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`Sustainability' a great buzzword but a distant ideal.

Byline: GUEST VIEWPOINT By Robert Bolman For The Register-Guard

Between Eugene Mayor Kitty Piercy's Sustainability Task Force and the Eugene Water & Electric Board's Earth Day festivities, the word `sustainability' is being used frequently. But in the deeper sense, true sustainability is a distant and remote ideal. My favorite definition of `sustainability' consists of the following five conditions:

Renewable resources shall not be used faster than they can regenerate.

Pollution and waste shall not be put into the environment faster than the environment can recycle them or render them harmless.

Nonrenewable resources shall not be used faster than renewable substitutes (used sustainably) can be developed.

The human population and the physical capital plant must be kept at levels low enough to allow conditions 1, 2 and 3 to be met.

The previous four conditions must be met through processes that are democratic and equitable enough that people will stand for them.

Under those conditions, no household in the United States is anywhere near sustainable. Our use of petroleum alone makes us far from sustainable as we take an extremely valuable, nonrenewable resource and use it up just as fast as the market will bear with no thought of future generations. Other nonrenewable resources are being extracted, made into poorly manufactured and frivolous products, and buried in landfills.

Even renewable resources such as trees are being extracted faster than they can grow back, and their extraction is depleting topsoil that will take much longer to regenerate. Commercial agriculture, in addition to consuming vast amounts of petroleum, is depleting topsoil, the very basis of farming, at an alarming rate.

Population is arguably the biggest challenge to achieving genuine sustainability. Our leaders' inability to address the glaring issue of skyrocketing world population illustrates our quandary. If we can't stabilize human population on our own, then war, disease and famine will do it for us, and it will not be pretty. Getting the human family onto a genuinely sustainable trajectory over the next century would be much easier if world population can be brought down to a more manageable level - ideally through attrition.

With Lane County's abundant water, farm land and forests and our relatively sparse population, we have a better shot at achieving genuine sustainability than many other parts of the world. But still, we need bold, visionary leadership heretofore unseen in our city and county governments. This issue calls for a level of urgency reflecting the fast-approaching peak of global petroleum production, which will make rebuilding of infrastructure much more expensive.

Growth is unsustainable, period. Permits for building and development resulting in sprawl should be halted entirely, so that no more of our precious farmland is lost to development. Any further development should be mixed-use, medium-density projects located at key existing intersections and degraded urban properties. This increased density will encourage bicycle, pedestrian and public transportation.

Rather than building more parking garages, every effort should be made to promote alternative transportation. Given that only 21 percent, or about $5 million, of Lane Transit District's operating budget comes from fares, the buses should be made free. A tax on gasoline could easily finance this and would only begin to reflect the true environmental and social costs of petroleum use.

Any new construction should use nontoxic materials and zero net energy design. All wood products should come from sensitively managed forests. Any use of energy-intensive concrete and steel should be in the context of extreme longevity. Rather than gently trying to encourage green building without upsetting anyone, builders should simply be told, `You will build green or you won't get a permit.'

What I'm suggesting will elicit howls of protest from interests that profit from unsustainable business practices. But the common claim that protecting the environment is bad for the economy sets up a false choice. The only economy that will be harmed by what I suggest is our irresponsible and unsustainable economy that liquidates resources and disperses toxins just as fast as we can, with no thought to future generations.

In any medium- to long-term view, what's good for the environment is good for the economy. Indeed, the economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment. If we genuinely care about our children's future, we must take the word `sustainability' much more seriously.

Robert Bolman is founding director of Maitreya Ecovillage in Eugene (
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Title Annotation:Columns
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Article Type:Column
Date:Apr 21, 2006
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