Asheville Argus: You say “sustainability …”

We've been working on the sustainability issue for weeks, and I thought I was off the hook. As staff photographer, I get to dodge a lot of big questions. In fact, I consider dodging questions to be part of my job description: Good photos pose more questions than they answer. The more questions I answer, the less compelling my work will be.

But when I was asked to write a piece on sustainability, there was one question I couldn't dodge: What the hell is sustainability?

Admit it: You didn't know, either. Just don't admit it out loud … they might take away your Ashevillean Card for not knowing the pat definitions of our favorite buzzwords. But you're safe with me. We're in this together.

When we started writing the sustainability issue, I felt much like you must have when you started reading it. I had some vague emotional connotations with the word itself, but I was otherwise in the dark. To make matters worse, I'd been covering sustainable stories for over a year now. Sustainable homes, sustainable banking, sustainable water, sustainable government, sustainable vehicles, sustainable food, sustainable clothes.

You'd think I'd be well informed, but the troubling thing is that a lot of the info that's thrown around conflicts with a lot of the other info that's thrown around. For example: Is it more sustainable to live in your current, modest home, or build a new green mansion? Should we all buy electric cars that plug into outlets full of coal-fueled power? Should we oppose big for-profit businesses and invest in local for-profit businesses?

The common thread is that, whatever sustainability is, we must pay a premium for it. We're told by businesses, governments and advocates that their product, proposal or cause requires a little more pain up front, but we'll all be happier in the long run.

That's a universal truth. Investment now, returns later. But we're also told about the homeless, the hungry, the victims of wealth disparity. For them, this is the long run. So the investment terms become another contradiction. Sure, I could take the hit and invest locally. But what about me? Am I local, too? Isn't personal solvency the most local investment of all?

There we go again, posing more questions than we answer. You'd make a great photographer.

Any good skeptic will tell you that if a concept is completely fraught with contradictions, it’s not really much of a concept. But is it fair to say “sustainability” is really just a collection of individuals pushing their pet causes? I don't think so.

After reading a few Argus columns, Xpress publisher Jeff Fobes once asked me if I really believed the world was going to hell, or if that was just my schtick. I still don't have a straight answer, but I must admit that I walk around with a constant sense of impending doom.

I'm not the only one. From anarcho-socialist Occupiers to Bele Chere street preachers, Asheville is full of doomsayers. With our megaphones and sandwich signs, we're all telling you the same thing: Keep walking this path and you'll meet a bad end.

So maybe we can quit dodging this question. What is sustainability? It's the thing you advocate for to assuage your own sense of doom. For better or worse, it's what we say to each other when we believe there's a better way.

Let's hope some of us are right.

— Max Cooper can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 145, or at mcooper@mountainx.com.

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