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Monday, February 26, 2024

Sustainability in the Built Environment: What is the ultimate goal of sustainability?

lundheadshot_opThank you to everyone who read my columns and followed me throughout this process. I have learned quite a bit throughout this and I hope you have too! Today, the scope of my column will focus on the overall definition of sustainability and how we, as humans, can strive toward creating a zero net energy planet .

Sustainability is generally defined as the bountiful diversity and productivity of biological systems. These systems should produce waste below a non-harmful level. The core notions of sustainability can be viewed as a spectrum that ranges from extremely vast changes to minor changes in our current system.

While analyzing this spectrum, it is evident that moderate changes are useful, but not optimistic enough, and subsequently don’t conceptualize a greener future well. Contrastingly, the extreme definitions propose highly optimistic changes in our current framework but somewhat neglect the necessity for immediate action. My personal definition balances both the extreme and moderate definitions of green engineering, thus finding a middle ground between immediate action and optimistic conceptual design.

There are 4 major points I would like to stress in my definition, which are as follows:

  1.      Designing with a top-down approach, but considering the importance and necessity   of bottom-up design.
  2.      Designing with nature as an initial blueprint.
  3.      Optimizing the life cycles of all products, systems and processes.
  4.      Becoming one with planet Earth once again.

So, which theory is better, top-down or bottom-up?  A top-down approach is defined as making revisions to our current engineered system to increase their sustainable measures. Bottom-up is the notion of creating/engineering an entire new system, with the ultimate goal of being a self-sufficient system. They both have their advantages, and the best position regarding the two is to take advantages of both. My definition leads more toward a top-down approach, due to the fact that we are designing for the future, and challenging our current framework is the best way to do so. However, I still recognize the potential benefits of the bottom-up theory. Bottom-up strives toward the concept of wasting less, which is a great step in the direction towards full sustainability. Nevertheless, we still need to understand that top-down is a stronger theory because it takes into consideration long term effects, which will eventually lead toward a richer and more environmentally friendly future.

Supporting this environmentally non-threatening future requires we follow a very delicate philosophy. This philosophy can be loosely stated as “design as nature would.” This is an important concept as it reduces waste and optimizes all viable energy systems. Natural systems (such as trees and ants) are literally 100 percent optimal; all of their system’s byproducts are used elsewhere. This shows that it is very possible and extremely feasible to transform our current systems, products and designs to produce no waste. Also, just like natural systems, byproducts will feed other systems, thus supporting the concept of a cyclical energy system. Developing and supporting this cyclical energy system will once again land humans in their natural role within the ecosystem.

It wasn’t until recently – the past 150 years – that humans have grown and destroyed the environment at exponential rates, thus becoming an enemy to most ecosystems. Pre-industrial humans did not produce such environmentally detrimental effects as we do today. The ultimate goal would be to return to such a state where we would have the same lack of impact on the environment without altering our current society. Via years (maybe decades or centuries) of applying green engineering, humans will be able to claim that they are causing no destructive effects to the planet. They will be able to make the claim that they are native to planet Earth once more.

Brent Lund can be reached at brlund@ucdavis.edu.

Graphic by CA Aggie Graphic Design Team

Photo by CA Aggie Photo Team


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