It was probably only a matter of time before the terms “sustainable” and “sustainability” became so diluted in meaning that they have now become virtually meaningless. They are ascribed as modifiers to landscapes, hoped-for political decisions, architecture, in an effort to make whatever product or decision at hand seem “good.” This is done in much the same way that “common sense” is thrown around as if it had any objective meaning at all. It doesn’t. The result are terms that, at best, now simply mean “less bad,” and whose effects are intended to make the viewer or participant or consumer swell with a visceral feel-good reaction of support.
On perhaps the most cynical, lowest-of-the-low end of the spectrum, we have Bayer CropScience (one of the primary manufacturers of neonicotinoids, a substance a growing number are calling a major cause of the global bee decline) saying that the EU’s recent decision to ban neonicotinoids is “a setback for technology, innovation and sustainability.” To Bayer, “sustainability” can mean 90 million acres of American corn embedded with neonicotinoids planted every year as much as it can mean green roofs and bioswales and prairie restorations. How in quantifiable terms the use of the pesticide leads towards long-term environmental and economic “sustainability” is dumbfounding, but this is obviously not their point; rather, they have co-opted a term in order to render a problematic product and its manufacturer “less bad” and to make those in support of the ban appear unreasonable, and “anti-sustainability.”
In the world of landscapes there are examples of this dilution of “sustainability” that are much more subtle but equally as problematic. There is a growing trend of landscapes that feature less lawn and more plants. It is a welcomed trend; however, simply removing lawn and adding in plants does not by definition boost the landscape’s sustainability cred. So often, water-loving plants are chosen, and plants with little to no value to wildlife are used. As a result, you get a landscape that consumes much in the way of water and resources, but that gives back little. We have in effect created little more than a feel-good aesthetic that says, “Good for you, you got rid of your lawn,” regardless of how lessened its impact on the environment is.
The photo shown above illustrates this phenomenon well. The landscape is advertised as being “sustainable” and as a beautiful alternative to a lawn. Beautiful it is; sustainable, however, it is not. Los Angeles receives 15 inches of rain annually in a good year, and most of it falling between the months of November through April. Most of the plants in this landscape are endemic to regions of the world that receive consistent rainfall year-round that far exceeds 15 inches. This includes the purple-leafed Abyssinian banana, and the New Zealand flax (a plant that has a drought-tolerant, Agave-esque look, but actually requires relatively consistent moisture) you see in the photo. As a result, you have a landscape advertised as “sustainable” while requiring irrigation almost daily, especially during the long Los Angeles dry season. This is little improvement over the water requirements of a conventional lawn.
Perfection and attempts at pseudo-purism are not our end goal, and we are not advocating for such. Rather, it is time to create and employ new words to describe what the landscape, or building, or decision is actually doing instead of what one wants people to think it’s doing. Thus, we describe landscapes as visually appealing, plant-abundant, water-conserving, irrigation-free, wildlife-friendly, and so on. And a landscape can be many of these things at the same time. But if it is, say, a visually appealing landscape or work of architecture or whatever that merely gives the look and feel of being sustainable but actually does little in the way of giving back to the land and minimizing resource consumption, we need to call a spade a spade here and say that it cannot claim the tag of “sustainable” too just because it looks nice.