Sustainability: Privation or Regeneration?

By Dante Archangeli

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Hong Kong through the Looking Glass: A Series on Sustainable Planet, People, and Prosperity

Those who consume to the point of waste end up in the third circle of hell according to the Divine Comedy. Along those lines, the recent International Sustainable Campus Network (ISCN) conference, hosted by the University of Hong Kong, has me studying Pope Francis’s latest encyclical letter as well as UBC’s CIRS building, and thinking more about two possible faces of the sustainability Janus–reducing excess and regenerating the abundance of nature. Let’s consider excess first.

Reducing Excess

During my childhood we eagerly anticipated the arrival of the Sears Christmas catalog. My siblings and I spent long winter evenings prior to Christmas, even before we could read, thoroughly perusing its pages. Sometimes we got more pleasure from imagining the fun that the pictured toys would produce than we received from actually owning the toys after the holiday came and went. But any ownership letdowns would be forgotten by the time next year’s catalog arrived. It always wove new dreams of more stuff to add to, or replace, the stuff we already had.

For those too young to have seen it, the Sears Christmas catalog was about the size of a 1½-inch thick Yellow Pages phone book.1 In addition to the Christmas catalog, I also remember full-version Sears catalogs being delivered to our house in the spring and fall. The full Sears catalog was two to three times as thick as the Christmas edition. On-line marketing caused the demise of Sears catalogs and printed Yellow Pages, and so eliminated one source of solid waste in the U.S. But the delivery packaging required for on-line commerce probably creates an even greater waste problem.

Recently I was reminded of catalogs and phone books because I had a positive sustainability-related experience while living in Hong Kong and selling and buying real estate in the U.S. Anyone who has experienced a property transaction in America knows it traditionally generates lots of paper, well more than a Sears Christmas catalog worth. The pair of transactions that I just finished produced documents for my part of the deal totaling 148 pages. One-hundred forty-eight pages would typically represent a ream and a half of paper or more, once every party to the two transactions received copies.

But my transactions used a paperless document system, and almost all instruments were generated, delivered, reviewed, signed, and stored digitally. I only had to print seven sheets – a deed to be notarized and a form to be filled out by hand.

Paperless-document software can greatly reduce waste.
Paperless-document software can greatly reduce waste.

Sustainability 101

This example of efficient use of resources represents a microcosm of the traditional goals of sustainability. It also simplistically illustrates sustainability’s triple bottom line of planet, people, and prosperity. First, when compared to past ways of doing business, fewer material resources were used, which helped the planet. Less gasoline was burned, because documents were delivered and collected electronically rather than by car-driving real estate agents. There was less paper generation and waste, less printer and copier ink, and less electricity consumption. Second, labor and time were reduced because the need for face-to-face meetings and associated time-consuming travel, as well as manual filing chores were nearly eliminated. This made people’s lives, at least in the narrow domain of real estate business, better. Finally a given outcome was achieved while requiring fewer resources than traditionally needed, resulting in greater economic efficiency and so prosperity for all was increased.

At the ISCN conference that inspired this post, Heather Henriksen, Harvard’s Sustainability Director, avowed, “Everyone has the same goals related to sustainability. They just haven’t realized it yet.” I believe that too. But why haven’t they realized it yet, and why in fact, do some seem actively opposed to sustainability? Could it be because the environmental / sustainability public discourse in the past has paid more attention to reduction, which can imply privation, than on how sustainability can make the world and people’s lives better? My own past blogs may have hectored too much about things not to do, and not sufficiently championed changes for the better that could be made.

In my experience, American society used to be strongly optimistic about directed change as a positive force. In the last few decades that optimism might have been shaken. But I think it still exists in the U.S., and hope it exists in the rest of the world, and can be harnessed for the cause of sustainability.

A new sustainability image and paradigm?

Perhaps, as some ISCN attendees suggest, sustainability proponents should work harder to widen the public’s image of sustainability beyond reduction and diminishment so that it also encompasses abundance, the robustness of nature and society restored by sustainability. In the public mind and political arena, sustainability advocates should more strongly advance the case for conservation and sustainability making life better for everyone in the world–more comfortable and more secure, not more harsh and uncertain.

Where wind is abundant let's use it.
Where wind is abundant let’s use it.

