comments of the week: against sustainability

Really, the comments are the best thing about this blog.  Distracted as I am by the book project, I dash off an idle post in 15 minutes, suggesting we might consider substituting the word durable for sustainable, and I get a rich lode of comments that expands the thought in several directions, argues pro and con, adds Dutch, French and Spanish points of view, and even finds its way back to antiquity, per Mark:

It seems we haven't really improved upon the Romans in this, as I think the three legs of Vitruvius's stool of good architecture and urbanism: commodity (well fitted to human needs); firmness (durability and resilience); and delight (self explanatory) pretty much cover it. In our discussions on sustainability and resilience we hardly say anything about delight/beauty forgetting that we have to love places to want to preserve them.

… and — in the same spirit of nothing having changed — ends (for now) with a fine evocation of apocalypse from frequent commenter Wad. 

The world we live in wasn't designed to be sustainable. Biological cells die and regenerate, soil becomes less fertile, land erodes, water evaporates, metals oxidize and species go extinct.

In the human-built realm, nations break away or are swallowed by conquest, empires fade away, languages appear and disappear and communities are settled and abandoned.

Stasis would be a wonderful alternative to the bleakness of chaos. Yet it has its own perils.

Agricultural societies that produced monocultures of a specialized crop suffered famine when some force disrupted growth cycles.

Supply regions specialize in the extraction of a good, but are blindsided when resources are exhausted. Industrial societies aren't immune, either. Economic policy in the Upper Midwest starts and ends around reactivating factories and producing more stuff again.

Sustainability itself is unsustainable.

But as with any satisfying apocalypse, you've got to care about what came before it.  So browse the whole comment thread!  More book snippets soon.

3 Responses to comments of the week: against sustainability

  1. In Brisbane February 7, 2011 at 4:21 am #

    What about apocalyptic transit?
    That’s much more fun!

  2. Durable Is Not Necessarily Sustainable February 7, 2011 at 9:14 am #

    “Durable” isn’t necessarily “Desirable”: plastics compounds floating in the ocean are very durable and also very destructive. While durable may be a better word to use for transit – evoking the image of a service you can count on – sustainability is a different concept. For example, food you can compost may sustainable, but not durable!

  3. Fetch February 7, 2011 at 4:11 pm #

    Expanding on Wad’s comment, I would like to add the the little word of “dynamism”. Nature and history are never stable and therefore calls to live “sustainably” and “in balance with nature” have a slightly utopian color. The course of nature and history is filled with semistable equilibria, reconfigurations and renewals with all their tragedy. What stops evolving dies.
    Relevance to transit? It might prompt some thinking about transit networks, their various technologies and their ability to adapt to the times. The question of cars comes into this too. How dynamic does transit have to be to survive and thrive?