The first thing to say about sustainability is that when we refer to it, as a concern about the permanence of our actual way of living, we usually do it just thinking from the material point of view and from the first world perspective. So, for clarifying this issue, we need to point that the common concept of sustainability could be redefined as first world physical sustainability.
All kinds of sustainability (we will refer here at least to the physical, political and emotional), shares the idea of time, as a key factor in the evaluation of the way in which our present condition is going to evolve in the future.
Focusing on the PHYSICAL SUSTAINABILITY, this is related to two essential factors (the necessities and the available resources), each of them considered from a double perspective (the present and the future). It is interesting to note that out of these four different data to consider for the evaluation of sustainability (present and future necessities and present and future resources), three of them are very difficult to predict. Despite this fact, the conclusion that is usually transmitted about physical sustainability is extremely alarming.
Analyzing the data separately, it is only prudent to start from the most uncertain, the future resources, which is the one that will allow us to front future necessities. The real quantification of the future resources is difficult due to empiric and gnostic reasons. The first one’s because of the unpredictability of new prospects, how much and where is available (with a widening spectrum made possible by more advanced exploration and extraction techniques); and gnostic reason because of the uncertainty about what would be the future energy and material resources.
From this uncertain perspective, it would be the same as declaring either an optimistic or a pessimistic forecast, but the latter is much more common. To think that we will find ourselves helpless seeing how resources and energy disappear is as improbable as the idea of the civilization vanishing because of coal exhaustion . The reality showed us that the finding of new resources is linked to their necessity, and this is connected to development, in a two directional loop where development bring the necessity and this necessity encourage research of resources, or vice versa. The insistence of drawing a crisis scenario, which equates to a lack of confidence in our possibilities to develop new sources as a response to old ones’ exhaustion—is a trend that seems to be hiding obscure intentions. The portrayed so-called material sustainability disaster looks a distracting maneuver from other aspects of sustainability impossible to bring forth without more problematic structural changes.
If we talk about current reserves (the second necessary data for the determination about the possibility of sustainability), the situation is clearer but still, it contains a high degree of uncertainty. There are some figures about gas and petrol reserves that are quite impossible to certify and whose secretive condition is part of the energy market strategies. The five first countries’ tested reserves have been historically growing up in sudden jumps that have not always been linked to discovery of new deposits. We know by experience that petrol availability is also tied to political contingencies (as we experienced in the petrol crisis between 1973 and 1979). What it means that even though if we have the reserves to draw from, they may not be available for the market.
If we refer to mineral reserves the situation becomes even more blurry because of the lack of an effective global coordination about reserves data or prospection campaigns.
About the renewable resources (as forestry, agriculture or livestock), the availability is linked to the rigorousness of renewal processes, which have to be encouraged by national governments and where there is no common and coordinated global strategy. The mechanisms for international control and guidance over these local and national strategies are extremely limited. The over-exploitation usually occurs in under-developed countries where resource exploitation is critically tied to economic development. These countries can’t assume the cost of sustainable renewal process if they are stressed by a strong competition in the global market. The first world countries need this kind of dirty sustainable policies happening in developing countries, because this means accessibility to very cheap products in the markets of the developed countries. This could explain the very scarce international economic effort for compensating the resources renewal policies in underdeveloped countries, and the international community’s lack of determination for shifting this tendency.
Going into the issue of necessities (the other keystone for evaluating the sustainability), the situation is also quite unclear about a reliable forecast. Future necessities are also quite unpredictable about any consumption good which is not directly tied to human physiological sustenance (as for instance minimum of calories needed for different activities or water for basic hydration). We also know that the technological evolution could be able to change significantly the future necessities of source materials and energy adjusting processes’ efficiency, and this makes difficult to base our forecast based on current figures. At the same time, the required quantities are also linked to future activities and new goods that are still forthcoming and that we can’t prevent. In the future, we could incorporate resources that are still unknown, and that will be able to reset a projected balance between resources and expenses.
