It means what I say it means

February 4, 2014

By Joe Grove

I was proofreading copy and the word came up again: sustainability.

It must be a regional buzz word, as I have never heard it used as much as I have here, but what does it mean? It is often used with stories about building projects but seems to have other contexts as well. I think it has to do with the fact I am now living in a more environmentally sensitive culture.

I believe it was the Mad Hatter who said to Alice, a word means what I say it means. The dictionary defines a word, but personal experience forms the many possible nuances.

Joe Grove Press reporter

Joe Grove
Press reporter

When I hear “sustainability,” the follow experiences shape its meaning for me: I was in Switzerland while the U.S. was celebrating its bicentennial. One of the locals, curious about the celebration, asked, “What’s the big deal. The barn over the hill is more than 200 years old?”

A decade later, I was visiting with the wife of Malcolm Muggeridge in Robertsbridge, England, while he was outside being interviewed by a film crew doing a documentary on the early 1930’s Soviet engineered famine in the Ukraine. Muggeridge had reported on the event from the scene.

Their home was a typical English country cottage built of posts and beams. While looking at the ceiling timbers, I noticed a chiseled-out indentation and asked about it.

She said the timbers had been brought inland from a wrecked Canadian sailing ship and the cottage was built 300 hundred years ago. Sustainability!

She then got a concerned look on her face and said, “You know, I don’t think the houses they build these days will last three hundred years at all.”

While in Robertsbridge, I stayed in the newest of the three pubs in town. It was built in the late 1700s.

After my visit, I continued to stay in Robertsbridge for a few days, and to pass time, I decided to take a walk to Battle, about 6 miles away. It takes its name from the famous battle between England’s would-be rulers William Duke of Normandy and the Saxon King Harold in 1066. The battle of Hastings was an event so significant it completely changed the course of English history and I needed a history lesson. As I walked, I noticed a stone chapel across a field and detoured to see what it was about. It was a church built in the 1100s and was still in use. Sustainability!

In the early ‘70s, I was working for a skid row mission and built a 4,000-square-foot, two-story building in Wasilla, Alaska, primarily from material salvaged from an old bakery building. Since most of the material was then already 40 years old, we could say the building is now 80 years old. The building appraised at $100,000 (1970 dollars) when it was finished, but it only cost about $24,000 to build. Sustainability!

I now live in a 17-year-old condo. I consider it a new building, yet I keep hearing that it is an old building and needs this or that renovation, or that it is too old to be considered for a reverse mortgage. Apparently it was not built to last 300 years. Sustainability?

Is sustainability just a buzzword to make us feel good in a planned obsolescence economy? Is it a 300 year-old-house built with salvaged timbers? How about a house built with solar panels on the roof that will be torn down in 50 years to make way for something else? What is it?

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