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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.
Dear 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
excellent analysis, Scott 05.Jun.2005 09:59


i greatly appreciate your clear thinking and lucid illustration on this topic. this should be required reading for anyone whose regularly-used vocabulary includes the word "sustainability". that word is more and more often being thrown around by people who don't understand its true meaning, and in many quarters is becoming nothing more than a marketing concept.

um, well 05.Jun.2005 11:02


I guess i won't be moving there then, as I had planned...or at least I won't remain there for long.

well done 05.Jun.2005 12:48


thanks for the call-out. people in portland are way too quick to pat themselves on the back jsut for being here, as if portland's very existence is some sort of revolutionary act. there is SO MUCH work to be done on the city and on the society the city comes from, and too many people shop at new seasons and think they're doing all they can. we all need to think bigger.

thank you, Scott 05.Jun.2005 21:11


"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."

Quite true! I would like to add two comments based upon that statement.

First, for Portlanders to simply spread out over Cascadia and each tend to an individual plot of land has a lot of implications. If we tend to that land using gasoline, fertilizer, etc, then we still aren't behaving in sustainable fashion even if the land would theoretically sustain us all. At the same time, we would have lost a lot of the good things that come from dwelling in a metropolitan area. Which brings me to...

Second, I really don't think the ultimate answer is for us to condemn Portland for being unsustainable. The question I would ask is whether or not Cascadia, or some larger area, can support Portland. The way we're living now, I'd agree that it can't. We're destroying Portland and the region. On the other hand, for us to spread out and farm with oxen, etc, really isn't the answer either, as far as I'm concerned. The benefits that have come to society as a result of having city populations are tremendous.

Sure, we are destroying the world. On the other hand, it's no coincidence that our life spans have extended so greatly in conjunction with advances in science and technology. When one person can do the work needed to feed many others, those others can work more extensively on medical advances, art, buildings, etc.

What would happen to hospitals if we all spread out? What would happen to artisans, many of whom depend on there being more than a few hundred people within convenient travel distance? I would suggest that you've provided the answer--we shouldn't exceed the capacity of our bioregion (though it might be tricky to define what our bioregion would be...). But I'd also suggest that we should keep the city format. It's something that could be sustainable if we respected what the encompassing bioregion could support. Especially if we broke away from use of polluting energy sources.

Neither is the answer 05.Jun.2005 23:00


Dear NOfta,

Neither sprawling (what you call "spreading out") nor constantly densifying are the answers. We can only live so close together before the law of diminishing returns kicks in. Perhaps we've already reached that stage. The only choice we have, if we want to have a future here, is to dramatically cut back our population and consumption levels. Obviously, population reduction happens only through natural attrition. However, stopping population growth comes from an economic system that in tune with the limits of the region's natural resources. It would not reward immigration; nor would it reward exploitation of people and resources from other regions, which causes people to migrate from their homes. It would not reward individuals and families for having more than a sustainable number of kids; nor would it reward exploitation of disadvantaged individuals and families locally, which causes the abuse that spurs early and unwanted pregnancies.

Portland in balance with its bioregion would be dense to the degree that it allows easy, close mobility between home, work and play, yet it would open ample greenspaces and wild nature within easy access to all residents.

little joke for you 06.Jun.2005 21:10


"We believe in zero population growth!" "We want to multiply and be fruitful!"
generation 1 i i i i
generation 2 i i ii ii
generation 3 i i iiii iiii
generation 4 i i iiiiiiii iiiiiii

and so on...

Anyway, I wish there were some restrictions on the number of kids people could have. It is entirely consistent with the fundamentals of law (ie laws prevent us from harming one another). Too bad it will never happen here.

I guess education is a big part of the answer. Pure, clean education untainted by Puritanical notions. I wish we had a way to get to where we know we need to be. Thanks for your letter.

phooey 07.Jun.2005 00:14


That joke was meant to show the zero population growth folks holding steady, and the rapture crowd growing exponentially... Forgot about auto-formatting.

Are Portland or SF Truly Sustainable? 09.Jun.2005 13:50

Puzzled in Portland

The author makes the point that human population is the key to carrying capacity. But what do you do - invite lots of people to leave? Put a moat around the city? Once you've got too many people and have outstripped carrying capacity - what do you do? Aren't you already screwed?

Unsustainable 12.Jun.2005 07:30


Puzzled in Portland said:

"Once you've got too many people and have outstripped carrying capacity - what do you do? Aren't you already screwed?"

Yes, you are already screwed. Anywhere that must import materials to provide for basic needs such as food, water, and maintenance of shelter is screwed based on the likliehood of declining energy reserves. Anywhere that relies on "green revolution" style factory farming for sustenance is screwed based on the likliehood of declining phosphorus reserves and especially declining nitrogen fertilizer production from natural gas via the Haber-Bosch Process is screwed. Anyone who relies on water treatment plants for clean water is screwed. Anyone that relies on commuting as part of the time you spend in productive effort is screwed. Anyone who's productive efforts do not include the skills of providing in the immediate for basic needs is screwed. Many of the sociopaths who have been given or taken positions of power around the Earth are aware of our predicament. It seems their solution is to to amass personal wealth and screw the rest of us. Depending on how destructive these sociopaths become, even those of you in low population areas might be screwed. How soon it becomes obvious you are screwed is anybody's guess. There might be ways to mitigate the catastrophe of overshooting the carrying capacity of the entire Earth, but it ain't gonna be pretty. For now, perhaps there is plenty of time to continue shopping and going to the movies, and we can just let the kids trouble themselves with all this when were gone.

