Are Portland or SF Truly Sustainable?
SustainLane's rankings of San Francisco and Portland as the number one and two sustainable cities leave out the most important indicators of sustainability--population and consumption levels. Without that, sustainability rankings are meaningless.
An open letter to SustainLane.
While your recent ranking of San Francisco and Portland as the two most sustainable cities in the U.S. provided entertainment, encouragement, and ideas for areas of improvement, I'm afraid that your system is still sorely lacking in terms of measuring sustainability according to its genuine meaning. To understand why I say that, it is necessary to first go back to understanding that "sustainable" means the ability to continue indefinitely into the future. Environmental science says that in order for the human race to continue indefinitely into the future, its population, consumption and technologies must all exist within the carrying capacity of the resources upon which it depends for its continuance. Carrying capacity refers to the biophysical limits of a particular region as well as its social (i.e., quality of life). Therefore, any city that does not dwell within the carrying capacity of its region's resources is unsustainable. Period.
So how must one rank whether Portland (my hometown) or San Francisco are sustainable--i.e., existing within the carrying capacities of their respective bioregions? Well, what do humans need in order to continue existing indefinitely into the future? Along with unpolluted and temperature-appropriate air and water, they need a wide, abundant diversity of plant and animal species, and they need means of mobility that do not interfere with the natural systems which make the above possible. Humans also require an intimate, personal relationship with their natural surroundings, which means no dissonance from noise and light pollution, no domination in their lives by machines, and easy, ready access to solitude in greenspaces and wild nature.
A casual study of Portland with these core, bona fide sustainability indicators in view will reveal that this city does not come within driving range of sustainable. In fact, a study conducted in 1994 by the Portland area's regional government, Metro, revealed that, back then, Portland had already significantly overshot its carrying capacity. The Columbia-Willamette watershed where Portland exists, for instance, suffers from major toxic pollutants in both rivers; the Columbia from nuclear wastes, agricultural runoff, and sewage, and the Willamette from industrial wastes so toxic that, for six miles of its stretch through Portland, it ranks as the largest Superfund site in the country. The fish that manage to survive in these rivers are so contaminated that they cannot be eaten, and many have been found mutated. Needless to say, it is safe to neither drink from nor swim in either rivers. The rich network of streams and lakes that originally fed into both rivers have been buried and diverted and thereby rendered lifeless for natural purification, fish, and other aqueous species.
Native predatory animal species, such as cougar and bear, so necessary for the chain of life, have been long vanquished, along with much of the prey species, such as deer and elk, with no plans in place to restore the habitats and numbers of either. Due to the rapid, exponential expansions of buildings, roads, and non-native landscaping, native flora is under increasing threat in the area, as are the woodlands, nurseries, farmlands and topsoil we depend upon for our immediate and long-range sustenance. As a result of ever-more buildings constructed every year, our temperate old-growth rainforests continue to shrink. Replacing native species at an alarming rate are non-native invasive species, such as bullfrogs, English ivy, Scotch broom, Himalayan blackberries, domestic and feral cats, starlings, and an entire bevy of organisms transported via overseas freight shipping. As increasing quantities of genetically-modified organisms continue to be sold and consumed in the Portland area, these organisms continue to contaminate organic and heirloom varieties throughout the globe and thus threaten the very chain of life on Earth.
As the carrying capacity of the Portland area continues to diminish and its human populace continues to swell, along with its per-person and aggregate consumption, Portland's dependence on the carrying capacities of other regions continues to rise, particularly from extremely poor and overpopulated regions of the southern global hemisphere. This not only disturbs the feedback loops necessary for the local populace to recognize its own bioregion's limits and then work to dwell harmoniously within it, but it functions as an exploitative practice of people in those other regions. The emptying out of traditional villages in Mexico into the barrios and landfills of Mexico City and on into this country by the tens of millions is but one example of such exploitation.
In Portland, despite the dire threat of global warming along with the increased rates of asthma, air quality continues to worsen as the number of parking spaces for cars has escalated by the tens of thousands during the past ten years, and as hundreds of miles of new roads and lanes have been built in order to accommodate an ever-growing number of new residents and per-capita vehicle miles traveled. As air and truck traffic continue to rise in order to bring in more high-consumption products from Asia, the construction of more road lanes are being planned. Along with all these expansions, light pollution and noise pollution continue to also rise dramatically, with no regulations established to stop and reverse the trends.
Despite PR campaigns to the contrary, livability continues to decline in Portland. As the built environment continues to expand, access to wild nature and greenspaces continues to diminish per person within both the suburban and the inner-core urban neighborhoods. Hunger, poverty, and homelessness have all multiplied during the past ten years, as have crime and incarcerations. Workers rights, ergonomic safety, healthcare coverage, and median wages are on the decline, as a result of the growth. Small, locally owned businesses continue to be overwhelmed and squashed by large, non-local corporate businesses. The cost of housing has doubled and, in certain areas, even quintupled within the past ten years. Due to worsening environmental and working conditions, rates of allergies, cancer, heart-disease, and diabetes continue to march forth within ever-younger age groups. Historical buildings continue to be razed in order to construct new ones of lower quality, inferior character, and shorter lifespans. Neighborhoods continue to be put into reactive positions against undesirable developments that are consistently approved, against their strong opposition, by city bureaucrats and commissioners.
While you cite certain economic growth opportunities as sustainable, you overlook the dramatic difference between economic growth and bona fide economic development. As economist Herman Daly explains, economic growth merely increases the size of a city or region's economy, population and consumption, while economic development makes a city or region's economy better. There is, therefore, on a finite planet with finite resources, no such thing as sustainable growth; in already way-overfull regions such as Portland and San Francisco, there is also no such thing as "smart" growth. Furthermore, economic growth functions as holes in the "bucket" of the local economy. As it requires converting natural capital into human capital and fiscal capital at unsustainable rates, in order to continue allowing a minority of individuals to draw wealth away from the region and its majority of residents, the bucket will continue to leak until the resources run out completely and the bucket becomes completely dry, meaning no more economy and no more human life in the region.
It cannot be overemphasized that a city that wants to continue supporting its populace indefinitely into the future must draw its population, consumption and technologies down to within the biophysical and social carrying capacity of its bioregion. No other option of sustainability exists.
Ranking and awarding non-sustainable cities as the most sustainable may appear like a fun, harmless sport while it simultaneously boosts civic pride and draws more businesses, people and consumption to a particular city. But it ultimately provides a grave disservice to both the planet and its entire populace. When the UN has recently warned that our population size and consumption habits are seriously imperiling the planet and its human species, measuring the sustainability of U.S. cities must transcend the postcard-friendly picture that SustainLane has so far produced and instead take into account more specific indicators along with population and consumption levels, the dramatic decrease of which the planet, and human life, depends.
It's true that there are many individuals and organizations in the Portland and San Francisco areas that recognize the science of carrying capacity and attempt to incorporate it into their advocacy and action programs. But as the situation stands, not one city in the world can be ranked as sustainable. The only honest ranking that can be awarded to a city so far is as "The Least Unsustainable."
It is my hope SustainLane also recognizes the science of carrying capacity and incorporates it into their future sustainability ranking program. That way it will go a long distance towards moving cities towards genuine sustainability.
M. Scott Jones
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