… I do not think it means what you think it means!
I’m talking about Sustainability. The latest in a long series of buzzwords that’s been appropriated to make people feel better about their choices – not the first, and certainly not the last. But definitely the one I find most annoying right now.
1. Capable of being sustained.
2. Capable of being continued with minimal long-term effect on the environment: sustainable agriculture.
3. To keep up or keep going, as an action or process: to sustain a conversation.
There are dozens of programs out there that claim to operate under the banner of sustainability. The problem comes when you actually look at these programs, and realize their “sustainability” only exists in a vacuum. And the world just doesn’t operate that way.
Two conversations about sustainability I’ve had lately revolve around agriculture and real-estate. One promoting sustainability, one illustrating unsustainability. Both, after scratching the surface, dead wrong.
Sustainable Food Program
I recently heard of an initiative up at my Alma Mater, SFU, as they’re trying to bring “sustainable food” to the hill. In partnership with the Fraser Valley Food Network’s South Fraser Harvest Box program, SFU Local Food is bringing Harvest Boxes up the mountain once a month for students to purchase. Local food, from local farms, for locals to eat. Hooray for supporting sustainable agriculture!
Except, this program is subsidized by the United Way and the Fraser Health Authority.
Suddenly, it doesn’t look so sustainable.
If this program requires funding from the aforementioned organizations to survive, then what’s sustainable about it? The program promises to give farmers a fair wage while bringing affordable food to residents at SFU. If there needs to be fund raising intervention in the middle of the process, it means either the farmers can’t afford to farm & distribute on what people are able to pay, or people are unwilling to pay for the true cost of their food.
The program touts a discount of 2-3x what one would pay in a grocery store for similar products – why does it need to be so staggeringly inexpensive? And this is not just for students, as advertised on the website. Anyone living at SFU (including those in the half-million dollar condos) may participate.
A truly sustainable system would be able to support access to fresh, local food, while paying farmers and distributors a fair wage, and ensuring those who really can’t afford it are still able to participate.
Hiding the true cost of food under the umbrella of “charitable subsidy” is certainly not doing sustainability any favours.
What happens when the funding disappears because of cuts, or just someone’s “better idea” for allocating dollars? Or when someone moves away from SFU, having no idea what the true cost of sustainable food is? My guess is they go back to purchasing unsustainable food.
All this program has done is given some farmers and eaters the proverbial fish, rather than teaching them how to operate in a sustainable system.
That Crash, it’s coming, any day now…
On the flip side, I’ve seen a couple graphs floating around about the “unsustainability” of Vancouver’s real estate prices, based on whether the average Vancouver resident can afford to own a home. The lament is loud… “real-estate is unsustainable, since locals can’t afford to live here!”
About one-million Vancouverites (the population within the city limits) beg to differ. They can certainly afford to live here – they already do. What they can’t afford to do is buy real estate here.
Anyone who’s done the most cursory of learning about financial planning should know that owning real estate is not necessary to be fiscally secure today and into the future. What is necessary is paying no more for housing (including rent/mortgage, heating, insurance and taxes if applicable) than 35% of one’s household net income and saving another 10% for retirement. I know plenty of people who are able to do that on one income, never mind the “three incomes” the Canadian Housing Price Chart states are necessary to afford a mortgage in Vancouver.
As for the housing market, if you believe that Vancouver residents purchasing homes are both necessary and sufficient to sustain the market, you’re trapped in that vacuum again.
A huge proportion Over half of residences in downtown Vancouver are owned by foreign investors. Property values skyrocketed in the mid 1990’s as wealthy Asian investors moved their money into foreign assets in anticipation of Hong Kong going back to China. And since then, as Vancouver’s appeal has grown as an international destination, and as the city consistently ranks in just about any top 10 list of “best places to live in the world” it’s not surprising that our fair area has the wealthiest postal code in the country and our premium properties are in high demand.
The only way a crash is going to come is if renters are so unable to afford their homes that investors are forced to sell at a loss, because they’re no longer able to carry the property with the income it’s generating. Considering vacancy rates here have been hovering around 2% for as long as I can remember, that seems unlikely. Even with the recent economic crash, there was only a slight correction in late 2008/early 2009, and values are quickly climbing again.
Is anything sustainable?
Really, I have no idea. Everything comes at a cost – whether it’s the environmental impact of making batteries in China (one of the most toxic manufacturing processes in existence) for your electric car to “save the planet,” or subsidizing food cost and distribution to bribe people into thinking they’re making sustainable food choices, to confusing an idea of resource allocation “fairness” with actual market sustainability in terms of who we think should own things.
I think we have to make the best choices we can, based on what we know. But before you blindly follow something because someone has tagged it “(un)sustainable,” perhaps step out of the vacuum and look at the whole picture. You may be surprised at what true sustainability really looks like.