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Guest Column

October 12, 2013

Sustainability shouldn't be a dirty word

There has been some confusion recently about the definition of sustainability. There has also been some willful misrepresentation.

I’d like to make an attempt to clear up the confusion, and respond to the misrepresentation. As a member of the Otsego County Board of Representatives who is endorsed by Sustainable Otsego, it’s important that I understand, and be able to articulate, what sustainability is all about. As a citizen of our county, it’s important that I consider the future that sustainability offers.

Sustainability is a term that describes a way of thinking — and then acting — about the present and, especially, the future. When we think sustainably, we think about how we can protect and nourish what we value, so that it can grow to be robust and self-sufficient in the future.

Heath Markus Green, from Cornell University, spoke at Foothills recently about a study of the old D&H railyard in Oneonta. He had some ideas about how it could be used, and in the course of his remarks, he mentioned the idea of sustainability — an approach he embraces — and provided a three-part definition: the three Es.

First: economy. In a sustainable system, the economy is healthy for the long-term. It doesn’t need constant re-starting or excessive regulation, and isn’t episodic: no boom-bust cycles or fast-fading fads. No sacrificing important resources for short-term gain. It’s broad and deep and diverse, like a good stock portfolio. Sustainability requires, then, strong, stable, enduring economic activity that preserves and strengthens our most valuable resources.

The second ‘E’ is environment, a word that tends to be the beginning and ending of most folks’ understanding of sustainability. But this doesn’t just mean clean water and air, and a livable landscape around us. It also means the built environment, the infrastructure we already have. Resources of every kind, all of them. For instance, Oneonta is not only nestled in a beautiful valley, with (so far) pure air and water, but it’s also on a rail line and an interstate, and it has an airport, two colleges and a hospital. All this needs to be factored into sustainable a plan for economic development.

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