Forget Sustainable: it has to be ‘Maintainable’

So far we have concentrated on making life more ‘sustainable’. But that has become obsolete. Before explaining that in detail, first some history. During the sixties of last century, some disconcerting books and reports regarding our environment were published, shortly after followed by the ‘energy crises’ ( the Saudis shutting down the oil pipelines to western Europe). That was the start of a focus on energy efficiency, with the first official energy policy document in the Netherlands, exploring efficiency and renewables. The building sector had their first energy pilot projects during the eighties. We discovered that it should be more then only energy, and that it should include the environmental issues. The buzz word became “environmentally conscious building” in the early nineties. And apart from some smaller projects , we build the first large scale ‘environmental conscious neighborhood’ , Ecolonia. Which still was a combination of loose measures,  but nevertheless. This was followed by a “integral environmental conscious’  approach . Not a pile of loose  measures, but a cohesive performance oriented approach. So far so good. Somewhere during the nineties we had the first official governmental policy on ‘environmental conscious building’.

The environmental part was still mainly voluntarily (supported by  some subsidies) but for energy a mandatory performance oriented approach was established : not prescriptive, like with mandatory insulation values , but a whole building performance requirement. A similar approach for materials/resources was in the making. (But until now not implemented)

But then things changed: by the end of the nineties and early this century the approach changed to “Sustainable Building”, which then started to include a lot of other issues, besides energy and resources. Like comfort: everything had to lead to comfort improvement, it was the way of selling environmental measures to the public. And many other issues followed: it had to be “responsible’, flexible, demountable, (more) healthy, acoustically sound, and even with guidebooks for inhabitants. Even management was valuated, regardless the result. Not on a coherent performance level, but back to a ‘adding  measures’ approach . New instruments were developed that evaluated things separately, and we were back at the level of single measures, only now supplemented with everything people thought important. ‘Environmental consciousness’ became a dirty word, and sustainability  the holy grail.

Now we have to get back with two feet on the ground again: What was the problem , and what was the question again? Which was and is: How can we avoid the depletion of resources and energy? Now more then ever, be it as a result of a side effect : climate change. Since notwithstanding the importance of climate change, it is a side effect of the original cause: over-exploiting the earth resources by unlimited consumption. Ever more and by ever more people. The current flows of resources go far beyond carrying capacity of the earth system. How then to maintain our way of life? Or better, what level of lifestyle can be maintained by what the earth can provide? What volume of  flows can be maintained , into a far future, so that our children have a meaningful resource flow as well?

Since we have waited too long with action, have hided ourselves in a holistic all inclusive sustainability approach, we have been caught up by side effects before the flow has completely dried up. Climate change forces us to act. Even before other side effects will have their effect, like wide resistance against antibiotics, or a deadly virus breakout, or dead life in oceans, or desertification, dried up rivers or other effects of our unlimited consumption.

Sustainability should be replaced by ‘maintainability‘. I use the word for some time now, since it seems better to reflect what it is all about: to maintain a flow of energy and resources without nasty side effects, and to a maintainable  level. How to organize this, with limited earth resources, and with solar radiation as a constant input into the system? Just to be clear: its not about the resources itself, how they can be maintained. Resources don’t disappear, they just are, only dilute and dissolve in the background, in un-useful forms. As well as there are no good or bad resources. Its all about the use of resources ,  a maximum level of flow that can be maintained to serve society. Even wood is not good or bad, only the use of wood can be good or bad. And if more is used as can be regrown, the flow stops, and the level of  use can not be maintained, as many cultures in the past have experienced. Which is basic for all resources. And keep in mind that we grow from now 7,2 billion to 10 billion people, and the flow per capita that can be maintained will get thinner.

Climate change is bringing us back into reality, and especially the quest to limit CO2 emissions. Which is not unlucky, since CO2 emissions, however a side effect, is a good proxy for maintainability. CO2 reduction requires a change in energy and material consumption ( reduction and more renewable) , and as such reduces not only global warming but also our resource impact. Less CO2 implies less depletion of resources ( and the energy to treat resources).

In other words, no longer we can rely on steering for sustainability, as a container concept for all our needs and wants. That wont work anymore, as the consequences of our behavior become apparent. We have to go back to steer on the original question, resource consumption, and CO2 is a useful indicator to be able to make our way of life maintainable into a distant future. And only when we have succeeded, we can maybe again address the wider concept of sustainability, the wants, within maintainable levels of resource flows.

leeuw-2this is th Dutch national weapon. it states (in French!) ” Je Maintiendrai” , meaning ” I shall maintain” (or ‘hold firm’ in military, but also preserve) Thats what we need now, to make society maintainable!

PS How much CO2 emissions will be a ‘maintainable flow’ , and how much is left to emit, ( and what can be done with that) will be subject of a study soon to publish on behalf of the iiSBE academic forum, I will announce that here.

Author: ronald rovers