The Sustainability Hoax
By Cecil Bothwell

[Note: As Asheville is widely hailed as the next Santa Fe, the next Austin, or the next Seattle, and given that "sustainability" is the buzzword in many upcoming November political races here, and given the raging debate surrounding the proposed development of the property south of Man o'War on Nicholasville Roadwe offer Bothwell's cautionary notes on such matters.]

At an Asheville City Council meeting I attended yesterday I was reminded once again of the insidious subversion of sustainability. The council was holding a (mock) hearing on the question of whether or not it should grant a permit to Wal-Mart to further defile our fair city.

No matter what your position on corporate oligopoly and the race to the bottom that characterizes most local governments these days, I think you would have to admit that issuing a permit to anyone for anything before the thing you are permitting has even been clearly defined is pretty bizarre. This is particularly so when the hazy proposal admittedly violates local, state, and possibly federal statutes. If I can get a permit to do whatever I please, what-exactly-is the point of a permit?

Or if exemptions are only available to the highest bidder, what does that say about the rule of law and democracy?

Despite enormous local opposition and the aforementioned haziness, I don't have the slightest doubt that the biggest retailer in the world will be allowed to rape our city one more time. The stalwart folks who have found time and energy to actively fight the plan will probably be thrown a bone or two. They have already extracted a promise that a portion of the property will become a park-sort of a corsage for the intended victim. They will probably get a few road improvements to relieve inevitable traffic congestion (and, not coincidentally, speed shoppers to Wal-Mart's gaping maw). And the river running along the parking lot will take one more step down the road to sewerdom.

The whole charade speaks volumes about the perversion of governance supposedly instituted for the public good, and more specifically to the sucker-game of sustainability.

When the idea of sustainability first entered political discourse 10 or 15 years ago, it referred specifically to the goal of creating a human society that would live in symbiosis with its environment. An environmentally sustainable system mimics nature: there is no garbage.

In fact, waste is food, and everything recycles on a local level.

All of the pollution produced by industrial society results from failure to mimic nature. We create poisons that cannot be detoxified, alter the balance of atmospheric gases, eliminate the natural filtering of forests, pave over or plow vast areas that once absorbed water, divert rivers, raze mountains, extirpate species, and otherwise monkeywrench the system on which all life depends.

The idea of saving ourselves by saving our life support system had already spawned a world wide environmental movement, and the notion that we could somehow create a benign technological society had enormous appeal.

"Sustainability" acquired an attractive green patina, and many folks were convinced that it was possible to do well by doing good. Then the politicians and corporations gave it a spin and stole the game. The goal of a an environmentally sustainable economy was deftly twisted into creating an economically sustainable environment, completely reversing the meaning of the concept.

Thus one of last night's evaluation standards for the proposed Super Wal-Mart was whether or not it will conform with this city's "Sustainable Economic Development Strategic Plan." It is every bit as bad as it sounds. The city staff member who explained the issue was quite clear: the question is whether or not the new super-store will hurt the prospects of attracting still more businesses to the area.

Never mind that the whole concept of a massive centralized shopping zone dependent on automobile traffic for both shoppers and employees, primarily retailing imports from China and other sweat shop production countries via petroleum dependent shipping and trucking, with vast parking lots preventing recharge of the local aquifer, is inherently unsustainable from an ecological standpoint-no, never mind all that. Nor that a multi-national corporation sucks funds from the local community, depresses wages, destroys small businesses, and uses its money to buy influence from the courthouse to the White House. The sustainability question now comes down to whether we can get our Super Wal-Mart and still have a shot at convincing Target to develop another site across the river.

All they want is your air, your land, your water-nothing that really matters, I guess.