What is Sustainability?

Accuse me of being a phony agrarian, but I earn most of my income not from my land but from teaching at a community college. At the head of every semester, our faculty endures several days of mind-numbing and largely useless meetings designed to–okay, I have no idea what they’re designed to do.

Yesterday, I listened to our Grand Executive Subaltern for Sustainability and Green Gobbleydegook as he strode from side to side on the stage and said very little for about 10 minutes. (Okay, I’m being needlessly sarcastic. Jay is a history professor who has morphed into a quasi-administrator and is doing some positive things for the campus…and the planet, I’m sure.) One statement did stick in my mind.

“People often ask me, ‘Are we sustainable yet?’ And I answer, ‘Not yet. Probably we’ll never be sustainable.'”

My response to that is “probably”? How could a college ever be sustainable? I understand how a traditional farm can be sustainable. With free sunshine as an outside input and fertilizer from the farm equipment–horses and mules–the simple farm can sustain itself fairly well in austere fashion indefinitely. If I didn’t have to pay anything to a bank or government and determined to live a very spartan lifestyle, I could manage never to come down from Shamayim Hill. That would be sustainable.

But can Johnson County Community College ever have that sort of sustainability? Or can it ever hope to produce the same amount of tangible resources that it consumes? I don’t think so. At present, the college is heating hundreds of thousands of square feet, operating thousands of computers, and sending water to hundreds of fixtures. Can it ever hope to produce the sort of gas, electricity, or water represented in that usage? No.

Our Sultan of Sustainability said that we’ll be getting a wind turbine during 2011. That’s nice. It might even be cost effective, but how many turbines would be necessary to power this campus? Perhaps if we were talking about the huge turbines that exist in large rural installations, we could generate some serious energy, but I rather doubt that image-conscious Overland Park would allow such a structure to rise over its rooftops. And the smaller units produce perhaps enough energy to power a frugal home. Will we be energy independent? Not unless every rooftop sports a large solar installation. Even then, the possibilities are limited.

While we might be able to produce our own electricity, we will never produce our own water, deal with our own sewage, eliminate all of our own trash, or grow all our own food, unless we revert to a Medieval monastic model with the college supported by a circle of farms. I don’t see that happening.

Sustainability seems to suggest the ability to continue doing things in a particular manner indefinitely. For example, if I am routinely drawing 1,000 gallons from my cistern each week while placing 1,000 gallons in during the same span, I am operating sustainably. I have no problem heating my home with wood sustainably, provided that I retain access to 45 acres of woods.

Expanding matters a bit further, I can look to a broader community. Perhaps I graze a few cattle while my neighbor bales hay. Cooperating, he can get beef on his table, while my cattle have hay to eat. Neither of us is individually sustainable–after all, I can’t feed my cattle in the winter, and he can’t eat hay–but together we could continue doing this for many years. Broadening the net farther, we can enjoy other foods, fine furniture, and perhaps even entertainment.

The question, it seems to me, is not whether any one entity, individual or college, is sustainable but whether each entity is working within a community to behave in a sustainable manner.