Last but not the least, of the four data that we need for a state of sustainability—we should mention present necessities as the only one which could be determined with a degree of certainty. The first thing to notice about this is a tricky idea where any actual consumer level is automatically considered as a necessity. Even for the most basic resource as water, the differences between the different countries are massive , a fact that brings us back the question about how to fix the levels of necessity. If we take the highest level of consumption as a necessity (as First World did), this is deeply unfair to the rest of the world and creates a global false necessity extremely difficult to sustain. The quantities consumed nowadays has to be revisited critically before taking the current figures and establishing them as requirements. The nonsense of not doing so is based in keeping the privilege of prodigality for First World countries and even worse, extend them as a model.
On one hand, the fake condition of this data makes them especially useless for establishing future predictions. On the other hand, the developed countries’ economic growth is based on the constant necessity about the evolution of consumption, that also increases the degree of uncertainty about the fair quantification of real necessities.
As we have seen the four basic data needed for evaluating sustainability are, in different degrees, unreliable. One can put forward the question of why there exists this consistent alarm about physical sustainability?
The possibility of a sustainable material work would not be so hard if we would be able to consider a fair distribution of resources and energy. The real problem will come from another kind of sustainability that we would call POLITICAL SUSTAINABILITY. With political, we refer to an attitude that takes the community welfare as the most important thing to address whatever the scale of the community is (from a neighborhood to a worldwide one). This means the necessity of considering different points of views and getting agreements that it would necessarily require renounces. This sustainability is focused on the explicit determination of a standard (not as an absolute set but rather having an upper and lower possible limit) way of living that is going to be the reference for a communal physical sustainability. Communities that promote difference and inequality are always in an unstable equilibrium that means a deep incompatibility with the very concept of sustainability. This fact that this is so extended worldwide, should make political sustainability a global concern at the same level as the physical. Why is it not so?
In a global scale, the developed countries know that to sustain their level of consumption, the only possible way is through the exhaustion of the material resources in other parts of the planet where consumption is much lower, and where they can get cheaper material resources. As a consequence, the differences of necessities and consumption of resources level differences between some countries are abysmal , which means a complete absence of political agreement from the bottom up. The first world’s emphasis on physical sustainability has become a ruse—a deceptive maneuver for dismissing the real problem which is the political aspect of it. The political sustainability would need to address the necessity of getting an agreement about the desirable level of life for any person of the world. This should mean for the first world’s countries to accept that the future of their citizens in terms of material comfort has to dramatically decrease for reaching a consensus level. In the understanding of the developed economies, there is no sustainability if their existing situation can’t be sustained, and the reconsideration of their level of expense is not at all part of their agenda. It is easy to understand that the countries that are nowadays subsisting under minimums are not at all interested in sustainability, as a way to sustain a scarce situation. It is evident that the first world sustainability is totally incompatible with a fairer world. This underlines the importance of a political sustainability.
The documents signed in the Earth Summits and UN Conferences never mention directly this controversy, treating to call undeveloped countries attention with idealistic proposals about poverty eradication without addressing that this could mean a reformulation of the first world countries’ levels of material comfort and consumption. The poverty eradication is a bare minimum suggestion that is absolutely unsatisfactory for the developing countries.
The idea of an international political sustainability is not incompatible with the same kind of necessity in the scale of smaller communities national, regional or local wide.
After the 2008 crisis, the social gap between wealthy people and the ones who live with the bare minimum has been growing continuously in the first world, where an increasing number of people are nowadays living in financially stressful conditions. In the case of the United States, the people enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (people that need public assistance to assure nutrient minimum) reached in 2016 more than 44 million, which means more that the thirteen percent of all the population . Millions of families go every year to bankruptcy due to basic necessities as medical attention (two millions of families in 2013) . The increasing rate of baby-boomers retiring nowadays  (whose savings were exhausted during the financial crisis and following recession), is going to produce a generation retiring with an uncertain financial future for the first time in American modern times .
