Thoughts about Sustainability

In 2006 I was invited to lecture at the King’s University in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. It was a very memorable experience, lasting a couple of weeks. I just came across the following essay that I wrote at that time reflecting some of my observations sparked by that trip.

I have been in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia participating with architectural design students, and have been reflecting on the question of sustainability here in this juxtaposition of old, traditional architecture with the new rather western pattern of development. It was immediately apparently as I approached the city from the air that the western mentality of a rectangular grid was surrounding the traditional center of the city, with its meandering, organic alleys and streets. The western paradigm of modern development has been totally accepted; only the facades of some of the new buildings bear witness to design styles derived from Islamic culture.

These styles are cosmetic only; if you dig beneath the surface of the thousands of buildings that line the modern avenues devoted to automotive traffic you will find the same steel-reinforced concrete, multi-storied, industrially derived shells resting on what used to be desert land. These buildings are made habitable in this hot and humid environment by one means only: air conditioning. Without air conditioning these buildings would be unbearably hot and stifling.

The electricity to run all of these air conditioning units comes from oil, a fossil fuel that Saudi Arabia has a dwindling abundance of. This same fuel supplies the energy for practically every aspect of life in Jeddah. Without it, the comfortable life of Saudis would come to a grinding halt. This city is completely oil dependent, and I am sure that this is the case in all of the other cities in the Kingdom, as it is in much of the rest of the world.

Jeddah is particularly reliant on fossil fuel for another essential of life: water. There is no supply for fresh water other than the desalination of sea water, which of course uses a tremendous amount of energy to accomplish. Once the fresh water is produced, it must be pumped all over the city, again using more of the same dwindling source of energy.

There is no mass transit in Jeddah; only private automobiles cruise the fashionable streets and freeways that are adorned with more public art than I have seen in ages. The King provides art for his people to enjoy as they make their way through the city in their privately air-conditioned rolling conveyances. The gasoline that these cars consume must be subsidized, since its price is roughly a quarter of what it is in the United States, and perhaps one eighth (or less) of the cost of fuel in Europe. If you don’t own a car, you either walk of take a taxi.

If Saudi Arabia were able to reserve their oil for domestic use only, they might be able to continue this way for quite some time, but of course this is both an economic and political impossibility. The economy is fueled by oil and the Kingdom’s security in this politically volatile region is tied to a long-time relationship with the United States.

So, is there any way that this situation can be sustainable beyond a few more generations? In short: No! The comfortable ride will come to an end, perhaps not to a screeching halt, but the roadway will become obscured so that it will be difficult to know which way to go. There will be a few possible turns off of the boulevard that might lead somewhere productive, but the main thoroughfare will not be accessible. A detour is the only route available into the future.

The longer it takes for the Saudi government (and virtually all other oil-dependent societies) to realize the gravity of this situation and begin to prepare off-ramps for sustainable destinations, the worse the ride will be in the end. Will it be pot-holes and empty gas stations situated in an expanding slum, or will it be a matter of parking the old car and climbing onto a quiet electric bus that gets charged by solar cells and riding to your pleasant home with its recessed courtyard garden and cool underground rooms?

The current urban infrastructure not only contributes to the continual loss of the fuel that it relies on, but the burning of fossil fuel is contributing to environmental degradation on a monumental scale. Global warming is a scientific reality and the symptoms of this are becoming more severe each year. Jeddah is a coastal city, and like all coastal cities around the globe, is vulnerable to inundation from rising sea levels. The time-scale for this eventuality is constantly being revised by the scientific community, so that this could easily be witnessed within our lifetimes.

The threat to biotic ecosystems by climate change is well known. Another threat that is also attributed to CO2 emissions is the acidification of the oceans through the absorption of CO2 into them. It has been observed that plankton communities around the world are struggling to survive. Plankton is the organic building block of marine life, the very bottom of the food chain. Without this resource, nearly all marine life is in jeopardy. We are talking about a fundamental resource that relates to our own survival, not just the other plants and animals that we live with!

To avert many of the dismal routes that can be too easily imagined into our future environment, it behooves us to look for those routes that hold promise for easing off the mainstream way with dignity and intelligence. We are an intelligent species and with time we can pave the way for comfort and continued life in the future, but it will take a sober appraisal of our situation, and the determination to take on the difficult task of redesigning our way of life. We are creatures of habit, so this is a very tall order.

If we start now to find ways to use less energy that is increasingly of renewable origin, if we begin to design our buildings so that they require less energy to keep comfortable, if we provide for mass transit that relies mostly on renewable energy, if we carefully utilize the precious fresh water that is available and re-use that which goes down the drain for watering a lush landscape that helps offset the release of CO2 gas into the atmosphere, if we find ways to grow or supply most of our food locally, so that it doesn’t have to be continually transported to us from long distances, if we learn from the way our ancestors used to live in harmony with their environment without such intensive use of energy, if we make a commitment to doing these things… then I think that we can actually build the routes into our future that will be sustainable.

We should do this while we still have the industrial wherewithal to do so. It will soon be too late to redesign the infrastructure sufficiently to ease the weaning process from fossil fuel, and the comfortable ride will no longer be available.

What a huge challenge this is! It will involve the active participation of all segments of society, especially the government, which has the financial and leadership capability to implement these sorts of changes…but not just the government. Everybody needs to be aware of the reality of the situation and be willing to perhaps make a few life-style changes to adapt to the new energy reality.

We need to be monitoring our energy use just the way a doctor might suggest that we count our food calories. We need to go on a healthy energy diet, one that will ultimately make our bodies stronger because we might walk more, one that might provide more time for contemplation and family encounter because we won’t be driving to other locations so much, one that is healthier because the air is less polluted with automotive and industrial fumes.

This imaginary future actually sounds pretty nice to me…and I hope and pray that we can find our way there.

So I wrote that 13 years ago; how are we doing on the journey toward sustainable living?

1 thought on “Thoughts about Sustainability”

  1. The only way to change is through education the more you know the better things can improve we need to leave the old ways behind and move foward


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