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For Columbia, sustainability is a simple idea with a complicated reality

Saturday, April 24, 2010 | 8:24 p.m. CDT; updated 3:02 p.m. CDT, Thursday, April 29, 2010

COLUMBIA — The streets, with names such as "Spicewood Drive" and "Coral Ridge Court," are built into a series of flats and slopes made muddy by construction and seem to end without warning. The houses are big and have decent yards, but most of them are not homes. Not yet.

Children don't play in the driveways. TVs don't go on in the living rooms. The day before this month's hotly-contested municipal election, FOR SALE signs in this Columbia neighborhood-that-isn't — called "Steeplechase," on the west end of the Thornbrook subdivision — far outnumbered the political yard signs that sprouted across the rest of the city.

Blame the recession, a still-struggling real estate market, tougher lending — there are a lot of ways to explain empty houses, but most of them boil down to this: We did something we couldn't keep up.

We did something unsustainable.

Sustainability, normally thought of as solely an environmental concept, actually extends to economics and social issues. And the question of how to live a good life without wanting too much is a debate that extends further than building too many houses.

What is 'sustainability'?

Weighing in at six syllables, it's a mouthful.

Yet — perhaps improbably — the concept of "sustainability" has become a cornerstone of the ongoing debate about how we should live.

"It's making sure that the current generation is able to enjoy a standard of living that doesn't compromise standards of living for future generations," said Mary Hendrickson, an MU associate professor of rural sociology, quoting one of the most commonly-cited definitions of sustainability.

The term has its popular origins from a report by the United Nation's Brundtland Commission, which advocated a balance of social, economic and environmental needs in order to achieve sustainability.

"A world in which poverty and inequity are endemic will always be prone to ecological and other crises," the report said. "Sustainable development requires meeting the basic needs of all and extending to all the opportunity to satisfy their aspirations for a better life."

When applied to Columbia and the rest of the world, sustainability becomes a simple word with a complicated reality.

Some see a clear imperative to live as well as possible while leaving as small an impact as possible. Often, that means preserving natural resources and cutting down on the use of fossil fuels by changing the way people do the little things: Turning off lights when not at home, hang-drying clothes instead of using electric dryers, avoiding the use of products that can't be recycled.

Changing the big things gets a little more complex.

Vision versus reality

When it comes to thinking about making the city sustainable, Adam Saunders, board president of the Columbia Center for Urban Agriculture, seems to be attacking the problem from every angle.

During a March talk at MU titled "A Vision for Local Sustainability," Saunders  tattooed a dry-erase board with maps, lists, circles, charts, arrows, footnotes, statistics, equations and graphs, occasionally tossing in an illegible scribble or interrupting himself to give an impromptu "sidebar" on macroeconomics.

Saunders tackled Columbia's food and energy supplies. "If we develop local supplies of food and energy, we're going to be better off. That's my underlying assumption."

Scribble, scribble.

The closer the food, Saunders figured, the less energy needed to transport it and the less carbon released into the atmosphere. Technologies such as wind and solar power are coming along too slowly to wean Columbia off fossil fuels. He said we should burn wood and biomass for some of the city's energy, which would be cleaner than coal and also help create local jobs.

Scribble, scribble.

The fertile land around the Missouri River could be used to grow a tree supply to help replace coal, and the plains to the north could be used as diversified farmland.

"There are distinct advantages to where we are, geographically," Saunders said. "You gotta play to your strengths."

The whirlwind lecture was part big-picture thinking, part controlled chaos, and for Saunders, entirely a matter of pragmatism.

"That's the question," Saunders said during a brief pause, slowing his voice to emphasize his next three words: "Is this feasible?"

The question of feasibility has dogged the environmental arm of the sustainability movement from the beginning. Big ideas for wide-scale change frequently run into an economic conundrum: If there's a way to do it green, there's probably a different way that's cheaper and easier.

For some sustainability advocates, getting Americans to drive less has been one of the key elements of reducing carbon emissions and dependence on oil. But despite years of public awareness campaigns, history suggests cutbacks only occur when it becomes too expensive to drive — like during fuel crises when gas prices shoot up. When fuel prices fall, a lack of viable alternative fuel sources has usually meant drivers return to their old habits.

In a city such as Columbia where not everyone can bike to work, Hendrickson sees sustainability as a concept that is subject to practical realities.

"People enter into the idea of sustainability from a number of different perspectives, and I think they just try to do the best that they can," she said."I think of it as a long process."

Hendrickson said consumers who shop at local farmers' markets might start asking questions about how food is grown. Those questions might become questions about how to support local farmers and evolve into asking about ways to support the community as a whole.

"The more you learn, the more you change and do things different," Hendrickson said.

The development question

If you follow Hendrickson's string of questions to the end — the big picture — you'll find a political drama that has played over and over again for years in Columbia.

Missourian columnist George Kennedy coined it as the struggle between the "greens" and the "greys": a contentious debate between "smart growth" advocates who say the city should avoid sprawl and developers who say expansion is the best way to maintain a strong economy.