We can understand that the inconsistency in pursuing physical sustainability is coming from a very blurry conceptual framework where most of the people worldwide don’t recognize themselves as part of the claimed living standards. Because of this, political unsustainability is the first challenge to address and this is going to require deep changes in national and international social policies, especially in the first world countries.
The situation is becoming so stressful that the possibility of a political revolution looks more probable than the disaster of resource exhaustion.
Finally, I would like to talk about another sustainability that has been also traditionally dismissed, which we are going to term as EMOTIONAL SUSTAINABILITY. We need to keep in mind that when we talk about human necessities (that are the basic issue for sustainability thinking), they are not only material. The human necessities are classified into two groups: the material necessities (as food and refuge), and the emotional ones (as being social, love or beauty). If the first ones take care of the human physical integrity, the latter ones guarantee the psychic integrity, building between them the human welfare and happiness. Recent findings in social psychology invert Maslow’s pyramid and show that the fundamental human necessity is the need to be engaged socially.
Inside the human emotional needs, we could distinguish two groups. The first one is the social necessities that are related to the interaction between humans (as empathy, friendship, and love); and the second ones are the aesthetic necessities, dealing with our emotional relationship with the natural or artificial world in the search of beauty. These necessities are so deeply embedded in the human being that artifacts and the evidence of social interaction, are the unmistakable sign of human presence in ancient times.
Because of the importance of the emotional in people’s life, it is strange that nobody mentions this condition as part of the sustainability discourse, as a way to explicitly reflect the circumstances of our existence that we wish for the future. A concern about an emotional sustainability is a manifestation of the desire of keeping human bonds and the pursuing of beauty, both as also very important part of our life. If we only are concerned about the material sustainability we wouldn’t be different than some other animals. What makes us properly ‘human’ is the worry about the social and aesthetic sustainability.
It is also important to point that the emotional necessities are universal and constant, what makes a huge difference with the search of material necessities. All human communities pursue them equally as an unceasing effort looking for human relation and beauty. From very few issues as emotion (social or aesthetic), we can find a more constant reflection in the history of civilizations. Because of this universality, it could be easier to imagine a future devoid of materials rather than a future which is emotionally void.
On the other hand, the material sphere evolves in a very artificial way (conditioned by the economic context), to the point that, as we have explained, most of the first world’s necessities are totally unnecessary. So they are not universal but are erratic.
The consistency of emotional concern doesn’t afford us to dismiss it in our discourse or that we can stop pursuing it, but that we need to keep it as important as it is, especially in a contemporary context, which reinforces only the importance of pragmatic discourses. This is especially significant in the contemporary time when despite the importance and persistence of social and aesthetic emotions throughout human history, the contemporary life every day becomes more socially unbound and aesthetically uglier.
Recognizing the importance of these three aspects of sustainability, the question now would be to answer the question of how could architects contribute to sustainability in such a broad way.
The first thing to say is that architects are one of the professionals that who could provide a wider answer to sustainability. If the physical sustainability is related to the technical and functional aspect of architecture, the political one is linked to the undeniable responsibility of accomplishing community welfare by means of architecture. The emotional sustainability is also deeply rooted in architecture, inseparable from the importance of human interaction and the artistic perception.
Architects possess the expertise in organizing the physical world, which means projecting and controlling the display of material resources, and the workforce performance—all these extremely important for physical sustainability. Broadening from this traditional role, the architect’s expertise should also include an ethical responsibility with not only efficiency but also effectiveness, from the understanding that the good design should be able to accomplish answers using optimal material and human effort. A strategy of minimum energy and material waste in buildings construction and maintenance is an unavoidable common sense principle, specially knowing that buildings consume nearly half of the energy produced in the United States, and construction processes are responsible for a similar proportion of CO2 emissions .
Architects have also the capacity to influence political sustainability, because they are responsible for planning the polis, as the physical organization of living in the community. We also need to keep in mind that housing is one of the basic human necessities and because of this one of the main targets of social injustice.
