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Sustainability Expert Urges End to Habits of Consumption

by Joyce Gannon

One way to live a more sustainable existence is to stop tweeting and shut down your Facebook page.

John Ehrenfeld, an author and researcher who specializes in sustainability, believes that technology has resulted in some bad human habits. (AFP/File/Loic Venance) Such actions might sound extreme to the eco-conscious generation practically raised on cell phones and laptop computers. But John Ehrenfeld, an author and researcher who specializes in sustainability, believes that technology has resulted in some bad human habits.

To understand his thinking, consider how Dr. Ehrenfeld defines sustainability. He cautions against summing it up with buzzwords such as "greening" or "sustainable development." Sustainability is "radically different" from those, he said. It is "the possibility that all life will flourish on the planet forever."

To make that happen, individuals need to stop addictive consumption and realize that technology, while a positive in many ways, "is not a solution to every problem." Dr. Ehrenfeld was the featured speaker yesterday during a round-table discussion on whether "green chemistry" can play a significant role in a sustainable economy in the Pittsburgh region.

The event, held at the Alcoa Corporate Center on the North Side, was the first in a planned series of four to be held this year and organized by the Rachel Carson Homestead Association, Sustainable Pittsburgh, the Alcoa Technical Center and Carnegie Mellon University.

The series is sponsored by The Alcoa Foundation and Bayer Corp.

Dr. Ehrenfeld, of Lexington, Mass., is executive director of the International Society for Industrial Ecology and retired in 2000 as director of the MIT Program on Technology, Business, and Environment.

Among his varied experiences was serving as head of the New England River Basins Commission in 1978-81 under an appointment by President Jimmy Carter.

His book, "Sustainability by Design: A Subversive Strategy for Transforming Our Consumer Culture," was published in 2008.

"Facebook is my poster child for what's not a good idea," said the 78-year-old grandfather of nine. The online social network "debases the value of friendship" because it focuses on a user's quantity of friends instead of the quality of those connections.

He contends that a lifestyle characterized by less consumption and better core values, such as goodness and honesty, will advance sustainability by allowing individuals to step back and reflect more deeply about how their actions and business dealings connect them with each other and with the earth.

"The challenge - contrary to conventional wisdom - is to attain sustainability, not just manage it."

Retailing giant Wal-Mart, for instance, announced plans last year to create a sustainability index designed to inform customers how "green" its products are. But Dr. Ehrenfeld said the index wouldn't adequately educate customers about why certain products are greener than others and wouldn't necessarily change consumer behavior.

Among the companies he considers to be on the right track with marketing and branding sustainable products are Green Mountain Coffee and Nike.

The other speakers at yesterday's event included Terrence Collins, professor of chemistry at CMU and director of CMU's Institute of Green Science; Robert Bear, Alcoa's corporate environmental director; and Ned Eldridge, president of eLoop, a Pittsburgh firm that provides recycling and reuse for computers and other electronic devices.

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