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Consider the following situations:

    ** A committed social justice organization increases its productivity, grows its network, and expands its positive impacts in the local area through the use of computers and other information technologies—the same kinds of technologies produced in areas lacking fundamental labor regulations and disposed of in ways that release potent toxins into the environment and that are absorbed into the bodies of children disassembling these devices.

    ** An academic concerned with global climate changes caused by the release of carbon from the burning of fossil fuels travels across the country by way of a commercial airliner to attend a sustainability-themed environmental history conference.

    ** Over the span of a few years, artists and “bohemians”—predominately white—move into a neighborhood where rents and mortgages are inexpensive relative to the rest of the city. These new residents open new businesses, gradually increasing property values, which then entices (predominately white) real estate speculators. The previous residents of the area—predominately peoples of color—find themselves hard-pressed to afford the increased property taxes and begin to move away. Within a few more years, the former neighborhood sustains a revitalized business district, new construction & remodeling projects abound, and the city is receiving a much-increased level of business and property taxes. However, the historic character of the area no longer exists, and the area’s ethnic, cultural, and economic diversity has been thoroughly transformed (and much more homogenized).

These real-world cases illustrate a pattern that is worthy of our attention. Quite often, when we probe beyond surface-level observations of our lives in the early twenty-first century, we face confounding complexities that complicate what we had been taking for granted; what we may have thought to be a clear-cut narrative of environmental, economic, or social progress can turn out to be, in fact, a sloppier story toned not in black-&-white but in varied shades of grey.

As we assert in our working definition of “sustainability,” benefits and costs introduce complexities into any analysis of sustainable practices. We can learn things of value if we consciously and squarely confront these complexities. Intellectually working-through the resultant enigmas can help us uncover important roots and threads of pressing issues, and identifying such things can help us become more informed citizens and more empathetic community members.

This will be the inaugural post in an ongoing series about the enigmas, riddles, and conundrums of sustainability. Other posts in these series can be found under the Enigmas of Sustainability category in the sidebar of the Sustainability History Project website.

[This post was written by Sara Scott, Sarah Griswold, and Jamie Price, and complements previous students’ analysis of the question What is Sustainability?]

In covering the first three readings, our group decided to combine all three articles and brainstorm on what the general themes they share that pertain to sustainability.[1]

Many people think of sustainability as strictly an environmental issue. After reading the three articles, we came to the conclusion that sustainability is multi-faceted on a global level. Sustainability is not only limited to issues of the environment, but of society and economics as well. Our current working definition of sustainability is to leave resources for future generations with a minimal impact on the environment. According to Kates, et al., the Board on Sustainable Development’s goal of sustainability is to “provide energy, materials and information to feed, nurture, house, educate and employ the people in 2050 … and to reduce hunger, poverty … and preserve the basic life support systems of the planet.”[2]

All the authors in our readings discussed the common theme of “trade-offs.” When mentioning “trade-offs” in terms of sustainability, Continue Reading »

[This post was written by Megan Rice, Angelina Peters, and Dennis Dunn, and complements previous students’ analysis of the question What is Sustainability?]

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle! A common mantra most people have heard before, but what does that mean and is that what sustainability is? The meaning of sustainability ranges from the formulated academic definition based on the Brundtland Commission report to an individual’s personal definition. The focus of this entry is not to dissect the many facets of what sustainability is but to discuss what it is not. The “three pillars” of sustainability are: environment (i.e, natural resources), economy (i.e., monetary value), and equity (i.e., social considerations). At a glance, some of the pillars are self-explanatory, once again, either using a personal or academic definition.

When focusing on what sustainability is not we will discuss measurability, openness to dialog, intergenerational needs, and “greenwashing.”

Continue Reading »

[This post was written by Megan Foster, Grant Russ, and Tina Xiong, and complements previous students’ analysis of the question What is Sustainability?]

Among the various subjects embedded in the Brundtland Commission report concerning sustainable development, one of exceptional importance is the subject of what precisely should be developed. Those subjects with potential for development were discussed by both developed and developing countries and so can be stated as universally important. The development of essential human needs such as economic growth, equity of resources, equal opportunities, and education stands beside the sustainability of nature, resources, and communities. Social development, and more specifically social justice, can ensure development and sustainability of equity and equality for all persons. The goals which should correlate with these concepts include the elimination of poverty and an equal quality of life.

The challenge becomes one of not only properly implementing social justice but meeting social needs in general while still upholding values of environmental sustainability. Continue Reading »

Earlier in the quarter, students wondered where sustainability falls within the framework of the standard right-left American political dynamic. Is sustainability inherently a conservative or liberal notion? Might it sometimes contain aspects of both sides of this spectrum? Or perhaps sustainability is not reducible to this familiar dichotomy?