It is true that architects’ capacity for officially reframing political sustainability (usually driven from top-down strategies) is quite limited, but as Lefebvre said: “space is political”  and architecture has the capacity to reframe the way communities live (from families to nations). Architecture’s focus toward human interaction provokes empathy and solidarity between inhabitants that result in a way of living where individuals support each other and differences tend to disappear or at least be respected. In an opposite way, planning which supports the dispersal of activities and population are accomplices in segregating people as a strategy for political control.
Architects, as liberal professionals and social agents, have the obligation to refuse commissions if they are not going to promote social justice. In an opposite way than the current usual practice, architects also have the responsibility to represent the interest of the people in the real estate business which means to look after the product quality, how it is produced and fair price. The influence of overpriced houses in people’s economic struggle is huge, and this is something that happens with architects being an accomplice. Housing is as important as public health, and because of this, it can’t be abandoned to the dynamics of the free market.
Last, architecture is the emotional discipline per excellence because no other discipline combines the social and aesthetic experiences, and accordingly, it has a strong determination in the emotional sustainability. As we said before, architecture is an unavoidable frame of social life, having for this, the ability to reinforce social interaction that is the basis for human affections. From the domestic to the urban scale, architectural decisions have a remarkable importance encouraging people to contact and support. The suburban fabrics, where most Americans live, are responsible for a deep sense of isolation and consequently human unhappiness, considering the consensus now about the importance of social interaction for both physical and mental well-being.
On the other hand, architecture is responsible for the aesthetic quality of the artificial environment. The importance of this issue, that has been so radically dismissed in contemporary discourse on sustainability, can be appreciated when we visit historical cities where the quality of the singular pieces of architecture results in an extraordinary feeling of civic beauty. Ugly buildings tend to make ugly cities.
Considering all these, we can conclude that architects are the ones who need to lead the common effort in accomplishing sustainability in an integral and holistic way. None of these aspects of sustainability (physical, political or emotional), makes any sense without the others and will not lead to sincere sustainability if one is achieved at the expense of the other. Leading with this concern, architects will be able to recover their importance as community agents with technical, political and artistic relevance. All three are nowadays lost.
As Jeremy Rifkin explained, the humankind has been always able to find alternatives, moving forward from the hydraulic energy to exhaustion of the forest as carborane, the fossil fuels era (coal and petrol), up to the everyday more extended exploitation of disperse energy system (solar, wind, tides, geothermal…) (RIFKIN, Jeremy: The Empathic Civilization, New York: Penguin, 2009)
For instance, a citizen of the United States uses as an average 575 liters of water per day, that is more than a hundred times the quantity of water used by a citizen in Mozambique (who uses 4 liters per day) (http://www.data360.org/dsg.aspx?Data_Set_Group_Id=757)
“On average, one American consumes as much energy as, 2 Japanese, 6 Mexicans, 13 Chinese, 31 Indians, 128 Bangladeshis, 307 Tanzanians, 370 Ethiopians” (https://public.wsu.edu/~mreed/380American%20Consumption.htm)
MAGAN, Dan. “Medical Bills are the Biggest Cause of U.S. Bankruptcies: Study”, CNBC, NBC Universal, 25 June 2013. Web. 19 January 2017 ( http://www.cnbc.com/id/100840148)
APTER, Melissa, and GERR, Melissa. "A Place Call Home. Ad U.S. population ages, the need for senior housing increase and requirements evolve", Baltimore Jewish Times, 15 January 2015. Web. 19 January 2017 (http://jewishtimes.com/33289/place-call-home/)
KHANNA, Parag: Connectography. Mapping the future of Global Civilization, New York: Random House, 2016, p.111
LEFEBVRE, Henri: “Reflections on the Politics of Space”, 1970, at: BRENNER, Neil, and ELDEN, Stuart (Eds.): State, Space, World. Selected Essays Henri Lefebvre, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009