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What does sustainability really mean?

April 15, 2008

Dave Lister: What does sustainability really mean?
As featured in BrainstormNW magazine

Sustainability. It’s a buzzword that’s loved by Portland, Metro and Multnomah County Politicos. Like the gunfighters of the old west, the Political Elite pull that word like Colt .44 peacemeakers at the OK Corral. Everything that is bad is “unsustainable”. Everything that is good is “sustainable”. “Sustainable” is used to describe everything from building practices, to neighborhood associations, to businesses.

Problem is, when you ask them, no one can give you a clear definition.

Near as I can tell, “sustainable”, in the political vernacular, falls somewhere between bicycle activism and Marxism. The Portland City Council, in considering anything, will weigh its “sustainability” as a major factor.

According to most modern dictionaries, “sustainable” is synonymous with “endurable”. Something that is sustainable will carry on, will be around, will be something which can be relied upon. “Sustainable” is the grass in your front yard which erupts every spring, or your grandfather’s woodworking tools that still hold a keen edge. “Sustainable” is the precious memories evoked by the family photo album, or your father’s pocket watch. “Sustainable” is your cat showing up on the back mat every morning, or the joy of reading your favorite novel for the seventeenth time.

The political connotation of sustainable, however, is far different.

A scan of the City of Portland’s official website will turn up several hundred different occurrences of the words “sustainable” or “sustainability”. Despite the preponderance of the word, definitions are few and far to come by.

The best I could find was on City Commissioner Dan Saltzman’s website. It reads as follows:

“Sustainability is synonymous with integrating ecology, economics and social justice for long-term global stability and prosperity. It means thinking about our behavior in a bigger context-recognizing that our choices have a profound effect on our future so that we can mitigate the negative impacts. A commitment to sustainability is a commitment to creative and responsible action”.

This slice of wisdom is illustrated with a line drawing of a frog.

My sixth grade teacher at Grout Grade School, Mrs. Mason, who taught us proper English through strict discipline and an occasional ruler across the knuckles, would have had a field day with that one. Not one to suffer fools she would have branded that paragraph as what it is.

Orwellian NewSpeak.

“Sustainability”, in the city of Portland’s vernacular, is a phantom. It is specious. It is empty. It means nothing. Despite their throwing out of the word at every opportunity, nothing in Portland is sustainable. Businesses depart. Roads degrade. Pools are closed. Parks falter. Schools fail. Crime increases. Vagrancy abounds. If anything the city, and the situation, is “unsustainable”. And yet, the social and political elitists maintain their quest for “sustainability” through political correctness and the continued pursuit of failed policies.

Recently, the City of Portland recognized ten area businesses for a commitment to sustainability. These “businesses” were lauded for their commitment an environmentally “sustainable” future.

The most interesting thing was that two of the ten businesses weren’t businesses at all, but were rather departments of Portland State University.

The PSU office of transportation and parking was granted a “sustainability”award by promoting alternative transportation methods, and PSU’s Epler Hall and Broadway Housing Buildings were given a “sustainability” award for stormwater management.

Mayor Potter and the City of Portland are hosting a business summit. The focus will be on sustainability. They will, no doubt, emphasize creativity, diversity and enviro-awareness as the keys to sustainability in business. They will also, no doubt, fail to discuss the underlying requirement of any sustainable business. Profit.

I’ve managed or owned small businesses in Portland for twenty-five years, and one

thing I can tell you unequivocally is that, to be “sustainable”, a business must make profit. Without profit, no amount of stormwater management, green building practices, or energy efficiency can ensure “sustainability”. Without profit, business fails, cannot endure and therefore, by definition, is “unsustainable”. I learned this lesson the hard way while managing a business in the late 1980’s. The business was a co-op. A wholesale company selling to neighborhood hardware stores. The idea was that the co-op would buy its inventory, cover its expenses, pay its employees and then pass through to the co-op members goods for resale at cost. Seemed like a very “sustainable” concept. Problem was, the recession put a damper on the company’s sustainability. With a slowdown in business, and without profit, inventories could not be replenished and salaries could not be paid. On December 31, 1982 I locked the door on the warehouse for the last time.

Of course, profit, which is the underlying criteria for a “sustainable” business, is not in the city’s vernacular.

The city of Portland thinks that a “sustainable” business is one that puts a brick in its toilet. Only problem is, I’m not sure that they know the brick goes in the toilet tank and not the toilet bowl.

But what the heck do I know? I’m just an Eastside Guy.

Article By Dave Lister, The Eastside Guy
As featured in BrainstormNW magazine

  
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