The "Sustainable Communities" Movement Wants to Limit the Environmental Impact of Human Activity
The "Sustainable Communities" movement operates on a wide range of self-definitions, some of which incorporate different degrees of "social justice," "human dignities," and "collective decision-making," but their core unifying philosophy is one of causing a minimal impact on the natural environment.
The Dancing Rabbit community in Missouri, which is trying to organize itself as a "sustainable community", describes it like this:
"[W]ithin the defined area, no resources are consumed faster than their natural replenishment, and the enclosed system can continue indefinitely without degradation of its internal resource base or the standard of living of the people and the rest of the ecosystem within it, and without contributing to the non-sustainability of ecosystems outside."It's certainly a well-intentioned goal, hoping to preserve the natural environment both within and outside the community itself. Unfortunately, taken too far, "community sustainability" is bad for the environment.
- Dancing Rabbit Mission Statement
All Human Activity Creates Waste
We humans are tool-users. Tools are used to improve on the state of nature. If we aren't improving on the state of nature, then we're not really doing anything useful. That improvement naturally causes some pollution to the world around us -- it's the Second Law of Thermodynamics.
We are not capable of carrying out any activity at 100% efficiency. That's the curse of friction and the reason we cannot build a perpetual-motion machine. Thus, anything we do will result in some wasted energy.
We Can Reduce Waste, But Usually Not Through Intentional "Sustainability"
Though it may seem counterintuitive, it's probably best for the environment if we devote less direct attention to "sustainability" and more to our pocketbooks. Recognizing that some waste is inevitable, the economic answer is to try to reduce the amount of total waste by using our resources as efficiently as possible.
The best way to do that is by recognizing the law of comparative advantage -- whereby society best fulfills its own needs by letting each individual undertake the activity he or she does best. This is usually both profitable for the individual and efficient for society at large. It's the principle that suggests that Michael Jordan should have avoided mowing his own lawn during his NBA years, since his time was much better-spent practicing his game and avoiding needless injury on the riding mower.
By Ignoring Comparative Advantage, "Sustainable" Communities Can Actually Increase Waste
This brings us full-circle: If you're trying too hard to live "sustainably", you're going to expend a lot of energy doing things inefficiently that other people can do much more efficiently than you. An optometrist shouldn't waste time raising chickens, painting his house, or mowing her lawn when there are other people who can do those jobs more efficiently and still others who need more eye care. But carried too far, a "sustainable community" suggests just that: That the optometrist, in order to replenish resources at the same rate as they are consumed and in order to avoid degrading any resource base, should build her own house and grow much of his own food (or at least participate in a collective program to do so).
Environmental protection itself is a fine goal; clean water and air are by all means necessary for human life, and most reasonable people will agree to sensible approaches to maintaining those natural resources in order to preserve our own lives. But the invisiblity of the increased waste in an intentional "sustainable" community makes it no less real, and wide-scale implementation of too much "sustainability" could actually do more environmental harm than good.
A Little Less Irony, a Little More Economics
The bottom line is that nearly everyone wants to live in a clean environment and to believe that we're doing our own part as good neighbors and world citizens. But the danger is that in believing we're creating a zero-waste world, we miss the point entirely and end up creating more waste than intended. Economic efficiency works to help the environment -- just ask the residents of the former Black Triangle of eastern Europe, where technology, economic efficiency, and a little bit of democratic action at work have dramatically reduced air pollution from the Soviet era while significantly improving the economic quality of life. Economic efficiency is itself an environmental protection.