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Sustainability in its Truest Form

Updated: Apr 13, 2022

"Sustainability", from 'ability' & 'sustain', meaning the capability to prolong.

Any term preceded by the adjective sustainable, lights up in the minds of the reader/listener, as though a brighter spotlight gleamed in, drawing all the focus off the stage onto the 1 element that claims to be sustainable. Before the viewer promotes the cause with the complete heart and soul, the viewer must know whether the activities and functionalities that are being claimed as sustainable truly fit the bill.

Sustainability is predominantly a very misunderstood and misused term. It is generally misplaced for green or environmental aspects or is found replacing the term economical to make it appreciable. We shall, thus, unravel all the folds, and expose the core of 'sustainability'.

For those who yet haven't googled the textbook definition, "Sustainability focuses on meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of the future generations to meet their own needs."

Environmental Science defines it as '

The quality of not being harmful to the environment or depleting natural resources, and thereby supporting long-term ecological balance.'

The most interesting definition found on the net so far,

'Sustainability is the ability to continue a defined behaviour indefinitely.'

The last definition in no manner holds any social, economic or ecological factors within the parameters of the definition. It merely recalibrates Netwon's 3rd law of motion.

Every user (of the word 'sustainability') utilises it in his own manner, using it to define a particular cluster of words that can be understood closely only if it is broken down into it's primary elements.

Back in school, for the ICSE boards, the inclusion of the 4 'R's : reduce, reuse, refuse and recycle was the safest and most promising bringing in those 2 marks for the question that a 16 year old most fears, Define Sustainability.

What's the idea that comes to mind, when you read:

Sustainable Townships.

This is a term we come across almost everyday, as most builders attempt to sell their minuscule apartments in the outskirts of the city, out of reach of public transport with little or no benefits. It's a term used to attract the masses.

Let's break this down.

Do they mean that the built structures in the township will stand forever? Or that the township is self-sustaining?

What could have been sustainable in a township? The materials that were used in the construction or the building technologies?

Or those who purchase the apartments have to be sustainable?

Could it mean that the township is carbon positive?

Quite a few of the built structures, upon inspection shall show a life expectancy of less than 50 years. That's less than a human lifetime. The township obviously doesn't harbour farmlands, industries or even jobs enough to employ all the living residents.

Cement is the most common used material followed by glass. Let's dwell into this a bit further. Cement is artificially manufactured from materials like limestone and clay whereas glass is made from silica which is found naturally occurring in sand. Both of the materials are made from high temperature treatment of minerals found on the earth's crust. When the structures are brought down, one can be recycled and reused and the other cannot. Glass takes about a 100 years to decompose, cement, has been said to not at all. Wouldn't cement be called sustainable if someone found a way of reusing it? All the material, transport and construction process is bound to create a carbon footprint during the process of construction. What would be the total carbon footprint if the calculations were to begin at the manufacturing process of every individual material involved in the construction process and aiding the construction such as transport and machinery involved. Also what was the land used for before it got converted to a residential township.

Post calculating all the carbon emissions and deucing the carbon footprint, could the township deem to be sustainable and carbon positive.

The government announced manufacturing of green crackers for abating pollution during the festival of Diwali. These reduce carbon and sulphur emissions by 30%. Some are also cheaper then the conventional crackers. What this calculation of the carbon footprint and pricing of an individual cracker forgets is how numbers work when multiplied with the factors of economy and population. The 2.2 billion population of the country in the excitement of using something that's tagged 'green' and 'sustainable' might end up purchasing in larger quantities than the previous years as every family works on a budget. The head of the family, doesn't limit the quantity of crackers purchased for the season, he simply sets aside the amount for entertainment of the children. Making crackers cheaper will only permit more number of crackers to be purchased, and if the percentage of emissions reduced is 30% , and an individual burns up even 15% more crackers compared to the previous year, the numbers don't run in favour of the environment, thereby defeating all the purpose of being green.

Similarly, an old article states, "The Indian Navy is in the process of synergizing its 'blue water capability with a green footprint'." It unveils the focus to be 2 fold. Reduction in power consumption by 3-5% and control and management of effluents.

These are the key elements, not enough to pass a judgement on whether the action will result in a sustainable approach towards our seas. Not dumping waste into the sea is one way of saving the blues. What happens to the waste is yet another question. Using biofuel is preserving the alternate fuels that has been used conventionally. The parts that are being replaced, machines that are being generated, productivity and longevity of those are a few factors that should hold major shares in the consensus too.

As an adult, nevertheless an architect, I constantly find myself debating one parameter against another, trying to settle down on the most sustainable means to deliver a particular design. The 4 R s suffice only a part of the requirement, as the one basic thing on my mind is always durability. The durability of any product is not only in it's life value, but also the hands of it's user/ owner. If, for some reason, it is no longer in use, has been discarded, irrespective of it's minimal carbon footprint, a waste product has been generated. Even if it is used for a respectable amount of time, what happens post it has served its purpose demands a certain ounce of thought. In certain events, it is possible to control the carbon footprint from the beginning to the end. In most cases, it is not. As a result, I'm constantly trying to balance out the 4 R s with the economical, social and psychological factors before I pass any particular design to be 'Sustainable'.

The path trodden to reach the numbers we aim for, doesn't always provide the same results as the original intention. It is important to know that the end resultant of the actions we strive to achieve might not be achieved. As a consequence, it is critical to consider all the factors, every case permutation and combination before we put together a certain combination of parameters to make any deed sustainable.


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