Resilience, Sustainability, Zero Waste

Hedonistic Sustainability: Why Saving the Planet Doesn’t Mean Compromise

“Sustainability can’t be a moral sacrifice, or political dilemma, or even a philanthropical cause…it has to be a design challenge.” – Bjarke Ingels TED talk

I hate to say it, but the sustainability movement has failed to get us where we need to be.

Sure lots of people have subscribed to recycling, or signed petitions to save the endangered arctic ice crab, done the occasional cheque-depleting organic shop at Whole Foods, or decked our their condo with LED’s. That’s great and all, but we haven’t made the big sea-change actions that are desperately needed.

Why is that? What went wrong? Don’t people care about saving the only home we have? What about the kids? Someone, think of the children!

Many will quickly point to greedy, earth-destroying corporations or corrupt politicians blocking the way forward. While these are certainly enormous barriers, I think a core root of the problem is that sustainability has been communicated as requiring some form of compromise:

– Scratchy, expensive 100% recycled toilet paper
– Bigger utility bills or even worse – more taxes!?
– Unfashionable hippie clothing made of some exotic plant
– Expensive organic foods that don’t taste any different
– Smaller houses and slower cars
– Giving up conveniences like to-go cups and plastic packaging

Sustainability feels like a mom telling her teenage son to be at home before 10pm, put his summer landscaping job earnings in a savings account, and study for his physics midterm rather than get ice cream with his friends.

While good intentioned, and with obvious future benefits, this advice translates to him as sacrifice. Being responsible is lame. Ice cream is awesome!

Then just like mom piling on consequences for inaction: ‘you need good grades to go to college, or ‘you won’t get dessert if you don’t eat your broccoli,’ the environmentalists and scientists rattle off worrisome and guilt-ridden future scenarios. ‘If you don’t subscribe to our costly or fun-stealing compromises, we’re doomed.’

So if we’re going to have any hope of changing the world (before it forces us to change), we need to change how we approach this problem. Humans aren’t rational. They focus on wants and not needs. I should have a compact car, but I want a beefy F-150.

But what if we could have both? By that I mean, what if the sustainable choice was actually the most desirable? Danish architect Bjarke Ingels calls this Hedonistic Sustainability. It’s a 10 syllable mouthful that says you can have your save-the-world cake and eat it too.

Here are some examples:

1. Waste-to-Energy Ski Hill

“We wanted to show that a sustainable life could be more fun than a normal life” – Bjarke Ingels

The Danish love skiing but suffer from a flat as a pancake country. Bjarke saw an opportunity with a dull, ugly waste-to-energy plant near downtown – why not turn it in to a place people also want to be?

This article on the initiative sums it up: “At the same time that the plant generates heat and electricity for 140,000 homes, skiers dressed in Brazilian-style bikinis can ride elevators to the top and ski down to the bottom. Oh, and at night, there’s a backdrop of beautiful neon CO2 smoke rings illuminated in the night sky.”

2. Elon Musk and Tesla

Back in the 90’s, the electric car world first created vehicles like this:

Somehow this did not end up in any James Bond movies.

Who the @#$% wants to drive that? This is why Elon Musk, founder of Tesla (among others) has been so successful; he has combined what the world needs with what the people want.

Now we’re talking.

Obviously there is a price point difference here, but Tesla is working on a middle-class version that’ll look good and fit in more people’s budgets.

2. Healthy, luxury, low emissions homes

“People rarely buy what they need, they buy what they want” – Seth Godin

If the masses, not just enviro-nerds are going to buy in to something, then sustainability needs to be luxurious, comfortable, high-end, sexy, desirable, and affordable.

I’ve written about Passive Houses before, a building design that satisfies all the criteria. It uses almost no energy to operate, and the way it achieves this is through airtight, heavily insulated walls and HEPA filtration systems.

And what does that get you? Not only an energy-sipping household, but one that’s quiet, comfy and super healthy.

Most people generally care less about this:

Passive House – the bible on nerdy German building engineering. Also works well to put most people to sleep.

but they do care about this:

3. Zero Waste Groceries

Last year I met Crystal, the owner of Green, a zero-waste grocery store on Salt Spring Island, BC. She told me by selling package-free items she can offer better quality, mainly local or at least Canadian-made products at the same price or less as their packaged, lower-quality equivalents!

Bea Johnson, the queen of zero waste says that ‘convenience’ isn’t really that convenient. It’s less fresh, and you have to deal with all the packaging.

Sure zero waste living is a learning curve, but it results in healthier fresh food, slower eating, saving money, less hassle dealing with packaging, and…oh ya just happens to be amazing for the planet.

4. For the Love of Two Wheels

To me riding my bike is an emotional connection – I know that it’s good for me, and saves me ridiculous amounts of money. But I think what keeps me getting on the saddle day in and out is the intimate interaction I get with the city and the environment. The cold air, the quiet path, the sounds of the city.

Plus for a fraction of the price for a Tesla, I can get one of these:

The Low MKI Cross – handmade in San Francisco #bikeporn

“We can stop global warming. Not by slowing down economies but by speeding them up. Not by depending on national governments but by empowering cities, businesses, and citizens. Not by scaring people about the future but by showing them the immediate benefits of taking action. If we accomplish this, we will be healthier and wealthier.” — Michael Bloomberg and Carl Pope from the book “Climate of Hope”

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