Heroes of Sustainability: Sarah Susanka

In a country that values McMansions, architect Sarah Susanka has a different idea: build better, not bigger.

The England native moved to the U.S. in the early ’70s and has remained in the States since. She was baffled when she first arrived as a teenager at the fact that American homes had the same formal living rooms and dining rooms that the English homes had, yet no one used them. “Every time I went over to my friends’ houses, they all ate every meal in the kitchen — at the kitchen table,” she said in an interview with Chris O’Leary. “And I kept looking into those rooms that in my life had always been the heavily used ones and thought, ‘Well what do they do with those?’”

After getting a bachelor’s degree at the University of Oregon, Susanka earned her master’s in architecture at University of Minnesota, all the while working at different architecture firms. Her first book, The Not So Big House, was published in 1998 and laid out her philosophy: quality is better than quantity. Instead of striving for huge and expansive rooms that never get used, building something comfortable, warm, and personalized makes a lot more sense for you — and the environment.

In addition to her first book, Susanka has written eight bestsellers (with more than 1.2 million copies sold), all of which support the idea that to truly be “at home,” we have to create spaces and lives that reflect who we are, not the Joneses we’re trying to keep up with.

Sustainability Values    
“I always say that the first step in sustainability should be not so big. If you’re doing something that is right-sized for you as opposed to overly large, it’s going to be something that people will want to look after for the long haul,” Susanka said in an interview with Around the House with KPLU.  “It’s also more sustainable in terms of its energy use and its consumption of natural materials. And perhaps most important of all, from an architect’s standpoint, the structure needs also to be beautiful. When something is beautiful, it tends to be looked after for generations to come. Just look back at the bungalows of a hundred years ago, and you’ll see that they’ve kept their value and their character, because people look after them. That’s a big step in sustainability, even though we don’t normally think of it that way.”

Getting Creative
To see a prime example of Susanka’s design principles, look no further than the Not So Big Showhouse at SchoolStreet in Libertyville, Illinois, which demonstrates the ideas that better (not bigger) design in a well-thought-out neighborhood result in successful housing. Design elements such as light to walk toward, ceiling height variety, wall thickness, differentiation of parts, and making less feel like more all come together to create the kind of home that fits our lifestyles – without being mega-sized.

Learn more about Susanka at www.susanka.com.


Heroes of Sustainability: Vandana Shiva

For Vandana Shiva, it all started with tree-hugging — literally. It was the 1970s, and the Chipko movement, in which women in the Himalayas stood around trees to keep them protected, sparked her passion for ecological sustainability.

Now a well-known environmental activist and philosopher, the Delhi-based Shiva has authored more than 20 books and 500-plus papers in leading scientific and technical journals, becoming a leader in such areas as preserving forests, organizing women, and protecting local biodiversity. She’s fought against genetic engineering and biopiracy (patenting an idea for profit that’s been long used by indigenous cultures), helped grassroots campaigns across the globe, and started an international college for sustainable living.

In 1991, she helped found Navdanya, an organization that promotes biodiversity conservation in India. To date, the group has conserved more than 5,000 crop varieties, including 3,000 types of rice, 95 types of wheat, 150 types of kidney beans, 15 types of millet, and much more.

On Navdanya’s site, Shiva explains: “Over the past three decades I have tried to be the change I want to see. When I found that dominant science and technology served the interests of powerful, I left academics to found the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology, a participatory, public interest research organisation. When I found global corporations wanted to patent seeds, crops or life forms, I started Navdanya to protect biodiversity, defend farmers’ rights and promote organic farming.”

Born to Make a Difference
It’s not surprising that Shiva found her way to the forefront of sustainability issues, given her upbringing with a forest conservator father and farmer mother. She told Time magazine that growing up, she always wore clothes made of homespun cotton, but one day when she was 13, she came home from boarding school and asked for a fashionable nylon dress.

“If that is what you want, of course you shall have it,” she recalled her mother telling her. “But remember, your nylon frock will help a rich man buy a bigger car. And the cotton that you wear will buy a poor family at least one meal.” She didn’t get the dress.

She did, however, go on to get a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree at the University of Guelph, and a PhD at the University of Western Ontario, concentrating on physics, quantum theory, and the philosophy of science.

“My Very Essence”
For Shiva, issues of ecological sustainability and social justice are closely linked, and she’s devoted her life to tackling both.

“I’m a woman, born the daughter of a feminist and the granddaughter of a feminist grandfather. I don’t think I could have avoided working on women’s issues,” she said in an interview with Scott London. “I don’t do it as a career or profession; it’s my very essence as a human being. When I find too many puzzles about the way explanations are given about why there is inequality — why people who work the hardest in the world end up being the poorest — I can’t just sit back and not try to understand why the gaps between people are increasing, or why there are so many homeless and hungry people in the world. To me, all these issues — of justice, of ecology, of a scientific inquiry into nature through physics — come from the same source.”


Heroes of Sustainability: Karl-Henrik Robèrt

Most people can’t claim that an idea they had has earned a royal seal of approval, but then again, Karl-Henrik Robèrt isn’t like most people.

A pre-eminent Swedish cancer scientist, Robèrt saw that the debate on sustainability was divided, with no agreement on what the scientific foundations of sustainability are.

“My epiphany came one day when I was studying cells from cancer patients,” Robèrt told YES! magazine. “It hit me that cells are the unifying unit of all living things. The difference between our cells and the cells of plants are so minor that it’s almost embarrassing; the makeup is almost identical all the way down to the molecular level. … Since politicians and business people also are constituted of cells, I had a feeling that a broad understanding of these cells might help us reach a consensus on the basic requirements for the continuation of life.”

Developing a Framework
That led in 1989 to The Natural Step, a framework based on the laws of thermodynamics for the system conditions of sustainability. Robèrt enlisted the help of a number of other scientists and others to come to a consensus on the guidelines. The four conditions are:

1. nature is not subject to systematically increasing concentrations of substances extracted from the Earth’s crust;
2. nature is not subject to systematically increasing concentrations of substances produced as a byproduct of society;
3. nature is not subject to systematically increasing degradation by physical means;
4. people are not subject to conditions that systematically undermine their capacity to meet their needs.

The Natural Step was approved by the King of Sweden and subsequently sent to households and schools all over the country. It quickly spread outside the bounds of the Scandinavian country, with a number of businesses, towns, and individuals adopting the framework, from the ski resort of Whistler in British Columbia to Nike to Paul Hawken. It’s also been used in a number of different fields, including green building, managing river basins, forestry, energy systems, and more.

“Nobody Wins from Destroying Our Habitat”
Along the way, Robèrt has picked up numerous awards. He won the Green Cross Award for International Leadership in 1999; the Blue Planet Prize (known as the Nobel Prize for ecological sustainability) in 2000, and the Social Responsibility Laureate Medal by the Global Center for Leadership Business Ethics in 2005, to name just a few.

“My vision is that we develop a mainstream understanding that nobody wins from destroying our habitat, and that people will see that you do better in business if you work as though society will become sustainable and as though different cultures will survive, because cultural diversity is also essential,” Robèrt told YES! magazine.

Today, The Natural Step is a global network of non-governmental organizations that lead change toward environmental and social sustainability. Learn more about it here.