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Redefining Sustainability

By Harold N. Eyster and Daniel Jung Dong

When people think about sustainability today, they often think about it in the contexts of attaining energy security and solving global warming. While this definition is pertinent to addressing our most immediate challenges today, sustainability actually deserves a broader perspective.

Sustainability has been a major challenge for us throughout modern history, encompassing the century-long concern of securing a sustainable energy source and the search for sustainable transportation. In the late 19th century, horse waste posed a major problem for urban dwellers. With 100,000 to 200,000 horses working as transportation in New York City, the city’s streets began seeing mounting piles (up to 60 feet) of horse manure, causing adverse health and environmental effects for its citizens. Not only did the horses create refuse faster than the city could clean up, the horses also posed an economic burden for the city. In a 1908 article in Appleton magazine, Harold Bolce estimated that New York City alone spent more than $1.6 billion on cleaning up after this externality.

Of course, technology eventually came to rescue. Mass-produced cars soon replaced the mass defecation, saving the city from its pressing environmental health hazards. Cars were viewed as the solution to the horse problem. Nevertheless, it’s interesting to draw a parallel between the environmental and economic effects that transportation posed a century ago and those that cars, the transportation “solution,” pose today.

The emissions from automobiles create problems that are much more global, elusive, and larger in scale than anything created by horses. Carbon emissions have increased the intensity, damage from, and unpredictability of storms, seriously affected the global ecosystem, and caused the continual rise in sea level that will force much of the world’s populations to relocate. Hurricane Sandy, the sort of extreme event caused and influenced by cars’ emissions, cost an estimated $50 billion—a very large sum relative to the small $1.6 billion cost of cleaning up after horses.

Although technology saved the day, the same underlying human attitude that drives the two similar outcomes separated by a century has largely stayed the same. This attitude is the lack of consideration and responsibility for the impacts individual and group behavior has on the public in the long run. The horse owners did not consider the impact the horses had on the city’s environment, nor did the new car owners consider the long-term impact of the reliance on and pollution from fossil fuels. In essence, sustainability is about considering and reacting to the impact one’s behavior has on the larger community, currently and into the future.

There are many examples where the real, sustainable solution was chosen over the immediate technological fix. An example appears in New York City’s water purification system. In 1997 the city realized that its water purification system was no longer up to scratch. In order to increase the quality of drinking water, the city considered a plan that would require spending $4 to $6 billion up front and $250 million annually for a new purification plant. However, instead the city decided to pursue a truly sustainable solution: They invested $250 million up front to buy land in the Catskill Mountains and $100 million annually to ensure that mountain residents minimized water pollution. Like the cars before it, this natural water filtration system saved New York money in the short term. But it did not stop there—it provided a sustainable solution that will outlast any filtration plant that the city could have built.

Unfortunately, these sustainable choices do not represent the majority. With our increasingly intensifying problems concerning natural resources, environment, and climate, our quick-and-easy-solution way of life seems to suggest that we have not changed much from the days of horse manure: We are still waiting and hoping that a magical technology will somehow solve our problems. But in due sense, we do already possess the technology to save the day. We already have existing technologies for sustainable purification plants, efficient electric cars, renewable energy, and recycling materials. The underlying problem is that we have more or less stayed silent as the effects of our choices disrupt the atmosphere. Sustainability, then, is as much about having the ability to reflect upon and consider our impacts as it is about the actual choices we make.

This concept of sustainability has been around since the age-old concept of karma in Buddhist philosophy. However, despite its long philosophical history, we have yet to fully implement the concept. It’s time for that to change. Sustainability must be embraced if we are to overcome everything from the unbearable smell of manure to the intense and unpredictable climate that will affect our entire planet.

We don’t believe that sustainability should only fit into the context of our energy and climate crisis. Rather, it’s a concept and philosophy that can be applied to many different areas of life and society. Although we definitely need new and effective technology to save us from the “horse manure” of our day, we also need to start considering the full ramifications of the ways we think about and react to our choices.

Daniel Dong ’16, a Crimson editorial writer, lives in Kirkland House. Harold Eyster ’16 lives in Kirkland House. They are the co-founders of the forthcoming Harvard College Sustainability Review.

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