Local Sierra Club conservation chairman Ken Midkiff articulated the need for green politics.

"What good does it do if a few people engage in low-impact activities like recycling if 95 percent of the population is engaging in unsustainable behavior?" Midkiff asked.

In Columbia, the local Sierra Club and others have been making the case for preserving "open spaces" by developing the city's interior instead of expanding its boundaries. Another argument is that spread-out development is likely to mean more large houses that have to be heated and cooled, more lawns that need maintenance and more residents driving to and from work.

As for "sustainable development" — the concept envisioned by the Brundtland Commission — Midkiff called it an oxymoron. "You can't have sustainability and development at the same time," Midkiff said. "You can't sustain growth forever," he said, because the world has a finite amount of resources.

The view from Don Stamper's desk is different.

"Here's the problem with terms like smart growth and sustainability," said Stamper, executive director of the Central Missouri Development Council. "It really depends on how people define it. To me, sustainability means that we have an economically progressive community that is meeting design challenges and standards in a proper way — one that is cost effective."

Stamper — both a friend of Midkiff's and his frequent political adversary — said sustainability is important but emphasized that the concept means more than environmental well-being; it means economic and community well-being, too.

"Social funding, health funding, educational funding has been reduced, sometimes at the expense of these smart growth ideas," Stamper said. He sees growth as the fuel for Columbia's economy and thinks limiting new growth would drive the cost of housing "through the ceiling."

The arguments can be strident and compromises tough to come by. But for the time being, the recession has put struggles between the "greens" and the "greys" on hold. When the economy stalled, so did the housing market. It's hard to fight over houses that are not being built.

Changing the 'me-first' culture

Sustainability is about more than recycling aluminum cans, carbon footprints or zoning regulations. To many, it's about transforming a culture and finding a better way of life.

"The No. 1 stumbling block (to becoming sustainable) is the way of thinking that it’s all about jobs, it’s all about income," said John Ikerd, who believes the economy's "individualistic" focus on wealth ignores how much our overall well-being depends on our relationship with other people.

"We can have all the money in the world, but if we don't have any family or any friends, or anybody that cares about you, it's going to affect your happiness," said Ikerd, an author on sustainability and an MU professor emeritus of agricultural economics.

Ikerd wants to change the way society approaches capitalism.

“There’s no purely economic value in doing something solely for the benefit of someone else," Ikerd said. Economic incentives encourage people to act for themselves.

Rebecca Scott, an MU sociology professor who studies environmental justice, said people frequently respond to worsening environmental hazards by buying small things to protect themselves, rather than addressing the problem as a group.

For instance, people worried about the quality of their drinking water can buy bottled water. But buying bottled water creates a worse environmental problem, she said, by sending more plastic to landfills, and the fix doesn't change anything about the problem of dirty drinking water.

"Environmental risk is very much associated with poverty, and so a healthy environment is something theoretically purchasable," Scott said. If you have money, you can avoid environmental hazards such as living near a landfill; if you don't, you might be out of luck.

If the public wants to solve an environmental problem, Scott said, people have to empower themselves by working together instead of just saving their own skins.

She used sunscreen as an older example of how people have made individual responses to public problems. "We worry a lot about exposure to sun, and so we privatized that by protecting ourselves individually with the product instead of looking at the ozone as a problem we need to approach as a society," Scott said.

Eventually, Scott said public uproar forced companies and governments to address the ozone layer problem by limiting the emission of destructive chemicals into the atmosphere, making it one of the "success stories" of environmental reform.

Choosing sustainability

In a society where people make their own decisions about what to buy and how to live, individual behavior still matters. Figuring out ways to shape that behavior is one of the goals of Cherith Moore, a soft-spoken student sustainability coordinator at MU's newly created Sustainability Office.

The Sustainability Office is in the bottom level of the Virginia Avenue parking garage. Behind the cubicles, you can spot signs of oncoming sustainability projects — plastic bags for recycling, hang-dry racks for clothes — as if the office were an oversized environmental tackle box, ready for use.

Moore said the path to sustainable behavior might just be a matter of habit.

"When sustainability is the default, people just do it," she said. "Instead of checking the 'sustainability' box, you have to check the 'unsustainable' box."

And it's important to her to set a strong example for students and others.

"It's important to give them something tangible, because there's a lot of vagueness out there." For instance, recycling is good, Moore said, but "reducing" — driving less, consuming less, using less — would be much better.

When asked about how society as a whole could become sustainable, Moore began to answer about an "adjustment in our values" — then stopped, looking at the ceiling lights, then at her glowing desk lamp.

"Do I need this on to talk to you?" Moore asked, reaching for the lamp. Click. She turned to her computer monitor; idle, glowing pale blue. "Do I need this on to talk to you?"

Click.

Set aside the political arguments and the grand economic issues for the moment. If people really wanted to leave as small an impact as possible — if they really wanted to go for it — could they do it in Columbia?

Yes, said Moore, a 10-year resident. "If people pay attention, they'll find they can live a fairly mainstream life — sustainably."


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