Letters to the editor, March 2021

We heard from builder-turned-architect Peter Watson, about the challenges of making sustainability sustainable

Thank you for your well-worded article on sustainability; it does raise questions. As a general builder, and now an architect, I’ve been mindful of the Earth’s finite resources for several decades. Yours is a good question; “is sustainability as realistic as we hope?” Yes and no, at least in the interim period for as long as finite resources last, which also applies to the materials needed to build harvesters hold out, or until modern methods lead on to as yet unimaginable ways of sustaining humanity’s increasing consumerism.

The only sure answer is ‘maybe’, if we don’t hit the stops before climate rebalancing reduces the need for low U-values and thicker insulation, which they don’t need in warmer zones. Either way, the best way forward should include a consideration of working with Mother Nature -- after seeing what a speedy recovery she’s made in repairing environmental damage during a few weeks of lockdown, which ecology scientists had said would take at least five years of severe CO2 reduction – rather than ignoring or fighting against what nature is doing to help sustain mankind on a global scale.

There has been an historical progression of energy conversion as technology advanced to meet the growing needs of transportation and packaging produce for distribution. The scythe became the combined harvester, and the horse-and-cart has been replaced by railroads, long-vehicle trucks, tankers and cargo planes, all within a few decades to meet the needs of growing consumer communities. Sustainability concerns have grown alongside resource depletion, but not to the point of providing a solution to the approaching dead-end to scavenging.

My University-of-Wales Government sponsored Heritage Sustainability Course taught me one thing for certain; industrial-scale erosion of the Earth’s resources, and disposing of plastic waste-products and manufacturers’ hazardous-waste in our rivers and seas are, from the perspective of life, anti-social behaviour offences; ASBO’s.

More-of-the-same – even in the name-change alias from ASBO to sustainability – only adds to the suffocating pressure of human consumerism, causing extinction of Earth’s fragile eco-systems. Life’s environmental-membrane, composed of the mineral kingdom, upon which vegetation is dependent, and the arterial airways and waterways that breathe and irrigate the Earth, are our planet’s immune-system. This global ecosystem is designed to protect our environment and keep us alive.  It cannot be abused with impunity. Long-term interference by turbines, whether off-shore or inland, will have the same cumulative effects as mass-agriculture that is increasing desertification of the Earth’s arable soil.

We could look at the overall problem with a jaundiced eye of doom and gloom, or, see it as a warning light alerting us to a viable and feasible alternative, if a sufficient few of us awaken to the approaching dead-end inevitability of sustaining and pursuing the course we’ve inherited.

OR, we might see the challenge as one of the greatest creative opportunities facing us in mankind’s time-of-need.

Discussing sustainability with my friend and editor, she asked me “what do you think?” For once I had no words, or a glib answer. I’d well explained the problems related to exhausting the Earth’s precious resources to a point where we’d need to accept the late astrophysicist Professor Stephen Hawking’s defeatist advice, by abandoning the Earth, and colonising Mars. So, bearing in mind if our top scientist doesn’t have a down-to-earth solution, I’d have to do some hard thinking to come up with a magic card to trump the Mars answer; I kept my silence.

However – however – as I’ve found so many times if I accept a question, and let it rest in perfect patience, low and behold an answer will come if the question is valid, and in the best interests of the greater whole and the way life works. Here is where we need to exercise a bit of our God-given imagination, but outside of the traditional building-block box.

We already have the technology to create artificial substances, like plastic and acrylics; how about using the same technology, up-scaled from nano-technology, to accommodate the walls and roofs of dwellings? Our homes are where most of our energy-efficiency (U-values) is lost, and needs feasibly and viably changing in refits as well as new builds.

Besides harvesting the forces of our planet’s irrigation, solar-radiation and air-circulation systems – the way life does in producing the lungs of the planet and the food we eat -- consider letting life lend a hand, so to speak, to creatively further our survival on our home-planet, by the growing of an organic wall of self-replenishing skin, the same simple way by which life provides a skin for all other species, given the right seeds and needs. A banana skin, orange skin, apple skin, all are different, but designed suitably, and fit for purpose, as an immune system to keep the maturing fruit at the right temperature, absorbing sunlight and moisture the same as our own skins. An organic wall-skin would also have a natural attribute of temperature-regulation.

In principle, life is already doing this, by growing moss, and oxidising metals (rust) to reclaim the resources taken out of the Earth’s mineral kingdom. In order to further the purpose of life, the same principles of organic generation, as and when creatively directed to reduce harmful-to-life CO2 (the major hallmark of pollution crippling the Earth’s life-support systems), can easily be applied to work in our favour too, by lightly cooperating with the way life works.

So that is life’s answer to the need of making sustainability sustainable, instead of colonising Mars, and then, in time, repeating the same problems we’ve made for ourselves here. Over to you and your other readers for comment; thank you.

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