“Sustainable” And “Green” Are Not The Same Thing

by Owner on September 23, 2009

Not everything considered “green” is also “sustainable,” a fact that may surprise some people.

First, let’s define the terms. “Green” is a fuzzy term but generally means something is environmentally friendly, not poisonous or toxic, doesn’t contribute to global warming emissions, doesn’t contribute to habitat destruction, and so on. These are all good things.

“Sustainable” means something a bit different. It means a practice that can be continued into the indefinite future. Most of industrial society is currently based on unsustainable practices for everything from energy use to food production, in that if we continue current practices we will eventually hit a wall (fossil fuel runs out, ocean life dies out from over-fishing, etc.)

Usually, the two terms are synonymous. For example, carefully managed logging or fishing is green in that it preserves the environment and its habitats, but is also sustainable in that it won’t cause the wholesale extinction of animals and trees over time.

There are situations, however, where what is green is not sustainable and what is sustainable is not green.

In the camp of “green but not sustainable,” the most obvious example is organic food. Raising organic food is very green: you don’t use poisonous chemicals and pesticides, the land’s fertility is preserved, and consumers enjoy healthy all natural food.

But consider the implications of organic farming: you can’t grow as much food using natural methods as you can with chemical fertilizers. At the same time, food demand continues to increase. The only alternatives are to set aside more land for farming organic food than would otherwise be required, or to not do so. The former results in continued deforestation, the latter results in starvation for those who do without and higher prices for those who can afford it. Neither result is sustainable, and that is one reason why organic food will never become the norm.

How about “sustainable but not green?” Consider widespread solar panel plans destined for the deserts of the southwestern US. Solar power is very sustainable compared to fossil fuel alternatives–I’ve heard it said that enough sunlight falls on Australia in two days to power all of humanity for a year. But ask the endangered desert tortoise, black-footed ferret, Peebles Navajo cactus, and other threatened plants and animals, and you’ll get a different story. Plopping these big solar electric panels in the desert will destroy a lot of habitat, and that’s definitely not green.

Why is this distinction important? In my opinion we should be clear on what it is that we’re fighting for. Obviously we want a world that’s both green and sustainable, but what do we do when the two goals are in conflict?

In such cases we face some tough choices. Solar plant or desert tortoise? Organic orange or feeding the hungry? Clearly defining the terms helps to lay bare the stark choices that sometimes must be made.

Personally, when forced to choose I’ll choose sustainable over green. Sustainable practices might not be green in the local environment but often are green when considered on a global scale even if only indirectly (for example, solar power plants destroy local habitats but help save many others by reducing global warming emissions). It’s also a decision based on practicality. Lack of sustainability has only one guaranteed end result: disaster.

What about you–how do you deal with the occasional conflict between “green” and “sustainable?”

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

George Monroe September 24, 2009 at 10:31 pm

What I don’t understand is how building a solar power plant kills more animals and destroys more habitats than a coal power plant or a diesel plant. They all take up space, just one doesn’t pollute the air.

I also don’t understand how the primary con to wind turbines is that “They’re ugly”. I always thought smoke stacks and hazy skies were uglier.

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Tara @ Go Green St March 10, 2010 at 1:09 am

This is a tough one for me, as I do look at sustainability as being green. Yet, your right when you say sustainable is not always green! I think you have to take into consideration of every possible outcome to decide which is really best.

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