RESHAPING THE FUTURE : ‘Sustainable’ Life: A Key to Survival? : Environment: Activists have adopted a new buzzword to describe the sacrifices that they say must be made to save the Earth from ecological doom.


It started about a year ago on a small scale: a landscape architect offering a workshop on “Sustainable Gardening,” an environmental architect giving a lecture on “Sustainable Housing,” an engineer demonstrating a solar collector system for “Sustainable Heating.”

Suddenly “sustainable” activities were blooming all over the Southern California landscape. Lectures, seminars, books and magazine articles heralded sustainable food supplies, sustainable urban design, sustainable transportation systems. Sustainable even attached itself to less tangible categories such as sustainable life styles, sustainable growth, sustainable use, sustainable yields, sustainable ecosystems.

And beginning today at the Los Angeles Biltmore, more than 1,000 leaders from business, politics, education and the environmental movement will meet for six days for Globescope Pacific, the nation’s first public hearing on the 1987 report of the World Commission on Environment and Development.


The goal of the conference: To set a new U.S. agenda for “Global Sustainable Development.”

Alongside the main event, a trade fair entitled Expo 2000 will offer a sampling of technologies, products and services for a “Sustainable Future.”

Clearly some trend is taking shape, even if most people, when asked, say they aren’t sure what the word sustainable means. “If this is the new environmental buzzword, it’s a boring one,” complained one activist. “Sustainable-- it sounds like a middle-class savings account.”

Bland as it sounds, sustainable is not going to fade out. In fact, it’s here to stay, predicts futurist Robert Gilman. “It will be one of the central concepts of the 21st Century.”

But what is it? An informal survey of environmentalists reveals almost as many descriptive shadings as experts (and a number who confess they “aren’t sure”), but in general, this definition emerges:

“Sustainable is a standard of environmental behavior for human beings. It means a way of living on this Earth so that each generation passes on the Earth’s natural resources intact to its children.”

Which means, say the experts, that radical changes must be made in our personal and collective lives. To live sustainably, we would have to stop:

* Wasting water when taking showers, brushing teeth, washing the car, watering the lawn.

* Throwing away aluminum cans, glass bottles, newspapers, plastics, disposable diapers, paper towels, grocery bags, motor oil, tires, batteries and razor blades.

* Driving gas-guzzling cars.

* Driving cars at all, if they carry no passengers.

* Buying products in aerosol cans.

* Wasting energy in buildings via poor insulation, high-energy-use appliances and noninsulated water heaters.

* Dumping toxic waste from manufacturing into rivers.

* Chopping down forests.

* Overgrazing pasture lands.

* Dumping wastes into oceans.

Environmentalists claim that this is just a sampling from a long, gloomy list of ways in which we are borrowing from the future. The fact that “sustainability” is starting to creep into everyday conversation is a good sign, says Gilman.

“Oh yes, we are definitely hearing the word more,” he agreed. “It isn’t just a passing buzzword, it has developed into a perspective. I think that within the next two years the well-read public will be familiar with the term and understand it as a specific way to live in the world environment--all the way from a personal level to the behavior of governments and corporations.

“One of the big lessons of the environmental awakening is that you can’t solve problems by shifting the problem somewhere else,” he said. “Everything is connected, so you have to look for a solution that will work over time.” Gilman, 44, directs the Context Institute on Bainbridge Island, Wash. The institute focuses on sustainability research, studying everything from urban traffic systems to shifting international relationships.

In 1982, concerned about the deteriorating environment, Gilman started a magazine titled “In Context: A Quarterly of Humane Sustainable Culture.”

“At that point,” he said, “the only other person I knew using that term was Lester Brown.”

Brown, who in 1981 wrote a book entitled “Building a Sustainable Society,” directs the respected Worldwatch Institute in Washington, which reports annually on the physical state of the planet.

Both Gilman and Brown are happy to share the word, which will be in nearly constant use this week at the Biltmore. Organizers say the Globescope Pacific gathering will offer a sort of microcosm of the large and small implications of living sustainably.

The Global Tomorrow Coalition, sponsors of the gathering, want to develop action policies for the United States, says Don Lesh, president.

“We’re not going to have another bunch of people telling us about the problems of rain forests and ozone; what we sought are people who are beginning to work on solutions,” said Lesh. This might mean developing marketing strategies for widespread recycling, he said, or massive urban tree planting to combat global warming. “We see sustainable development as a new ethic for the survival of the planet.”

And while speakers at the assembly sessions trade large-scale ideas on new ways to live in harmony with the Earth, the concurrent trade fair, Expo 2000, will offer some examples of hands-on personal action.

“We wanted people to be able to look at all the things they can do in their lives to be socially responsible,” says coordinator Amy Schuett. “Our main focus was to have all aspects of a consumer’s life represented.”

This includes socially responsible financial investing, natural-fiber clothing, recycling displays and household products ranging from nontoxic paints to water conservation devices and solar cookers.

Asked for her definition of “sustainable,” Schuett said: “I think it means using and conserving our resources wisely, while providing for the needs of the population.”

And a quick poll of exhibitors scheduled to set up booths at Expo 2000 indicated that, while “sustainable” behavior might be a question mark for many people today, there are others who not only understand it but have staked their economic livelihoods on the side of a sustainable life style. For example:

* Doug Wood of Fox Island, Wash., president of Solar Steam, which designs solar-thermal power systems: “Sustainable means we are serving the wants and needs of the next generation. Either we can plunder everything in sight, or we can create an enterprise that will support our children. Some of our enterprises are highly destructive, such as burning fossil fuels. I know a sustainable future is possible technically, but politically, it has problems.”

* Mitja Hinderks, a Los Angeles architect who recently formed his own company, hoping to design buildings that are environmentally sound: “My interpretation is designing systems that don’t make conditions on the planet worse, but sustain it at the current level. My concern is that now we are making conditions worse. In the way we build, we seem impervious to what is happening.”

* Abraham Entin of Northridge, who started his own business in 1983 manufacturing Diaperaps, covers for cotton diapers: “It means that we can keep doing this indefinitely without destroying the Earth. You could keep using cotton diapers forever in terms of growing the cotton, making the diapers, then using them for rags until finally they fall apart, disintegrate and biodegrade. You discard them, and the cotton, all organic material, disintegrates in the landfill.”

That is a step-by-step definition of sustainable. But someone else put it even more succinctly: “It means not living as if you had an extra Earth in the trunk.”