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How deep are we willing to go on sustainability?

Feb. 28, 2022

It's been about 10 years since my last cover article on sustainability, so I wasn't sure what to expect. The last time, I thought "green" and "sustainability" were, at best, mostly synonyms for efficiency. At worst, they were just adjectives that everyone stuck on the same old products to freshen their appeal, such as "field greens" or "sliced cucumbers."

This year, I discovered that the field of sustainability has bloomed and ballooned. Everyone seems to be talking about it, and more companies and organizations than ever have sustainability initiatives and programs that are up and running or close to it. In the course of researching an interview for this issue's "Sustainability spectrum" cover article (p. 24), I ran across many new case studies in every industry, and educational resources that were too numerous for one article, so I let them spill into this issue's "How to go greener" Resources column (p. 21). I didn't even have time to check out or list all the informative TED and TEDx videos on industrial sustainability, but they're there if you care to look.

So, why all the interest and activity in sustainability? I'd like to think the U.N.'s Climate Change Conference 2021 in Glasgow, Scotland, or its 17 Sustainable Development Goals are getting more serious press and attention. However, I think all the wildfires, hurricanes, floods and other unprecedented weather events are finally waking enough of us up to the truly life-threatening impacts of climate change.

This apparent awareness is good news, but I remember that having bountiful input is risky because it can make journalists sleepy and readers complacent. Talk remains cheap, so it's crucial to prioritize, and concentrate on the most useful aspects of any topic, including sustainability. Unfortunately, like any chasm that suddenly opens up, sustainability reveals the need for far deeper involvement and commitment.

For example, what's the use of making motors, pumps, fans and other rotating equipment more efficient with variable speed/frequency drives and digitalized accessories if they're just used to extract, process and burn more fossil fuels? Granted, efficiency may slow the accelerating spewing of carbon dioxide and other greenhouses gases (GHG)—and I know every little bit helps. However, it won't be enough to stop the ice from melting and sliding off Greenland and Antarctica and flooding coastal areas worldwide.

Can comparatively puny efficiency gains that amount to "rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic" really be called sustainability?

So what's to be done? As usual, the first step is recognizing and acknowledging the real problem before deciding what actions to take.

Similar to all buggy whip and sealing wax manufacturers, Kodak was famously unable to face up to its existential challenge of shifting to digital photography. Many other manufacturers, industries, businesses and communities have been in this boat before, and more are or will be in it soon, even if they don't recognize it yet.

Are we willing or even capable of reining in our profligate Western lifestyles and doing the equivalent in our industries? Can we give up prestigious plastic bottles and packaging; turn down thermostats to 65 °F and wear more sweaters in winter; turn off air conditioners in summertime if we're not senior citizens; give up most meat and green lawns; stop driving cars if local mass transit is available; and focus on the few things we actually need versus all the many distractions we instinctively desire?

I've heard many people celebrate former, greater generations for persevering through economic depressions and world wars to accomplish moon landings and all the other legendary achievements of the past. Well, sustainability and climate change is a bigger problem and more epic quest that all those previous accomplishments, and the odds are against us. We'll see if we can overcome it. I'm hopeful, but not optimistic.

Plus, we don't really have a choice. You weren't busy or planning on just watching more TV, were you? There's nothing good on anyway.

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About the Author

Jim Montague | Executive Editor

Jim Montague is executive editor of Control. 

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