Dynamic Versus Static ‘Sustainability’

Dynamic Versus Static ‘Sustainability’

Although any attempt to define “sustainability” has become a victim of ambiguity and co-option, that does not mean that playing with the idea is intellectually sterile. Indeed, it can be enlightening, as I found in a recent workshop in Los Angeles dedicated to “sustainable cities.” Two points became apparent: first, any effort to understand “sustainability” without understanding cities is futile; and second, that cities demand a far more sophisticated understanding of “sustainability” than we have yet managed.

To begin, it is often forgotten that cities -- like them or not -- are perhaps the defining icon of human civilization. Somewhere around half of all people live in urbanized areas, and that number is growing, especially in developing countries. Thinking about any kind of development -- sustainable, unsustainable, high modernist, or whatever -- is an exercise in fantasy if urban systems are not part of it.

Thus it is no surprise that there is a large literature here, with sweeps of conceptual thought based in virtually every philosophic school, from the “garden city” of Ebenezer Howard, to the Platonic (and unworkable) geometric cities of Le Corbusier, to the modernist hubris of Robert Moses, to the counter responses of Jane Jacobs and Charles Jencks, to Michael Dear’s city as postmodern construct (the last is particularly interesting: Is Los Angeles, for example, a city about which films are made, or a concept from film and literature that happens to exist for a while in a built format?). Indeed Marx and, more recently, historians like William Cronon have written of the complex interrelationships among cities, their hinterlands, capitalist economic structures, and the natural and human world.

But there is little literature or research looking at the industrial ecology of cities, or the intersection between the rich literature on cities, and the newer, and far less rigorous, literature on sustainability.

There are a number of reasons for this gap, ranging from the antagonism to cities of some environmentalists, to the fact that the “sustainability” discourse is clearly in its infancy. But an important element that may be difficult to overcome is that “sustainability” to many connotes a static achievement of perfection, while cities can be understood only in dynamic and evolutionary terms.

Show me a snapshot of a city and it will inevitably be “unsustainable.” They are sustainable only over time, and within the dynamics of complex evolving systems with all the contingency and reflexivity that characterize human history. Simplify them – turn them into the New Atlantis of Bacon, Utopia, the New Jerusalem of Europeans landing in the New World, or Le Corbusier’s rational, geometric structures -- and they are caricatures, stripped of reality.

There are, of course, elements of sustainability that imply a dynamic approach -- even “sustainable development” implies some sort of continued development. Yet, “sustainability” for many people is a profoundly static teleology, expressed in such forms as the “Precautionary Principle,” opposition to technology, and a profound tendency to “privilege the present” -- that is, to preserve the status quo, in biological structures as well as human cultures.

This static concept of sustainability, applied to urban systems, inevitably finds them deeply flawed. Cities are too messy, unpredictable, complex, and changing; they encourage economic growth and cultural evolution; they tend to be dirty; they draw resources from the hinterlands and contribute little but air and water pollution. They are living things, not utopian.

There is no question that cities are challenging: they challenge our governance capabilities, our understanding, our engineering skills. But they are, for better or worse, the essence of our evolution. To think they will not continue to evolve in their own bumptious, unpredictable way is a crippling fantasy. Thus, they demand of us a new, more sophisticated concept of sustainability, one couched not in the tired and pessimistic mindset of today’s environmental dialogs, but one that is dynamic and forward-looking, that understands that the opposite of evolution is not “sustainability,” but death.

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Brad Allenby is vice president of environment, health, and safety for AT&T, an adjunct professor at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, the University of Virginia’s Engineering School, and Princeton Theological Seminary, and Batten Fellow at the University of Virginia’s Darden Business School. The views expressed herein are those of the author, and not any institution with which he is associated.