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“more” sustainable vs. sustainable

June 11, 2007

I am really enjoying writing about the phenomenal fuel economy improvements I’ve been getting with my new driving style. I’m even more excited about trading in my Elantra for a Volkswagen TDI so I can get even more astounding fuel economy figures. One thing that has interrupted this enthusiasm is the quiet, persistent, nagging knowledge that what I’m doing is only being “more” sustainable. It is an improvement on my typically unsustainable Western lifestyle, but it still isn’t sustainable. The problem lies in where I’m focusing my energy and effort.

Take the example of my driving to work. I’ve been using a baseline of driving my Elantra at 8.0L/100km on a 94km round trip. With driving style changes, that’s dropped to 6.5L/100km, and when I trade the Elantra for a diesel that figure should hopefully drop to 4.0L/100km or less. On the surface, I’ll have improved my fuel economy by a whopping 50%! Go me, I’m saving the world! Right?

Not really. The problem is, saying I’ve “improved by 50%” is focusing on the baseline, and not the target; sustainability. In this case sustainability could be finding local employment that does not require me to commute 94km round trip 5 days a week, or moving closer to my work. Ideally, work and home would be close enough to each other that I could remove any need for a vehicle entirely and commute solely by public transit or under my own power. THAT is sustainable. Simply using less fuel on long, daily drives is not.

There is a very real danger to simply improving upon what we’re doing, instead of focusing on what is truly sustainable. By focusing on how much we have improved our unsustainable lifestyle, that takes energy and effort away from concentrating on looking what is truly sustainable, and making changes – not just improvements – towards getting there.

In my case I know that my improved fuel economy is a step in the right direction, but not the final answer. I’m still searching for a solution that will allow me to get rid of a vehicle entirely, whether that is a new job close to home, moving close to work, or something else entirely. There are many other aspects of our lifestyle that this misapplied focus comes in to play – it’s up to us as sustainably-minded individuals to take a step back and consider whether we’re truly aiming for sustainability, or deluding ourselves with becoming “more” sustainable.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. June 11, 2007 9:51 pm

    Hey Andrew! Great essay. I don’t know if you know me — I’m a friend of Dana (miserablebliss) and I ran as a candidate for the Green Party in the last three elections. I always enjoy your reports on improved mileage.

    I said this in one of my debates and I’ll say it to you now… it’s that Maya Angelou quote, “We did what we knew how to do, and when we knew better, we did better.” I frequently beat myself up because I know I could be doing a thousand times better, forgetting that I’m DOING a thousand times better than I did before. It’s progress, not perfection. If everyone did what you did, imagine how far we’d go. You have personally inspired me to do that coast thing, and stop speeding so much. I don’t calculate my mileage, but I believe you when you tell me it’s better all round. I like knowing that I’m doing my little part.

    When I read that you commute nearly 100km a day, I admit, the first thing I thought was MOVE CLOSER TO WHERE YOU WORK! and then I remembered that you’ve made efforts to do what you COULD do such that you are not leaving as big an ecological footprint as you would if you were driving the old way.

    These are all steps in the right direction. Good stuff. Keep reporting on your progress. You are an inspiration!

  2. June 13, 2007 8:40 pm

    Hey Jo, thanks for the comments! I partially agree – if we all did something, that would add up to a lot. We still have to focus on the ultimate goal of sustainability, not placate our eco-guilt by doing “better”, which is still not “good enough”.

    Start calculating your mileage. If your car has a trip computer with a fuel economy readout on it, set it to that and leave it there. If you can afford it, get a Scanguage II to get instant fuel economy readings. It’ll pay for itself in saved fuel quickly. (I’m hoping to get one myself for Christmas.) And teach yourself to get used to not speeding – that may take a bit, but if you track your mileage before and after, the difference you see will be a good incentive.

    Go Green!

  3. coffee permalink
    June 17, 2007 4:13 pm

    An extra problem with trying for sustainability, is even if you manage to find and live a completely sustainable lifestyle, there’s still going to be everyone else. And the amount of one person’s consumption isn’t going to mean much in the face of our national consumption per capita.

    Even if one can get a lot of people to make the smallish changes to allow them to live slightly less unsustainably, then one comes up against Jevon’s paradox. Unless we get everyone to agree to try and live sustainably; someone’s going to ruin the commons, and they’ll likely make a tidy profit while doing so.

    As well, trying to think about what is and isn’t sustainable, I think that if there is a car anywhere in the picture, the answer is it’s not sustainable. The amount of energy to power the car is tremendous. Consider the amount of work that it would take one person to push a car 10km. 1 ton of metal, plastics and fabrics isn’t an object to be taken lightly.

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