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Are there any sustainable materials? What does that even mean?

Near the end of another exciting and exhausting Greenbuild, I had the pleasure of sharing the stage with three other women deeply invested in sustainable material management: Lindsay James, InterfaceFlor; Gail Vittori, Center for Maximum Building Potential Building Systems, and Sarah Brooks, Natural Step Canada. We started the session with the question "Are there any sustainable materials?" and ended with the question " What does material stewardship look like in a sustainable society?"

In between these two questions lives a world of aspiration and complexity followed, if you're lucky--or defiant--by deeper aspiration. The thing is, this stuff is hard. It's complicated and can be messy. Simple answers can lead to different problems. The deeper answers we need to figure out together--no one can single-handedly provide the roadmap.

What became very clear to us as a panel, in all our discussions leading up to Greenbuild, was that we wanted to continue and deepen the conversation. It is our belief that the shift toward sustainable materials--and likely sustainability in general--will require dialogue across boundaries.

We asked the audience--"What new or different questions can you ask when considering material sustainability and material stewardship?" and here's what they said:

  • How do we change the economic model? What is the new model?
  • Who can I work with who's thinking about this stuff?
  • Maybe we should match the durability of a building product to the length of time it'll be used.
  • Can we achieve sustainability in the context of exponential growth of demand and an exploding global population?
  • Is sustainability a thing we can achieve--or a process we embark on? Does what it is depend on regional needs?
  • What do your competitors or critics say about your product? (If they don't answer, then don't work with them).
  • We need to form our own definition of quality. Ask manufacturers: are you helping or hurting?

The questions we brought to the table:

  • What if we acted like our quality of life depended on Nature and each other?
  • What if we saw our economic system as a design problem instead of a design constraint?
  • What if our materials contributed to creating conditions for health?
  • What if we could have more happiness with less stuff?

What other deeper questions do we all need to be asking? Who needs to be in the conversation? What are the best forums out there now for getting to the heart of the challenge we face in materials management, and what's still missing? If you'd like to be part of this continued conversation email, or comment on this blog post.

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1 1. I just love the cartoon! I posted by Tony Marshallsay on 10/13/2011 at 02:56 am

1. I just love the cartoon! It says it all about Jill Public's life today.

2. I hate "the 'S' word" - it's become just a buzzword that's slapped on everything to "greenwash" it. I'll have to dig out my 'S' diagram and e-mail it to research.

3. "Can we achieve sustainability in the context of exponential growth of demand and an exploding global population?" The short answer is NO. We have to reduce both demand and the global human population - and that's going to hurt a whole lot more than Greece's present austerity measures.

4. "What if we saw our economic system as a design problem instead of a design constraint?" It is a problem, because it is based on ever-increasing growth, which is an impossibility - and would leave our progeny a world of desolation. However, if we DO recognize it as a problem, we can start thinking about how to go about tackling it.

2 This presents the fundamental posted by Robert Riversong on 10/13/2011 at 10:24 am

This presents the fundamental dilemma of all technological "progress" – every new, "improved" manipulation of the natural world results in unintended consequences, because the world is not amenable to human control.

Yes, the current global economic system is a primary obstacle to sustainability, as is our exponentially-growing human population and always-increasing material desires. But underlying both of them, as well as every social, political and ecological crisis we face today, is a cultural paradigm – the story of why things are the way they are – that's essentially dysfunctional.

Foundational elements of that paradigm include the separation of the individual from each other (the "skin-encapsulated ego" of Alan Watts); the disjunction of culture from nature; a mind-centered (in contrast to a heart-centered) approach to life, which leaves us in a chronic state of physical, emotional and spiritual dis-ease; the scientific method of objectification, reductionism, analysis and exclusion of non-rational processes in the determination of "reality", or the story of how the Universe works; and the near-universality of what anthropologist Marshall Sahlins called the "Galbraithian way" of affluence through production to attempt to meet unlimited artificial wants, contrasted with the "Zen way" of affluence by which hunter-gatherers desire little and meet those basic needs with what is available to them.

The only question worth asking is "How do we restore the truly sustainable cultural paradigm that carried humanity for hundreds of thousands of years within the broader Web-of-Life?" The corollary question is "Can we?"

I explore some of those questions, in terms of human shelter, in my Riversong's Radical Reflections

3 Sounds like a great discussio posted by Christopher J. Sequeira on 10/15/2011 at 07:42 pm

Sounds like a great discussion. I'm of the mind that it's more effective to think of sustainability not as a destination, but as a journey -- similarly, I find that thinking in terms of sustainable products is more awkward and distracting than thinking in terms of sustainable processes. A process view gets to the context part: what's the source of the material, how is it made and deployed, and what does its end of life look like? The environmental impact depends on all of those things, so I find it difficult to consider sustainability without considering behaviors related to deployment, usage, and retirement.

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