Preparing for the "Chasm" of sustainability 29.Jun.2005 13:01


I think people are too fast in jumping from present day to "Sustainability". It is an illusion, and those that understand sustainability are in the minority, and have false hopes.

As Oil Peaks and the economy crashes, food production and transportation tanks, stores are emptied of non-local food supplies, and crime / violence are rampant... will there be a plan to cover that period? I find the Office of Sustainable development clearly lacking a plan for the middle period... no plan for the massive grief of people as they are punched in the nose with reality... desperate times do not bode well for community spirit, you had better implelent it way before hand... and we're running out of time.

I imagine someone in the future, desperate for work to pay bills and feed their family... needing to turn somewhere for information and hope. Something like this should be developed:

(Website / Plan intro)

If you are here, it's because things are turned upside down in the world and your life and you need some
answers. If you are reeling from job loss, money problems, food
scarcity, violence in the streets, too much happening at once to
handle, your city breaking down, lawlessness. I'm sorry. you are not
having a bad dream, you will not wake from this. Every day from this
point forward is very, very real, and you had better toughen up if you
want to survive.

Right now, what you are feeling are the shockwaves of grief as you
face your own mortality. Something deep inside tells you that you are
witnessing the end life as you have known it. For too long, you have
imagined yourself living forever, facing death in old age. You are now
quickly becoming aware that things aren't alright. Things are broken.
The world - is broken. Well, I have some good news for you. I just
saved 15% on my car insurance!

Just kidding. You also need to lighten up or you'll never make it
through this. It's okay to still live life, and we're going to help

To succeed, you must be able to do two things:
Learn to shed the skin you once wore
Learn to live simpler than you ever have before


Explanation of what's going on
Why is this happening?

Crime & Protection
What do I do if I'm being robbed?
What do I do if someone is stealing my food?
How do I protect myself? My property? My family?

Food & Water
- Yard farming and gardening
- Cooking
- Potlucks
- Dinner exchanges
How much grain does it take to make 1 loaf of bread?
How much water do we need a day?
What are common fruit trees growing in and around Portland?
What are the common herbs and plants we can harvest? (Mint, rosemary,
mushrooms, etc.)
What do I do if someone is stealing my food?
I can't find a job, how can I make money or earn food?

Healthcare -
I can't afford healthcare, what can I do?

- Live in an apartment or condo
- Own a home in the suburbs
- Own a home close to the city

Finances & Money
- Shelter:
What will happen if we can't pay our mortgage?
I can't afford gas for my vehicle, how can I get around?
I can't find a job, how can I make money or earn food?
I have a yard. What can I do with it?
I live in an apartment or condo and have no land. What can I do?

Commercial businesses

I can't afford gas for my vehicle, how can I get around?

How can I live with basic energy?
What are my daily energy needs?
How can I make my own electricity?
How can I get hot water?

Emotional Support
- Weekly Crash Course in hope and positivity
- Group Therapy

Is this the end of the world?

I am depressed and scared. How can I cope?

Why is this happening?

Will America prevail?


- Community:
-Why is community more important than survival?
- Books
- Meetings

- City - Does the city have a plan to help us?
- Neighborhoods
- Neighbors: My neighbors are jerks. What can I do if they won't cooperate?

- Nuclear war
- Conventional war
- Civil war
- Religious war

I can update your information
I want to volunteer

technology 16.Jul.2005 04:39

mathematicshurts jonsbox@teleport.com

Actually, these people have a point. The people who believe technology will save us all. Scientists are hopefull in a variety of fields that many of our problems today will be solved through technology. Advancements in technologies are marvelous! But, hasn't all of this happened before?

Hmm, I tend to regress. We have technology now that can really make a differnece, and we do not use it. So what future 'magical' technology do we need to save us from our misery? Free energy? Hmm? What?

RS has a point too. We will only move on our aspirations when the system fails entirely. The economy crashes, resources simply cannot stretch any further. People panic, they must adapt now to a new world.

When will we adapt to this new world? We live in a consumer world, but do we live in the world? If we do not live in the world, when will we? Collapse? Technology? Smarts? Extinction?

Everyone agrees: How bad will it get, before it is sustainable?

I wonder, if sustainable is even possible? Noeone lives forever, right? Even the sun winks out.

I do not see us gaining ground on the curve unless we all get a little crazy, and less human.

Confront it! I said less human! Noeone wants to make decisions like a computer does. Ok, every family can have 2.3 children! Noeone can eat more calories than is required by their body! Everyone needs 15% love, 20% hardship, 15% reward... etc. Do the numbers people, we don't want sustainable!! The devil is in the details. And we don't want to go there, or we already would have! Life.......

Why Are We Not Sustainable ? 11.Aug.2005 22:27

Pete Zade peter.zadeian@dpi.wa.gov.au

Sustainability means so many different things to so many people,
its awesome to read a cohesive, well laid out argument that can be applied equally to any major city around mother earth.
The last 40yrs has shown that current governance & environmental regulation on its own doesn't work, so I would've liked to read more about public policy context and in particular the implementation and management of such policy, including more on indicators and community / corporate incentives.
I say this because its easy to describe and/or winge about the current state of affairs, but of course its much harder to design & implement necessary governance arrangements across all levels of govt. and associated cultural changes.
Overall a great story that would be great for a more detailed research proposal / thesis.
Well Done !!!