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The last word in the sustainability debate - for the time being. . .

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Back in the 1970s there was a thing called the energy crisis. It started with an oil embargo and ended with the Thatcher boom. It is worth remembering this and its outcome because these days another energy crisis is upon us. Only this time the fear is not that we will run out of energy so much as exhaust the resources of the planet so that future generations will find the cupboard bare. As Prince Charles pointed out in his Reith Lecture a couple of months ago: 'We know that trying to graze too many sheep on a hillside will sooner or later be counterproductive for the sheep.'

In the argument about sustainability that raged at the Building Audacity conference, held at the Building Centre last week, there appeared to be four basic positions. There was a traditionalist, back-to-nature stance, reminiscent of the Prince's enthusiasm for 'rediscovering our sense of the sacred in our dealings with the natural world'. There was an enforcement stance, whose supporters insisted that it was urgently necessary to mobilise the world's population into compliance with tough new laws restricting energy use, pollution and unsustainable economic activity of all kinds.

Opposing them were New Technology enthusiasts who took the view that even if all the doom and gloom turned out to be true, science and technology would save the day, for instance by reducing the fertility of Prince Charles'sheep, increasing the richness of their grass and so on. Finally, there were the die-hard believers in market forces who held that the free market would respond to any real sustainability crisis.

If the burning of fossil fuels was criminalised by a government inclined to enforcement measures, the competitive market for alternative fuels would expand, costs would be forced down and the problem would solve itself.

Seen in this way, with so many solutions to hand, the battle for sustainability might seem to be all but over. But it is not. For it is only when we look at the epic scale of the changes that the 'enforcers' want to bring about, that the picture darkens.

The much-quoted Brundtland definition which states that 'sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs', may express a sentiment that few people will disagree with; and so indeed does Kate Macintosh's proposed alternative that 'sustainable development improves people's quality of life within the carrying capacity of the earth's life support system'.

But sentiment is not the real issue here. The point is implementation. And all but one of the definitions I have seen seem to share the same worrying indifference to the fact that attaining sustainability amounts to a very tall order in a very unsustainable world.

I say all but one because there is an exception. In the March 1998 issue of Arup Notes , the great engineering firm's in-house magazine comes straight to the point. 'Sustainability', it states, 'means action on every front, including local, regional and global environmental concerns, worldwide energy and resource use, food supplies, population, quality of life, biodiversity and the underlying structure of our democratic system.'

This is nothing less than the truth, but ask anybody exactly what 'action on every front' is supposed to mean, or how it is supposed to 'improve people's quality of life' when 60 per cent of the world's population is expected to be living in energy-guzzling megacities within the next 20 years, and you don't get a sensible answer. Just as you get no sensible explanation for the alliance of sustainability with high-density urban living; the emphasis on sustainability in new construction; and the conflation of sustainability with obsolete nineteenth-century infrastructure.

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