Sustainability. It’s the rage these days, as enlightened communities and individuals all over the globe are coming to realize, and worry not a little bit about it, that the human propensity to breed and burn, every year a little more than the last, might not be able to go on forever.

Burning, whether it’s coal in a Midwestern electric plant or oil in a speeding semi, consumes resources and converts them to entropy. If that weren’t enough, it adds greenhouse gases to our atmosphere – performing a global laboratory experiment with heretofore unknown consequences. That would be fine if we had another lab, should we blow this one up.

But we don’t. Every time you turn on a light switch, something dies. And the more of us there are to flip on the lights, the more dying. Breeding and burning.

Hence sustainability. The banker’s notion that it is better to live off of interest, than draw down principle. And the notion that we had better do something, quickly, if we’re not to run out of cash on which to draw that interest.

The city of Bloomington has established a sustainability commission. IU has established a sustainability task force. And they’ve both done so with the best of intentions.

But I fear that in all the talk of “green rooftops” and conversion to low-energy sources of artificial lighting has lost a basic principle: go after your lowest hanging fruit, first. In other words, do first what is most likely to give the greatest gains, in this case, gains in sustainability, first.

How we live

Settlement patterns and transportation methods have, by far, the greatest effect on how much we burn, and subsequently how much we pollute. A tomato grown in the backyard garden comes at a fraction of the atmospheric CO2 releaseof a tomato grown a thousand miles away, trucked to your kitchen in a refrigerated semi.

Likewise, compact communities, communities built on a human scale, consume, for the same net economic activity, a fraction of the fuel – meaning they burn a fraction as much – as sprawling, low-density automotive communities.

That we have destroyed the shape and form of our traditional communities, replacing them with suburban sclerosis, is one of the chief reasons why Americans, on a per-capita basis, burn twice as much petroleum as do citizens of any other advanced western nation.

Ecologists estimate that demolishing just one building and replacing it with another structure undoes the effect of 10 lifetimes of responsible recycling.

Think about that, the next time you read of a plan to tear down a structure because renovation would be uneconomical. Think about it as you sort your glass, your paper, and your soda cans. Think that all your efforts, for your entire life, and those of nine other people at the recycling center, were just obliterated by the wrecking ball, as all that old building’s metal, glass and concrete are sent, not to be reused, but dissipated in the landfills of a cooling universe.

And think about why our sustainability leadership isn’t addressing those issues, that low-hanging fruit.

Working against itself

A few days ago I penned the following, addressed to IU’s sustainability task force, copying the ex-officio member of the city of Bloomington’s Commission on Sustainability:


“The IU sustainability task force states, as a core mission goal: ‘meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.’

“Which is certainly laudable. As I am sure you are aware, IU has recently announced its intention to quit much of its downtown properties (see the Declaration of Surplus Real Estate from the trustees’ June 22 meeting.)

“As I am sure you are also aware, IU has additionally announced its intention of moving and/or outsourcing much of that downtown activity to suburban/automotive pods, particularly to the east of the soon-to-be-widened SR 46 bypass.

“It would be helpful to have a statement from the university as to how its most recent announcement of abandonment of traditional, low-energy, central business district development in favor of high-energy, high-environmental-cost suburban/automotive development serves its new mandate for sustainability, or serves its ability to avoid compromising future generations.

“As I am also sure you are aware, the United States is currently in both a liquid hydrocarbon crisis and a growing greenhouse climate crisis. Neither of which has a rational hope of melioration, short of direct and effective action. Which none of this appears to represent.

“I would hope, in the interest of avoiding a patina of cynicism from disabling the sustainability task force’s mission, that the task force will address what appear to be two monstrously contradictory agendas. Namely a commitment to handing future generations a world better than that which we inherited, versus the more immediate and pragmatic attention to business as usual, even if that means business as collective suicide."


I can be given to hyperbole, but one of the buildings to be surplused in the downtown location is the IU food warehouse, where outlines of the old railroad tracks used to bring in boxcars of food can still be seen in the grass. Now those cars have been replaced by refrigerated trucks, carrying frozen hamburgers from Nebraska and Caesar salads from California.

Each ton of food shipped by truck burns 10 times as much fuel, and adds 10 times the atmospheric CO2, as does a ton shipped by rail.

Are we really headed in the right, sustainable, direction? It’s nearly 50 hours since I sent my letter, but my inbox is empty.

Gregory Travis can be reached at .