An Aversion to "Sustainability"
Updated: Jan 28
Climate change, sustainability, environmentalism— these are all buzzwords that conjure a certain abstract, idealistic notion that subconsciously seem hand-wavy. These phrases are so overused that to me their meanings have faded, and I feel a mental wave of scrutiny whenever they come up in conversation. When I think of "sustainability," I think of trees and shampoos with green labels, recycling bins and plant-based meat, heat pumps and drinking straws, and I'm not sure what I'm left with. It is a complicated and all-encompassing issue that is confusing and maybe even annoying because, as my sister puts it, it is often either too "dumbed down" to be thought-provoking or "too technical" to be understandable.
I assume this is something along the lines of why more people don't pay attention to an issue that is connected to literally every aspect of our lives. It's like,
I've heard a lot about it, I get the gist, and I'm already doing as much as I can do without interfering too much with my current way of life.
I don’t feel connected to the issue on a personal level. I don't know what more I'm supposed to be doing, or whether it'll actually make any difference.
I don't want to spend time researching and debating matters for which there seem to be no real answers anyway.
I can't afford to spend time or money on something that won't benefit me directly. Those resources could be better allocated to more useful things in my life.
That time and money could be donated to a charity that I actually care about. There are a heck lot of other problems in the world too.
And honestly, all of these bullet points make sense. They are points I can sympathize with. We humans only have so much time, brain space, passion, etc., and we can't all prioritize everything. It is difficult enough living our own lives— worrying over our friends and family, our peers and co-workers— without extending our sympathy to strangers in a different time and place.
BUT! You've heard this part a lot by now so I'll keep it real brief: it is becoming increasingly likely that this negligence will come back to us personally. It's not like we can all just ignore this issue even if that is currently our most convenient option, y'know?
I'm not sure how passions work and whether it's the kind of thing that you can explain to someone else and have them understand, but if I had to describe my motivation for this monologue in one image it would be this:
This is the view outside my bedroom window.
Now compare this with a mental picture of Manhattan's original forests stretching as far as the eye can see beyond the window. It is mind-blowing to me how much we as a society have altered our environment.
Construction makes modern society what it is. Our ability to take raw natural resources and then transport, process, and make them into structures that take care of our every need is an absolutely impressive feat that most of us take for granted every day. But sometimes I think we lose track of how much we are capable of changing, and it scares me. We may be singing shorter shower songs, we may be chiding our friends about buying excess plastic water bottles, but how does the impact of these personal actions stack up against an industry that exists to procure, manage, and manipulate materials in extraordinary quantities?
Say we look at the life cycle of a single building. We extract lots of natural resources, process and truck those materials to the project site, bring in all kinds of machinery to build the building, eventually take down the building, and discard the bulk of it in a landfill far away. This requires a lot of energy and resources. What is the construction industry currently doing about this? What more should it be doing? And what is standing in the way? It seems that our collective connection with nature has been lost, and that we have not yet internalized how much more we soon stand to lose.
The dirty, dusty, machine-heavy construction world stands starkly in contrast to the lush green fields symbolic of the environmental movement, and at first glance, trying to relate these two worlds may seem absurd and impractical. "Green" is good and all, but how do we integrate it into the business norms we have already carefully constructed for ourselves? Why would I want to even risk compromising financial payback? What if my client is simply not interested?
As with most things "sustainability"-related, there are no easy answers. But how can we give up at that? In the context of the construction industry, "sustainability" may be an alien concept but so is the notion of giving up in the face of a complex challenge. It's not like the construction industry hasn't gone through radical change in the past, and I like to think that there really is more to this story than most are acknowledging in the here and now.