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And by "Sustainability" You Mean..."

by Diana Scott

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"The whole issue of [environmental] sustainability...has eight or nine different definitions," says Mark Kasky, Executive Director of Fort Mason Foundation. "That leads to different meanings, approaches, and conclusions." By contrast, financial self-sufficiency is more objective, he maintains. "Infrastructure needs major capital expenditure....It shifts the balance toward financial mode versus program model."

Fort Mason Center, also part of GGRNA, is a cluster of pier warehouse buildings that now house many nonprofit cultural institutions. Smaller in size than the Presidio, and largely asphalted, Fort Mason has supported itself from rental income since 1980, its third year of operation, says Kasky. The Presidio -- with its hundreds of buildings and vast open space -- has much greater financial viability, he says. The issue as he sees it: "To what degree do you have to compromise subjective program objectives to achieve objective financial ones?"

Berkeley sociologist and park historian Galen Cranz calls the term" sustainability" a sloppy cover for everything and prefers to use the terms "ecologically responsible" or "ecologically sound." Her model is holistic and site-specific: "One looks at major ecological problems in each site and never solves one problem without taking others into consideration," says Cranz.

In recent years, the recognition that cities are part of nature has led to efforts to factor them into the ecological equation, eliciting many different proposals. Myriad "sustainable city plans" have been created in the last decade in an attempt to objectify relevant criteria. Some include specific land use recommendations such as increasing density of development in clearly-bounded urban areas to end automobile dependence and prevent further urban sprawl. Others point, as well, to slow growth as the answer, with rate determined by inhabitants, rather than imposed by municipal, state, regional, or federal authorities.

"The most commonly accepted definition of sustainability, "meeting the needs of the current generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet theirs," is too pat asserts British economist Richard Douthwaite in his 1996 book, Short Circuit: Strengthening Local Economies for Security in an Unstable World (Green Books, Devon England). "Living within our limits and sustainability are one and the same thing, and until humankind learns to live within limits again, its future and that of the planet are threatened."

Douthwaite believes that the high-tech vision of global sustainability favored by industrial culture, while theoretically possible, requires problem-solving of a magnitude and complexity that makes it extremely unlikely to happen, given the sparse resources allocated, and the limited time remaining to heal the earth and ozone layer. Instead, he favors steps that make smaller, local systems ecologically self-sufficient, most of which are also necessary for economic self-sufficiency.

"A sustainable world will not be one dominated by large companies and run according to the conditions necessary for maintaining international competitiveness and speeding economic growth. It will be one of small communities that run their own affairs and that, rather than trading across the globe, meet or make most of their requirments from their local resources," Douthewaite maintains. Financial and environmental sustainability are supported by many of the same principles that insulate communities from the boom-bust cycles of the global market economy and protect habitat, he believes.

Douthwaite's thinking reinforces early criticism of global plans for the Presidio by the Bay Guardian. "Everyone from the Park Service to environmentalists to local real estate developers once had big plans for the Presidio," reported Martin Espinosa in August 1995. "But despite public support for maximizing recreational uses, a pro-business clique convinced many key Presidio insiders that, with enough financing, the park could be transformed into a West Coast version of the United Nations that would devise solutions to the world's environmental and social problems."

Espinosa deduced that the global environmental vision masked a greedier, less green local one. Critical infrastructure decisions -- including steps to transfer power operations to PG&E, a company long attacked by the Bay Guardian for its monopolistic practices -- had already been made, precluding a "green" utility infrastructure for the park. A more ecologically sound or "sustainable" decision would have required the Presidio to generate at least a portion of the energy needed for its operation (or to scale down power requirements to more closely conform to supply).

Environmental wisdom dictates living within the capacity of local resources to supply basic needs, without destroying habitat, by consuming less, using renewable energy, eating low on the food chain while growing some of what you eat; and reducing, reusing, and recycling waste on site. Short-term profits bolstered by large outside subsidies or loans, and based on market speculation, do not outweigh long-term environmental and social costs; they just delay the reckoning. Ecological responsibility is about gradual growth so that a given ecosystem remains in balance over the long haul.

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Albion Monitor December 28, 1999 (

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