Have you ever considered what it takes, in labor and resources, to give us the goods that we take for granted?  Are some items so resource and labor intensive that they take away from other things, perhaps essential, presenting us with an “either/or” situation?  Are we using so many resources now that our kids and grandkids will be hard pressed to have the same things that we enjoy?  Is that what we want, is it how we want to be remembered?  Perhaps it’s better to operate with sustainability in mind.

It’s instructive to Google (“Google” is a verb now, isn’t it?) “sustainability”, to read the various takes on the term and get a general idea of what it means.  In particular, what does it mean to you?  To some, sustainability is synonymous with recycling, for example; “I recycle, therefore I am sustainable”.  Well, it’s a place to start.  For others, part of being sustainable is buying organic foods, hence avoiding the use of petrochemical fertilizers and their impact on the environment.  Still others try to make sure that their activities are mindful of the environmental, avoiding air and water pollution.  Additionally, there are folks out there who feel that the concept of sustainability is a nefarious United Nations plot to erode our freedoms (Google “Agenda 21” for some fun reading).

Broadly put, “sustainability” is making sure we leave a usable Earth for our descendents.  One of the most widely quoted definitions, from the Brundtland Commission of the United Nations, reads as follows: “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” To get our arms around this concept, let’s consider some of the things that we take for granted, and whether our current practices might jeopardize the ability of future generations to access these same things.

How about a piece of printer paper?  Have you ever thought about what goes into the production of that sheet of paper?  First, cut down some trees; there are other source materials, but let’s stick with trees.  Transport them to the mill, grind them up, apply chemicals in the Kraft process (converting wood into pulp/fibers), and apply more chemicals for the bleaching process.  Now the pulp is ready to be formed into sheets and dried, which takes a lot of processing and energy.  The paper ends up in large rolls, and leaves the paper mill to travel to a converter, where the paper is cut to size and packaged.  After some storage and transportation, then local handling, the sheet of paper is in your printer, ready for use.  It’s quite a process to go from tree to printer, involving a number of potential environmental impacts from the chemicals, and one can just imagine the amount of energy used.  It’s nice to know that it takes fewer chemicals and less power to convert used paper to new paper with “post consumer content”.  You are recycling waste paper, aren’t you?

Speaking of energy, let’s consider the lights in your work area.  All lights take some energy, with newer types of lamps using much less than older styles (but sometimes at higher cost).  Where does that energy come from?  At the Medical Center, it comes from our Central Energy Plant, where a jet engine, of the same type used in the old Lockheed L-1011, provides the motive power to turn a very large generator to make electricity.  The electricity travels through various wires, breakers, and transformers before it ends up at the switch that controls your lights.  Flip the switch to turn the lights on and the electricity travels through a few more wires to the ballast, then on to the fluorescent tube, where it excites mercury vapor (all fluorescent lamp have a tad of mercury), producing UV light which causes phosphors to fluoresce, providing visible light.  Also, way before you get this light, someone puts the complex wheels in motion to make natural gas available to operate the gas turbine in the Central Plant.

It’s interesting to think about the complexities that provide even the most common things in our lives.  Some people prefer to compartmentalize these realities in an “out-of-sight/out-of mind” manner, in the same way that they like to eat meat but don’t want to know how it got into the package at the market.  If you take a moment to consider the processes required to make paper or produce electricity, and acknowledge that all require a number of finite resources, you’ll see that a “business as usual” approach to life could make it harder for your grandkids to have paper to write on or light by which to see.

The Sustainability Imperative implores us to consider those things that make up our early 21st century lives, and asks us to consider what it will take to make these attributes available later in this century and beyond.  The earth’s population is growing, our resources are in decline, and technology won’t always be able to rescue us.  No one will conserve in your stead; it is up to each of us to take action.

When your unit’s Green Advocate reminds you to recycle, or turn off your task lights when you leave, remember the complex processes that bring form and function to our lives. It’s not just a piece of paper, it’s part of a process comprised of numerous inputs.  Leaving the lights on further burdens our dwindling resources.  Add a “sustainability” context to your decisionmaking.  Doing the right thing isn’t always the easy thing, but it’s always the best thing.

Do something GREEN today!