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Sustainability Summer School

Almost every morning for the last two weeks, I’ve driven up the hill to St. John’s College to sit in on an event, sponsored by the Santa Fe Institute, called Sustainability Summer School. And every morning as I depart, the jackhammering and scraping of rock against steel has continued as the couple from Houston builds a “green” home.

We’ve written here before how words like “green” and “sustainable” have become hollowed of meaning and turned into marketing devices for the construction industry. When the project across the street is finished there will be one less affordable house on Santa Fe’s Eastside. Neighbors in the surrounding homes will have been robbed of months of summer relaxation, the usually quiet days blanked out by industrial noise. And the builder, Palo Santo Designs LLC, will persist in advertising the project’s greenness because it is installing thermal-paned windows and other filigrees. Maybe there will be solar heating or a recirculating hot water line.  None of that will come close to offsetting the impact of such wasteful, energy-intensive construction.

How refreshing it has been to leave behind this horror show and sit inside St. John’s Great Hall listening to people who genuinely care about the effects that the accelerating development of the earth is having on its inhabitants. The students, from India, China, Chile, Colombia, Germany, Sweden, Italy, Peru, and the United States, are an impressive bunch —  idealistic yet pragmatic, fiercely intelligent. They have degrees in economics, geography, engineering, geology, ecology, philosophy, biology, physics, forestry, anthropology, sociology, and political science. Some of them believe that nuclear energy is anathema, others that it is a necessary part of the energy mix. I listen as they discuss the complexities and ambiguities of carbon trading, climate change modeling, social tipping points, centralized versus decentralized energy, the global tragedy of the commons, technology as a solution or as part of the problem. Arching over this all is the question of just what we mean by sustainability. Sustainable at what level and sustainable for whom?

At the end of the day, my head buzzing with ideas, I come back home and the green builder is still jackhammering into the hillside.

George Johnson
The Santa Fe Review