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PERLEY: ‘Sustainable’ tops the web

- The Washington Times - Friday, August 13, 2010

Suddenly, "sustainable" is the catchword of the moment. A Google search of the word extracts 72.5 million entries in .32 second. For everything we do, it seems there is a sustainable method for doing it and an organization to tell us how.

Interested in a sustainable building? There's the Holcim Foundation for Sustainable Construction, with the mission "to select and support initiatives that combine sustainable construction solutions with architectural excellence and enhanced quality of life beyond technical solutions."

Intrigued by the thought of eating sustainably? Welcome to the Sustainable Table, which "celebrates local sustainable food, educates consumers on food-related issues and works to build community through food."

If you want your news to reflect sustainability, there's the SustainabiliTank, which bills itself as a source for "sustainable development media that you can trust."

For those enthusiastic for the sustainable in the extreme, there is a Volkswagen Beetle modified to run on human waste: "On first hearing of the Bio-Bug, some people will smile, and some people will go 'yuck'! . . . What I hope they realize is that this is exactly the kind of innovation we now need for a more sustainable world," said Jonathon Porritt, founding director of Forum for the Future, to the International Business Times.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines "sustainable" as "of, relating to, or being a method of harvesting or using a resource so that the resource is not depleted or permanently damaged." What's not to like about that?

With "sustainable" all over the Web, apparently some have not been surfing lately, including President Obama. By all indications, his interests run toward all things unsustainable. Actually, "unsustainable" is not exactly absent from the Internet, harvesting 9.7 million Google entries in .21 second.

Mr. Obama seems to be fascinated with unsustainable spending. Last year, he (with help from fellow congressional Democrats and a few Republicans) signed an $800 billion economic stimulus bill that was to create or save 3.5 million jobs and keep unemployment under 8 percent. It didn't work that way and, instead, led to a budget deficit of $1.4 trillion this year and a projected deficit of another $1.4 trillion next year. Thanks to Mr. Obama and his overspending supporters, each U.S. taxpayer is responsible for paying off $120,006 of the national debt. That kind of fiscal extravagance is unsustainable.

Also apparently unperturbed by the unsustainable are members of Congress responsible for the financial health of Social Security and Medicare. The trustees of those government programs released their annual report Aug. 5, which said Social Security is continuing to hurdle toward the cliff of insolvency and is expected to get there by 2037. Medicare is due to go broke in 2029 - 12 years later than expected - the report noted triumphantly, because of cost-cutting measures in the recently passed Obamacare bill. If members of Congress expect a sustainability award from the American people, they're going to be disappointed.

Across the country in California, the meaning of sustainable is the subject of debate. The state legislature has failed to pass a budget, and faced with a $19 billion budget deficit, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger recently tried to cut state employees' pay to the minimum wage to save money. But the state controller filed a lawsuit to block the governor's move. Instead, Mr. Schwarzenegger ordered furloughs for 200,000 state workers to preserve cash and pay for essential services.

With the state's finances in a shambles and California having the nation's third-highest unemployment rate at 12.3 percent, California is being compared to Greece, where sustainability also has been given short shrift. Greece is in the midst of an economic crisis caused by excessive national debt. Government overspending resulted in a debt level exceeding 115 percent of gross domestic product in 2009, which led to rising borrowing costs and a crisis in confidence over the nation's solvency. Locked into a clearly unsustainable glide path toward oblivion, Greece copped a $110-billion-euro (more than $140 billion) bailout in May that saved it in the nick of time.

When the Greeks can grab a breather from righting their economic boat, they might want to take a look at another sustainability issue: their population. With a birthrate of 9.54 per 1,000 persons, Greece is projected to shrink 11.5 percent by 2050.

Global population is expected to rise from 6.7 billion today to 9 billion by 2050, so it's counterintuitive that various regions of the world are unlikely to sustain their current population levels, let alone add to them. Europe is projected to bear the brunt of population decline, led by Estonia with a 36 percent drop; Bulgaria, 35 percent; and Spain, 23 percent.

However, Africa will have no such population problem. Chad is expected to undergo a 282 percent increase by 2050; Uganda, 250 percent; and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, 245 percent. While Europe's population decline is the very definition of unsustainable, whether Africa's rapid growth can be considered sustainable is an open question.

Clearly, despite humanity's infatuation with the S-word, there is little agreement on what it actually means. Luckily, there's lots of help out there in figuring it out.

Googling "sustainable degree program" yields 17.7 million entries in .28 second. For instance, Columbia University offers a master's degree in sustainable development that promises to "build a new host of generalist practitioners able to diagnose and address factors impacting sustainable development."

So, with all the opportunities available in educating our world about how to achieve sustainability, unsustainability doesn't stand a chance.

Frank Perley is senior editor for opinion at The Washington Times.

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