Rather than focusing on how to more efficiently use dwindling resources whose extraction and use, no matter how little, cause environmental problems and can be controlled by a few, maybe we should refocus society’s view to more-encompassing sustainability goals. First, the world can better make use of resources that are in abundance and renewable. These include forces of nature such as sunlight, wind, rain, waves, and tides as well as forces of humanity such as creativity and community. Additionally, while conserving resources, sustainability also needs to regenerate the health of natural and human systems. This is what champions of regenerative sustainability advocate.

My recent real estate experience was a small example of sustainability occurring within its traditional universe, focused on efficiency and reduction. A much more important avatar of a broader sustainability is the Center for Interactive Research on Sustainability building (CIRS), winner of this year’s ISCN Excellence in Building Award. It represents an ambitious model that may better engage and energize a broader swath of society.

Regenerating Abundance

CIRS is a living laboratory at the University of British Columbia (UBC). It embodies the principles of regenerative sustainability and facilitates further experimentation. According to the CIRS website, the foundation of regenerative sustainability is “to think of every aspect of modern economic activity… as acts of restoration and regeneration… a new paradigm that… helps us shift our mindset from measuring impacts into providing benefits; from sacrifice to contribution and finally, from net zero to net positive.”

Consistent with that, the CIRS building aims to do more than simply reduce the negative environmental impacts that typically arise from the construction and operation of a 60,000 sf building. Its goal is to have its existence make the environment better.

CIRS is a regenerative sustainability avatar. (click to enlarge)
The CIRS building is an avatar of regenerative sustainability. (click to enlarge)

Not only does the CIRS building capture rain to supply 100 percent of its water needs, it also generates a purified water surplus that is shared with the UBC campus. Furthermore, it aims to go beyond a net zero carbon footprint. CIRS expects to reduce the amount of carbon that would have been released into the atmosphere if it didn’t exist. It employs a three-part strategy toward achieving this. First building design and operation procedures minimize energy requirements. Second CIRS captures energy from the sun, from the ground, and from the neighboring Earth and Ocean Sciences (EOS) building’s waste heat. These sources provide more energy than CIRS needs for its operations so it returns energy to the EOS building and the UBC campus. Finally the carbon sequestered in CIRS’ heavy timber structure is calculated to be more than the carbon released into the atmosphere by CIRS’ construction, including the manufacturing of everything within the building. To ensure that sequestered carbon is unlikely to be released into the environment in the future, CIRS is designed so that in the building can be repurposed rather than demolished. If demolition is ultimately performed, the structure is assembled in a way that will facilitate easy deconstruction so that the wood timbers can be reused.

But perhaps an equally important sustainability aspect of CIRS is that in true academic and scientific tradition, detailed information about its design and operation is freely shared with the world through its online Building Manual and publications authored by its community. This information is not just about successes. It also includes challenges and mistakes, lessons learned, and steps taken, and contemplated, to address problems. As Albert Einstein counseled, “Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.”

A future post will speculate more about the path an evolving sustainability public conversation might follow and examine how the Pope’s encyclical on the environment relates to that.

1 The Yellow Pages in my childhood city were slightly larger than a standard sheet of writing paper and in their heyday were about as thick as a full Sears Catalog. Printed Yellow Pages are anachronisms today, but before the rise of the internet, they were delivered once a year to every “land-line-phone” location.  They provided telephone numbers and addresses for local businesses as well as being the primary, or sometimes only, off-site advertising medium for most of what we now call SBEs. The Yellow Pages were intended to provide consumers with a convenient alternative to traveling from store to store to find what they wanted. Its jingle, whose tune I can still sing, was “let your fingers do the walking through the Yellow Pages“. Maybe that represented an early unintentional effort to encourage more sustainable consumer travel behavior, after driving from store to store replaced walking. The Yellow Pages walking-fingers icon still survives today in on-line versions of the directory.



Dante Archangeli moved to Hong Kong from Tucson, Arizona, where he focused on sustainable development and green housing. He is an MIT and USC educated researcher, writer, entrepreneur, builder, and project manager.

All images are by Dante Archangeli except the video is by the Center for Interactive Research on Sustainability. is the world’s first online journal of place, publishing a rich mix of literature, art, commentary, and design since 1998.