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Sustainability: It’s complicated

Sustainability. It’s a loaded term, one that you’ve probably seen visualized as a leafy green logo on a roll of toilet paper or as a sticker thrown hastily on a bag of coffee beans. Or as political jargon: let’s go green. Clean living. Reduce, reuse and recycle. At it’s best it’s reduced to a vague positive, something that’s made to make you feel eco-conscious or, in other words, better about your lifestyle. But what does sustainability really mean?

In 1987, the Brutland Commision of the United Nations stated “sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”1. This definition perhaps gives as much insight into sustainability as the aforementioned logos and stickers do; the intricacies of sustainability are lost in this neatly packaged definition. Sure, sustainability does revolve around concepts such as needs, or behaviours, that can be maintained indefinitely. The crucial – and somewhat messy – aspect of sustainability that is missing in this definition is how it is quantified: with a systematic set of evaluation tools. Additionally, there are three types of sustainability: sustainability as it pertains to economy, society and the environment2. It should be noted that these aren’t mutually exclusive categories; they intertwine, affect each other, and are nuanced in different ways depending on their particular context. Starting to see why sustainability needs a bit of unpacking?

As Carmela Cucuzzella states “[t]here are many conventions, standards, norms or systems available at the international or national levels to assist in the evaluation… of [sustainable] projects, products, buildings or artefacts3”. You’ve got the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), the Canada Green Building Council, the Life Cycle Initiative (LCI) of the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP); the list goes on and on. But one of the major problems with these evaluative processes is that they cannot be fully comprehensive: the quantitative methods used to evaluate one system or project is not necessarily adaptable to another. That is, these methods often rely on technological innovation to measure the sustainability of an idea or behaviour. But let’s face it: the current technology solutions are not applicable to most of the world. 

Certain sustainable solutions and ways of measuring said solutions for San Francisco or Amsterdam are not necessarily going to have the same effects in, say, Bangalore. This Indian IT haven's newly built metro is one example of how a transportation system that is understood to be a sustainable norm in many cities can actually have a fairly devastating impact in another. The amount of tree loss (not to mention the numerous destroyed homes and businesses) caused by the building of the Metro has only added to 66% of the total green loss in this once aptly-named Garden city in the past 40 years4. Urban vegetation is a key contributor of environmental sustainability: trees conserve rainwater, give shelter to different walks of life, absorb noise and produce that good old oxygen that we need to, well, breathe. 

Of course, sustainability often is a tug-of-war: metros decrease traffic congestion thereby reducing air and noise pollution, making it a more viable solution to be used over a longer period of time (although still, perhaps not indefinitely). It should be noted that the reach of Bangalore’s current Metro is not nearly wide enough to be usable for most of it’s citizens, so the economic viability of the Metro itself is nil: it’s capacity utilization in the morning is only at 40%5. Moreover, the value of commercial property around Metro has increased in between 30 to 50% and many spaces have been vacated as a result6. Here, the economic alongside the environmental dimensions add to the complexity of evaluating this particular project. 

Only time will tell if potential environmental benefits of Bangalore’s Metro will outweigh the current, economic issues or the glaring costs of the loss of vegetation. But it’s clear: we need different quantitative and qualitative measures for sustainability dependent on its context. If we want our behaviours to have the ability to endure, than there are more than just a checklist of factors that we need to consider, and more than three defined categories we need to look at. To put it simply, let’s ditch the good feelings we get from shrubbery on our packaging and realize that sustainability: it’s complicated.

1. “Sustainable Development: Background”. General Assembly of the United Nations, 2015.

2. “Sustainable Development: Background”. General Assembly of the United Nations, 2015. 

3. Cucuzzella, Carmela. “Design Thinking and the Precautionary Principle: Development of a Theoretical Model Complementing Preventive Judgment for Design for        Sustainability enriched through a Study of Architectural Competitions adopting LEED”. University of Montreal, 2011.

4. “66 Percent Green Loss Cover in 40 Years: Study.” The New Indian Express, 9 May, 2014. 

5. Dasarathi, GV. “Bangalore: Metro is not the solution”. LinkedIn, 1 Apr, 2009. 

6. “Commercial spaces vacated at Namma Metro stations”. Bangalore Metro, 16 Apr, 2015.

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