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Sussing Sustainability 

The word "green" has lately been rendered nearly meaningless by things like car ads featuring bright green leaves adorned with pristine drops of water. Is everybody green?

Granted, greenness is an inherently vague idea. Yet a more important environmental concept, one with a much stricter definition, suffers similar distortion: sustainability.

"Sustainability" has different meanings depending on who is doing the talking. Corporations speak of "sustainable growth," economists of "sustainable economic recovery." Yet although such folks might be talking more about everlasting profit margins than about environmental impacts, they're probably content to be thought of as, well, "green."

Environmental sustainability, though, is a high standard. To meet it, we'd have to satisfy our needs for resources without compromising the ability of future generations to satisfy theirs.

That would require recognizing that all wealth derives not from investment portfolios, but from sun, soil, water and air. "The land needs to be thought of as supplying a life-support service," says Cliff Davidson, director of Carnegie Mellon's Center for Sustainable Engineering.

It's a service we can't continue taking for granted. A sustainable society would, for starters, use only renewable energy; end pollution; and recycle everything that can't become compost on its own.

It's a huge challenge. Modern civilization -- busily spewing toxins, deforesting subcontinents, fishing oceans dead and torching fossil fuels -- is so far from sustainable it's scary. Yet many people speak of sustainability as though it were within our grasp.

"People have started to use the word 'sustainability' very loosely," says Davidson.

On Earth Day, the University of Pittsburgh held its "Blue, Gold, and Green" Sustainability Festival. At Schenley Plaza, vendors sold handmade soaps and reused-coin jewelry. Indoors, salespeople hawked Blackberries at the Verizon booth, laptops at the Dell display. A guy touted water-based "Sierra Performance" paints.

Meanwhile, the two talks on sustainability I heard also focused on a fairly limited idea of what sustainability is all about: recycling and energy conservation. Both goals are important -- but neither Pitt vice chancellor for community initiatives Renny Clark, nor Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's chief of staff, Kristen Baginski, mentioned our urgent need to stop using fossil fuels.

Baginski, hearteningly, did note that the city is buying some wind power. But when Clark spoke of keeping sustainability projects within the bounds of "practicality," the concept seemed lost altogether. Melting icecaps don't grade on a "practicality" curve.

To be fair, some do argue that real sustainability involves more than a healthy biosphere. Provision must be made for the 7 billion people living on the planet -- all of them.

"If somebody talks about sustainability, and they're not talking about social justice and the economy, they're not talking about sustainability," says Court Gould, who leads nonprofit advocacy group Sustainable Pittsburgh.

This widely cited "triple bottom line" is also expressed as "people, profit and planet." If people are impoverished or treated unjustly, the thinking goes, they won't care about the environment. And "[y]ou can be so green that you put yourself out of business," says Gould.

At the same time, a ruined planet won't support much social justice. And as CMU's Davidson says, "If the business practices are not environmentally sustainable, then by definition they can't be economically sustainable, either."

Nonetheless, we shouldn't blur distinctions between "corporate sustainability" -- which the Dow Jones Sustainability Index Web site defines as "long-term shareholder value" -- and the real thing. So far, at least, our economic system has been one in which profits have grown quite nicely, while the world dries up and prepares to blow away.

The key point is this: The Earth doesn't care whether homo sapiens are happy. It would manage better without us. But we can't manage without fertile soil and drinkable water.

Is it even possible for 7 billion people to live sustainably? We don't know. It's never been done. What we do know is that picking the better of two environmentally bad choices doesn't make us "sustainable." Prius drivers aren't benign; they're merely less destructive than Hummer owners.

And as Court Gould acknowledges, "At the end of the day, Mother Nature trumps everything."

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