A sampling of Internet sources shows that there is quite a range of opinions regarding these questions. This post will provide some food for thought and, in so doing, draw on a sampling of sources that can serve as a starting point in addressing these questions.

Continue Reading »

The SHP post “On the history of sustainability in the Pac NW” provides a useful way to think about the regional history of the thing we call “sustainability.” I wrote this post in the hopes that the student who contacted me with that question would engage us in a discussion on this topic for all of our benefit—but, unfortunately, this has not yet happened.

However, a student in this quarter’s Capstone class recently forwarded me an email with information about Steven Reed Johnson’s work, and this information does help shed some light on the topic. There are also some other sources that provide insight as well.

Continue Reading »

I have often heard that cities are the bane of modern society because of the resources they consume and the pollution they produce. Henry David Thoroeau seems to hold this perspective when he writes:

    The West of which I speak is but another name for the Wild; and what I have been preparing to say is, that in Wildness is the preservation of the world. Every tree sends its fibres forth in search of the Wild. The cities import it at any price. Men plow and sail for it. From the forest and wilderness come the tonics and barks which brace mankind.

I have also heard just the opposite: That cities are inherently more sustainable because they concentrate populations in a given area and allow for rural and undeveloped lands to continue to be used for food production, natural resource extraction, and recreation.

Economist Edward Glaeser asserts this latter point, and has written a book to support his position: Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier.

This morning, Glaeser appeared on KUOW’s Weekday program with Steve Scherr: “Is City Living Better than the American Dream?“:

    The American dream has typically been owning a home in a leafy suburb with a white picket fence, a well–mowed lawn and an apple pie cooling on the window sill. The reality is over two–thirds of Americans currently live in cities. Is the American dream changing? Is living in an apartment in a dense urban neighborhood actually better than owning your own home in the suburbs? Economist Edward Glaeser argues that cities magnify human strengths. We’ll ask him what he means.

In what ways is increased urbanization more or less sustainable — in terms of economics, environment, and equity?

[This post written by Chris White, Daniel Gray, Tony Smith]

The Coalition for a Livable Future‘s Regional Equity Atlas (REA) provides a wealth of information regarding the socio-economic conditions of Portland and the metro area. This tool is useful for research regarding many various aspects of the equity pillar of sustainability. One potentially useful aspect of this resource is the ability for small and large businesses to find new areas for investment and development. One example of a positive development is the Yellow Line expansion along Interstate Ave. in North Portland.

There have been significant instances where communities were not included in the planning stages of major development. The REA has made note of two major projects which have left the community feeling neglected. In the 1950s the construction of the Memorial Coliseum uprooted many members of the local community without proper compensation. Another example is the construction of I-5 which tore through the same community as the Memorial Coliseum had done a decade before.[1]

There is a significant difference between how proponents of these two projects approached the local community and how the MAX Yellow Line project was built. Continue Reading »

[This post written by Noah Sharpsteen, Teddy Messan, Nigel Peltier, John Stephenson]

This discussion focuses on the Coalition for a Livable Future’s Regional Equity Atlas (REA) and will address the strengths and weaknesses of the atlas’ ability to provide/represent useful data in regards to equity. [1] More specifically, we will argue that the type of representation in use by the REA (visual representation) allows for the specific learning and recognition of the trends being presented, but, ultimately, the lack of certain kinds of information to supplement these maps limits the atlas’ availability to make substantive connections and provide for causal reasoning in regard to the different situations exemplified by the specific maps given.

The REA uses maps to represent data relevant to equity considerations. We believe that this kind of visual representation allows for the following benefits: 1) it provides a holistic approach so connections internal to the specific map can be made; 2) fosters ‘quick and easy’ correlation of ‘trends’ or ‘conclusions’ which makes the identification of problems much easier; 3) and allows for pattern-development which leads to a greater sense of organization for the reader.[2] We feel that these benefits apply within the REA as well.

Unfortunately, the ‘trends’ or ‘conclusions’ that are the resultant benefits of the use of visual representation are communicated poorly within the REA as a whole. Continue Reading »

OregonBusiness magazine published a list of the state’s top “green” firms for 2010. The survey and analysis methods can be found here. As OregonBusiness characterizes the results,

    Winners range from longtime sustainability gurus such as Gerding Edlen and the Bonneville Environmental Foundation to newcomers such as Ruby Receptionists and Hummingbird Wholesale. Add in respected businesses that are always expanding their green programs such as SOLARC Architecture and Boly Welch Recruiting, and the final result offers diverse representation of a statewide trend toward more sustainable business practices.

For the 2011 iteration of this list, OregonBusiness is collaborating with the Natural Step Network to “insure that the survey probed whether an organization is taking a strategic approach to sustainability as well as asking about specific actions a company is taking” (source).

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