"Sustainability" has lent a lofty tone to goals of protecting the environment, promoting efficiency and improving standards of living. The burst of an economic bubble recently gave the buzzword new meaning and a sense of urgency.
"It's become impossible to ignore," says local writer and broadcaster Jeff Golden. "Sustainability, at its core, is learning the ability to live within our means."
Heard everywhere from the playground to city council meetings, from the office water cooler to hiking trails, the concept of sustainability stems from the environmental movement, experts agree. But it's come to signify much more and often is framed in terms of the "triple bottom line," comprising the "three Es" — environment, economy and equity, social equity, that is.
"It's not just about the environment," says Shelley Lotz, member of the Ashland Conservation Commission. "It's about the economy; it's about the world."
The economy has naturally moved to the forefront of sustainability discussions in recent months. Southern Oregon University in Ashland started drafting a sustainability initiative last summer with goals of courting more eco-conscious students and ultimately reaping financial dividends, from both increased enrollment and reduced expenditures, says Larry Blake, SOU's director of campus planning and sustainability.
"Energy has historically been cheap," Blake says. "Sun, fortunately, is something we have a lot of."
The university plans to install solar panels at its higher education center in Medford, the first of several campus buildings suited to collecting solar energy, Blake says. Also on the "green" building front, SOU will replace roofing on four Ashland campus buildings and install extra insulation in several facilities, he adds. Similar measures have been taken at other universities in the Pacific Northwest.
"We're trying to catch up right now," Blake says.
Some local entities, however, have been ahead of the curve. The Rogue Initiative for a Vital Economy — better known as THRIVE — was founded in 2004 on the premise of sustainability, a stronger local economy being its primary concern. With local food as its rallying call, THRIVE also advocates and educates for a better environment and community. That's sustainability in a nutshell, says Executive Director Wendy Siporen.
"There really isn't any other word to describe that," she says. "It's really just common sense."
Securing a large-scale, locally based food supply should be the next step for sustainability proponents, says Lotz, who works as a green building consultant. If the surge in energy-efficient construction from alternative materials is any indicator, exponential growth is possible in every sector relating to sustainability.
"It's just going to become normal," Lotz says. "I think people are waking up."
Money spent on green building is expected to increase five times to $60 billion over the next two years, according to the U.S. Green Building Council. Approximately $240 billion is projected for green renovations. Lotz says she anticipates the industry's penetration will be even greater in the Pacific Northwest, with smaller houses a visible outcome. Stricter state and federal regulations are just one driving force.
"That's what people want," Lotz says. "In the next five years, all buildings will be built to green standards."
And if Lotz and some city officials she counsels get their way, people would drive less, grow their own food and open their windows instead of turning on the air conditioning — all steps that transfer the responsibility for sustainability from governments onto individuals.
"We need to not just talk about it, but we actually need to do something," Lotz says.
There's plenty of factors motivating people toward sustainability, Golden says. Personal assets, investments and livelihoods are just the most recent loss. American society already had sacrificed much of its family and community connections, he says. Numerous studies have shown that while acquisition of material goods was up, enjoyment of them was down.
"Consumption is the consolation prize," Golden says.
The paradox of sustainability as it relates to human health is evident in children spending less time in the natural environment that so many are trying to preserve, Golden says. Consumers only look as far as the grocery store for the source of their food, he adds.
"We're forced to ask ourselves what's important and what do I really care about."
With Golden's help, community leaders explored the question of sustainability at a forum earlier this year. Highlights from the event aired April 17 on Southern Oregon Public Television. "Seeking Sustainability for Your Community" was the first in a series of "Southern Oregon Town Hall" broadcasts scheduled for Tuesdays in May, culminating in a live call-in show.
Golden urges viewers to learn more at www.soptv.org/townhall. The Web site also provides more than 25 definitions of sustainability.
"It's a great word."