Sustainability: Sustainability Book

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Northern Arizona University Regents’ Professor Zachary Smith has written a new book about sustainability. In his book “Sustainability: If It’s Everything, Is It Nothing?,” Smith argues that sustainability has lost its meaning because it is so broad and overused. He suggests a “neo-sustainability” to help refine and clarify the concept. Smith will discuss his book.

Ted Simons: Tonight's focus on sustainability in Arizona looks at the word sustainability. In the new book, sustainability, if it's everything it's nothing, NAU professor Zachary Smith argues that the term sustainability is so broad and overused that it's lost its meaning. Professor Smith is here now to discuss his concerns. Good to have you here.

Zachary Smith: Thank you, Ted.

Ted Simons: This is interesting because when we started to do our sustainability segment, one of the questions we tried to figure out was what does it mean? What does it mean?

Zachary Smith: Well, that's a good question. The fact of the matter is that if you asked 10 different people you get 10 different answers. A good example of that is if you go on the ASU School of sustainability web page, the front page says what is sustainability then quotes a bunch of people and they all have different perceptions of it. I want to talk a little bit about what we wanted sustainability to mean and what it has turned into.

Ted Simons: Well go ahead what. Did we want it to mean?

Zachary Smith: We wanted it to mean managing resources in a way that would take care of current generations and current needs and protect future generations and their needs in whatever way that they deem fit. What's happened is that it's turned into sustainable development and sustainable growth and most people who study this stuff think sustainable growth is an oxymoron. Sustainable development is pretty close. You can have sustainable development if the development doesn't involve the continual use of resources or using up your resource base beyond what's there for future generations.

Ted Simons: Could it be continuing to use those resources but not at such a fast pace?

Zachary Smith: Imagine this you have $1,000. You've got to do some activity. You're spending $100 a day. Now, you're going to decide that you're going to be sustainable. Through sustainability you're spending $50 a day. Well, you're still going to run through that $1,000. Unless you're spending zero and in the book we talk about we as Dr. Heather Farley, a professor at Georgia coastal college, college of coastal Georgia, we talk about rethinking sustainability. The fact that we have to have a type of sustainability that involves bringing back natural resources to where they were when we started whatever the process was. We're not doing that. We examined government institutions, academic institutions and the private sector across the board to find out who is doing what in the area of sustainability. Nobody is doing anything that's really remotely sustainable including academic institutions and government.

Ted Simons: But I go back to the question then. Sustainability development, sustainable growth. Is it possible, if it's not possible, does sustainability mean the best -- you write about how some folks say any change is good. Is any change good?

Zachary Smith: Well, you could look at it that way, I guess. Using $50 a day as opposed to $100 is better. It means that it will be the end of the earth and the end of the human race a little bit prolonged. That's better, but we really are talking about the ability to support ourselves and live the lifestyles we have become accustomed to and most people know that, and we have used this term sustainability to fool ourselves into thinking that we're going to get there sooner by being sustainable. But we're not doing that. Most of what is called sustainable now or eco-friendly is another one. Everybody is sustainable, eco-friendly, but when you look carefully at what government, academic institutions and the private sector, corporate sector in particular does that is eco-friendly and sustainable you discover it's not at all. That's dangerous. Dangerous because it leads society into this -- the general public into this complacency. I'm buying sustainable stuff. I'm recycling. I'm doing everything right. But in fact we're not being sustainable.

Ted Simons: So you want a new definition. You want a new term. Neo-sustainability. What does that mean?

Zachary Smith: That's correct. It means a number of things. One thing is we have to think of traditionally there have been three pillars of sustainability. Ecology, economy and society. We have to address all three of those things in order to be sustainable. What's happened in the way sustainability has been addressed now is there's been an emphasis on economy. We have come to interpret sustainability if we look at one of those pillars, environment is good, economy is important, society is good, but they are all equal. That's how sustainability has been dealt with. We can't think that way. You can't have economy or society unless you have a good environment. So everything has to come from that basis. So neo-sustainability means that we're going to think about the economy because we want a good, healthy economy. We're going to think about environmental justice and society because we want that as well, but it has to be in the context of what's good for the ecology and what's goof for the environment. This sounds like tree hugger stuff to some people that are listening to this right now but the fact of the matter is that if we don't have fresh air, we can't have good drinking water or other things that we want to have.

Ted Simons: Sounds like you're focusing on improvement as opposed to maintenance. Is that in the ballpark there?

Zachary Smith: You put your finger on the most important aspect of neo-sustainability. It should not -- If we continue sustainability as it's currently defined it will ultimately lead to the destruction of natural resources. Neo-sustainability has to do what we're doing now but it also has to be leading us to a future where we're contributing back to our resource base.

Ted Simons: You mentioned tree huggers. Critics will be saying this is -- whatever. But it has to be realistic. It has to be something that society wants and society can grasp. Is this realistic? Can society as we know it, can society figure this out and accept something like this?

Zachary Smith: That's a good question. This legislature is not going to do anything like that. I think that people are smart and people are willing to do what needs to be done if given good information in the right form. Everything that I have talk about and everything in this book is solid science. It's well researched and the fact of the matter is if it were better known I believe people would do the right thing but they don't because they are not getting good information. They're turning on the TV, they're thinking that this is eco-friendly, this is sustainable, when it's not.

Ted Simons: If it's everything, it's nothing. Very interesting stuff. Good to have you here.

Zachary Smith: Thank you.

Zachary Smith:Regents' Professor, Northern Arizona University;

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