What does sustainability mean to you?

Describe what sustainability means to you and highlight inspiration examples using:

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To me, sustainability recalls Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative, the most commonly cited formulation of which is “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law” (Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals). This means that an action is only ethically permissible if there were positive (or at least neutral) consequences to the world if everyone in the same situation were to act in the same way.

Actions are categorized as unethical by this principle when they are deemed ethically unsustainable even if an action’s individual outcome is inconsequential. For example, say you were to toss a candy bar wrapper on the ground because there weren’t any trash cans nearby. While a single wrapper being littered will have negligible environmental consequences, the world would quickly become choked with garbage if all humans freely littered in such a situation. This makes the action of littering unsustainable.


(a painting of Immanuel Kant’s home in Konigsberg, then part of the Kingdom of Prussia)

So basically, when I think of whether something is sustainable, I think about whether we can get away with doing it forever without ending up in a bad situation. In the context of design and construction, I would consider a practice sustainable if its wider adoption would be economical, environmentally friendly, and socially responsible.

In my opinion, Amsterdam is an excellent example of a modern, sustainable city. Amsterdam has phenomenal and inexpensive public transport paired with bike-friendly infrastructure and low-volume asphalt and limited use of automobiles, resulting in walkable, friendly streets, fewer car accidents, and high economic mobility. The lack of congestion, noise pollution, and regular pollution paired with its abundant green space make Amsterdam perhaps an extremely nice place to live. Amsterdammers clearly take social sustainability very seriously.

Unfortunately, 62% of the Netherlands’ electricity in 2021 came from fossil fuel sources, and Amsterdam’s cost of living is rising, so they certainly have work to do in terms of environmental and economic sustainability.


(Photo of Amsterdam’s Vondelpark. Look at all the bikes!)

An example of a construction with extreme environmental sustainability is the Tah.Mah.Lah House in Portola Valley, CA. Dubbed the “greenest home in America” and exceeding LEED’s Platinum certification, the mansion is constructed with “green” concrete (containing a large fraction of fly ash), FSC lumber, salvaged stone, 100% recycled metals, etc. A cistern with rain collection, rooftop solar panels, and heat pumps help the home generate more power than it consumes and minimize its running environmental impact.

Unsurprisingly, this project was enormously expensive, so while it knocks environmental sustainability out of the park and showcases some excellent construction practices, it represents a best-case scenario that isn’t economically sustainable in most contexts today.


(Exterior view of Tah.Mah.Lah (the Ohlone word for mountain lion))

Learn more about the Tah.Mah.Lah house here: https://tahmahlah.com/