainable design.  It’s a matter of degree: green architecture decreases its environmental impact, while sustainable architecture dramatically eliminates its environmental impact.

However, it’s not always so.  Like the example of organic agriculture, the architecture industry has its own “green” practices that are not necessarily sustainable: the use of petroleum-based insulation, for example.
Clearly, Green design is a more easily understood concept.  Green is eco-friendly.  It’s environmentally preferable.  Sustainable design, on the other hand, is burdened with ever more complicated sub-definitions and concepts like net-zero energy, passive house design, and biomimicry, to name a few. 
There is another term that perhaps better articulates the concept of environmentally conscious design:  sufficiency.
To be sufficient is to be satisfied, but without excess.  It rejects greed and overindulgence, and focuses on just what is necessary for a comfortable survival, whether in the house you build or by the food you eat.
To take it one step further, I would offer up the concept of self-sufficiency:  relying on no one but yourself for what you eat or how you live.  There are no negative impacts on others, because you are not relying on others for your own survival.  Put in these terms, the concept of self-sufficiency has an intrinsic appeal to our adventurous, independent spirit, something we proudly associate with as Vermonters and as Americans.
Advertising Age says sustainability is a word they “wish you would stop saying”.  I don’t disagree that the word has become overused, misrepresented, and indeed stripped of all meaning.  But I hope that in spite of the backlash, the conversation can continue.   Instead of dropping the word – and the subject – from our vocabulary, let’s explore other ways to communicate the concept of living and building in environmentally beneficial ways.

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