Objective: Sustained

Participants in a conference agree that sustainable living is a good idea, but what next?

While there may be only 50 ways to leave a lover (according to Paul Simon), there are potentially dozens of ways to sustain a desert (according to sustainability proponents). The biggest obstacle to achieving success in the latter project is getting parties with divergent views to work together, said many participants in last week's conference on The Sustainable Desert: Building Livable Futures.

Absent the Birkenstocks and beards of yesteryear, the three-day event drew 250 attendees and 25 vendors who gathered to talk about ways of fixing what had been broken and avoiding additional damage in the future.

Like Diogenes the Cynic looking for an honest man, trying to find a definition of "sustainable" that all could agree on was a near-impossible task. Ideas ranged far and wide and covered a myriad of topics from the harvesting of gray water to greenbuilding innovations, energy efficiency and preservation of riparian areas.

"A colleague once researched the term and found 80 different definitions," said Helmut Frank, retired UA economics professor and member of the conference organizing committee. His definition was straightforward: "If we leave this earth and the things we have used in a better shape than we found it, that should be our mission."

That definition is as good as any, according to southside neighborhood activist Yolanda Herrera-La Fond: "There is no right or wrong answer. We just need to get a dialogue going between government officials, homebuilders and the grassroots groups to put 'A' and 'B' together and make it work for everyone."

The conference melded lots of "A"s and "B"s from vendors selling environmentally friendly products to regulatory agencies espousing their proffered methodologies, and from green groups touting activist save-it-before-it's-gone agendas to politicians eager to be seen with the good guys. There was something for everyone--except a consensus.

Attendees were assailed with the message that we'd better do something, and do it soon. "At this point, it's not too late," said panelist Shel Clark, director of the Sonoran Institute Southeast Arizona Program. "But there are physical limits to our growth--land availability, water supplies and pollution concerns. We can deal with these issues now or deal with them somewhere down the road in a crisis mode."

A recent analysis of Census Bureau figures from 100 U.S. cities, including Tucson and Phoenix, showed that population growth and land-use choices played nearly equal roles in urban sprawl. "There are more of us, and each of us is using more land," said report co-author Roy Beck, who noted that Tucson's per-capita land use is .27 acres per person, a ratio that puts the Old Pueblo almost in the top one-third of cities with the most square miles of sprawl.

Several in a lengthy list of speakers called for an intelligent analysis of problems and a concerted effort at their solution. "I'd like to see the city, county and outlying jurisdictions work together to develop regional planning," said Clark. "That's the only process that makes sense, and voters need to convince elected officials they need to cooperate or suffer the wrath of the ballot box."

"There are no silver bullet answers," according to Gail Marsland, a promoter of sustainable housing who has walked the talk for the past 12 years by living in her own research lab, an off-grid home sans commercial energy sources. "There are many stakeholders here because this is an intense and complex issue with no specific reference manual to go to. One of the keys is that we have to work together, looking for common ground and synergizing our efforts instead of competing--and that may require a shift in people's thinking. Many of us were taught the competitive paradigm, and we don't know how to play as a team."

One concept that most attendees could agree on was a need for concerned citizens to work together for the common good. Tohono O'odham tribal member Ofelia Zepeda, author of writings about the desert and its fragile environment, says we have already offended Mother Earth--and it may be payback time.

"We've done some bad things," she says. "Indian traditions think in terms of the land being given as a gift, to be appreciated and cared for and used in a respectful manner. But we've seen all that fall apart, and it's not nice to make Mama mad."

"We're creating more pollution and waste than our natural world can absorb," believes vendor John Eisele of Omni Block. "We continue to foul our own nest under the belief that there's an unlimited supply of natural resources--and there isn't. The relationship between population and consumption is criminal. We need to look at re-using materials, implementing natural energy and building things to last a lot longer than they do now."

The podium proliferated with politicians eager to go on record in support of a sustainable desert. Supervisor Raúl Grijalva stressed the importance of gatherings such as this by noting, "Both the desert and human development depend on our dialogue." Vice Mayor Fred Ronstadt called for the community to roll up its sleeves and "work on solutions to create a more livable, sustainable community." Governor Jane Hull lauded environmental accomplishments ("We need to work together on a conservation plan for the desert"), then splashed cold water on much enthusiasm by noting that with Arizona's economic growth down as much as 75 percent, "We can't spend money we don't have."

Conference sponsors stressed that money wasn't the only key to change. "This is a many-headed hydra," said Tucson Clean and Beautiful Director Joan Lionetti. "What we want to come out of this is a consensus on how to bring entities together under one umbrella to address the components of a sustainable community."

"There's a small but strong ethic in Tucson around limiting growth and living more sustainably," says Tucson Electric Power spokesperson Betsy Bolding. "What we tried to do here was create a knowledgeable group of citizens with common interests who will take a serious second look at all the issues and not just walk away with a bag full of handouts."