Sustainability is not a Four-Letter Word

Leveling Godsey Ridge for development. Photo: Dan Henry/Chattanooga Times Free Press

What is the biggest misconception surrounding the word, sustainability?  I was recently asked that question, and Agenda 21 immediately sprung to mind.  For those not familiar, Agenda 21 is a non-binding, voluntarily implemented action plan of the United Nations with regard to sustainable development.  For many, calling the plan non-binding and voluntary is simply lip service.  Sustainability has become a trigger word, embedded with undertones of conspiracy and overtones of mistrust.  Within this fear-based paradigm, “sustainable development” becomes a catch phrase that really means “government theft of property rights.”

 A healthy dose of skepticism about the current state of government is understandable.  One need only look at the woeful inaction and extreme partisanship of many elected officials, apparently more interested in personal gain than in true leadership, to become slightly (or severely) disillusioned.  When it seems the best interests of the public are not at the heart of decision-making, questioning laws and regulations doesn’t mean you are paranoid, it means you are aware.  It’s the right thing to do.

 When it comes to sustainability, though, the risk of throwing the baby out with the bathwater is real.  We see it every time we drive past yet another of our beautiful ridges being leveled in Chattanooga, to make way for… what?  A hastily constructed brick and mortar building, built to house some new enterprise that may still exist in 100 years, but more than likely, not.  Meanwhile, within strolling distance are dozens of existing structures, at one time new brick and mortar buildings that housed similar enterprises that no longer exist - perfect candidates for adaptive reuse, but easily overlooked in favor of shiny and new.

 The Parthenon, The Coliseum, the Great Pyramids – these were all shiny and new at one time, too.  Today they are crumbling.  In the long run, how much more significant are our ridges, created perfectly from the beginning, than the comparatively feeble attempts of man at structural legacy?  Why aren’t we looking at our local development regulations with the same fervor as we examine, say, our national health care laws? 

 The North Chickamauga Creek Conservancy recently spearheaded a community drive to examine a proposed development, one which would have required a ridge in Hixson to be flattened.  The subsequent adverse impacts on water quality, wildlife, traffic patterns, and so on were undeniable; yet an enormous amount of time and resources, and plenty of media attention, were required to ensure those reviewing the plans would reject this type of development and insist on better for our city.  Will our community learn from this and pressure decision-makers to proactively pass a steep slopes ordinance protecting our ridges, instead of continually being in reaction mode as these proposals pop up all over Chattanooga?

 Where the rubber meets the road is here: how many residents joined the rallying cry of “Don’t chop the hilltop” because the hilltop is their backyard, but would reject the idea of creating sustainable development guidelines, such as a steep slopes ordinance, because, well, that’s the next step on the way to being governed by the United Nations?  And this is America, people can do what they want with their land (just not that land behind me, I don’t want more cars in my neighborhood).

 Depending on the dictionary, the definitions of sustainability vary, but have a common theme that represents a most basic of human principles: leave things at least as good as you found them.  If that phrase doesn’t appear in Robert Fulghum’s iconic book All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, then something pretty close does.  You don’t play house with Mama’s best china; even a five year old knows that.  Well, this magnificent creation we inhabit is far more valuable than the best china ever made – and we’re making a mess.

 What kind of people are we, at heart, we Chattanoogans?  Are we willing to leave things at least as good as we found them?  

“We see it every time we drive past yet another of our beautiful ridges being leveled in Chattanooga, to make way for… what? ”