Should we ditch the “sustainable” label (and replace it with something meaningful)?


By: Pierre Herman

I finally came to this conclusion (the thought had already been percolating for a while) after perusing an article in the Guardian newspaper (Frankfurt beats London to most sustainable title) which heralds London’s second place winning in a survey of 50 major cities around the world. Yes, that’s London, England. In second place for most sustainable major city, narrowly ahead of Copehagen and Amsterdam. I was flabbergasted.

This traffic-choked capital, whose famous Oxford Street recently gained notoriety for having the highest levels of nitrous oxide of any street in the world?  The city of frivolous, throw-away consumption par-excellence, where deliberate attempts to gentrify low-income neighbourhoods is making the city unaffordable for anyone but high-earners? The city where the mayor recently proposed to make a 90% funding cut to education services that target vulnerable and deprived youths and where no-one dare speak against the hegemonic paradigm of growth, growth, growth (both population and economic activity)? Yes, this city.

Like any study of the kind, it’s important to accept it with a sizeable grain of salt. Admittedly, many cities we associate with sustainable action at city level (Vancouver, Barcelona, Zurich, et cetera) are off the list, presumably because they weren’t “major” enough to make the cut. Curiously though, pint-sized Birmingham and Manchester are there next to Jakarta and Istanbul among the 50 major cities in the world. Are we at all surprised that this is a UK-based study? Rotterdam is apparently a top 50 global city. My eyes are rolling. Emphatically.

The study (calling itself the Arcadis Sustainability Index) assesses these cities based on environmental, social and economic sustainability (“people, planet, profit”). This idea is nothing new, and in fact was conjured up nearly 20 years ago by John Elkington, a London-based author and corporate social responsibility guru whose “three pillars” or “triple bottom line” approach to sustainability has been widely embraced by the business community and by neoliberal governments (i.e. ours). Naturally, by allowing profit and economic priorities into the equation, the meaning of sustainability has been completely reshaped from its environmental or social origins, and we end up with a version of sustainability that actually encourages business-as-usual, despite its complete incompatibility with Earth’s biology.

This study is no exception. Frankfurt and London win out because of their economic growth potential. The study even admits that London scores poorly for congestion, declining air quality, a lack of investment in infrastructure and a chronic shortage of affordable housing, and it still comes out in second place. It is beyond the scope of this article to look at all the biases and inadequacies of the study, but needless to say it is another example of business and moneyed interests appropriating the term “sustainability” to favour any activity which supports the business-as-usual approach, where cities compete for capital growth. In other words, where people and planet are there to be managed to help build portfolios. In terms of real sustainability, this study is not only laughable, it is irrelevant.

So if “sustainability” turns out to mean nothing, what should take its place? I recently saw a TED talk on “productive architecture” where a young architect discusses his plans for a floating swimming pool in New York’s Hudson River, a pool which simultaneously filters river water as it provides recreation for the city’s inhabitants. It’s architecture which produces something, and this in itself is nothing new. There are plans for buildings which grow food, recycle water and clean the air. Should we start thinking about cities in the same way?

Admittedly, the term “productive” could be manipulated just as easily by certain interests to fit their objectives. A city could produce construction activity and economic growth as much as it could produce clean air and water. The term could also be confused with economic productivity, something inviting to technology, robotics and automation with the associated job cuts. On the other hand, “productive” has a more measurable quality about it. Producing jobs, yes, but we could also start to talk about producing equality versus inequality and producing a better future. Producing food, less waste and its own renewable energy. Then again, do walking trails have to produce anything? Will we admonish anything that doesn’t labour for us?

Another suggestion is “reductive” cities. Cities reducing their environmental impact, reducing pollution, CO² emissions and consumption of natural resources. A reductive city would work to improve recycling and the trading of goods, and reduce inequalities.

Easier perhaps, we could just go back to the popular 80s slogan “environmentally friendly” – a term that is mocked today but is actually much more solid in its semantics than some wishy-washy sustainability jargon. If it harms the environment, we should work to change it. Period. No making excuses to stay economically competitive and grow the stock market forever.

Sustainability has lost its connection to the future, being all about present benefits, while wishfully imagining that some magical technology will save us from future problems that are increasingly closer on the horizon. If cities are serious about the environment, let’s keep the term clear. If cities don’t give a hoot about the environment because it’s the economy, stupid, then spell it out to us and let’s see how citizens react.

See the study here.


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This entry was posted on February 20, 2015 by in Economy, Ideas & Issues.

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