A Fair Question

Is sustainability sustainable? The recent Expo in Japan makes you wonder.

"Sustainability" is a more thoughtful theme for a world's fair than, say, "Global Chomping Excess," but you have to wonder if the term means much any more. It's certainly difficult to define. The general idea is that "sustainable" development is progress without the negative impacts of consumption, a way to orient consumer society so that it doesn't devour its own tail, much less its head. But as the term gathers currency in the corporate and political worlds, it seems to suggest eco-gloss that can be used to cover business as usual, a buzzword. Sustainability is the promise of painless growth and a belief that we can innovate ourselves out of any difficulty.

Welcome to a world without negative consequences.

World's fairs have long held out the promise for a better tomorrow, and, increasingly, these expositions are trending in two directions. One is overseas, especially into Asia. The hot venues now are on the Pacific Rim: Expo 2005 just wrapped up in Aichi Prefecture in Japan; the next major expo (after a small one in Zaragoza, Spain, in 2008) will be in Shanghai, China, in 2010; and Yeosu, Korea, is a determined bidder for 2012. The second trend is the fad of focusing on the environment. In Aichi, the theme was "Nature's Wisdom," a broad-brush recognition that humans, humbly, might have something to learn from the world around us. In Zaragoza, the focus will be on "sustainability and water." And in Shanghai, the theme is "Better City, Better Life." All look toward building the future by working within limits—at least some limits.

The Aichi expo came to exemplify the idea before it was built. The original site for the exposition, in Seto, Japan, was a forest with rare breeding goshawks. Displacing the birds for an eco-themed fair would undercut its credibility, so the site was moved and a nest-cam installed so visitors could monitor the raptors.

For all its good intentions, though, there were plenty of mixed messages at this fair. I just returned from the fair and nearby Nagoya, where I was a guest of the Bureau of International Expositions (BIE), the governing body of world's fairs. There was a series of symposiums on the impact of expos on host cities (like Seattle), sustainability, and upcoming fairs. Plus, the trip offered a chance to see the Aichi expo in its final days.

Seeing the fair proved difficult. It was a victim of its own success: The predicted attendance was 15 million visitors over six months, but more than 22 million came. The result was long lines and crowds. Popular pavilions had three-hour waits. Add hot, muggy weather and up to 300,000 visitors on a single day, and the fair embodied the kind of dense, overpopulated future some of us dread.

Nevertheless, the fair worked hard to showcase new eco-friendly technologies, such as hydrogen cell vehicles and mag-lev trains. The site also incorporated natural areas: How many other expos have had nature trails and the sound of crickets? Various national pavilions offered films, live performances, and multimedia shows, most of which adhered to the "Nature's Wisdom" theme. But the interpretations signaled situational values rather than a universal philosophy of development. While Japan's main pavilion was a genuine attempt to build a recyclable structure of bamboo and sustainable forest products, the Saudi Arabian pavilion offered a message, the gist of which was: "Wasn't nature wise to put all that oil under our desert?"

The United States pavilion was easily spotted in its cul de sac by an ExxonMobil electronic ad running on an outdoor screen. Inside, a multiscreen film celebrating Benjamin Franklin was the main attraction and proved popular with fairgoers, in part because the actor portraying old Ben turned him into the kind of goofy cartoon character that is a staple of Japanese pop culture. Ben even threw in a few hip-hop moves as he took us on a quick tour of the technological glories of our age. This face on the $100 bill embodied the Bush message of free markets and free enterprise.

The pavilion's VIP lounge was a major, behind-the-scenes feature, a kind of Queer Eye take on frontier high living where corporate execs could schmooze with clients while munching red, white, and blue M&Ms. The lounge reflected the pavilion's origins: U.S. law prohibits the use of federal funds for such things, so the money came from corporations, many with ties to Toyota, whose corporate headquarters is in Aichi. That the pavilion existed at all is a minor miracle given the recent U.S. disinterest in expositions. The price of our participation was that this pavilion was expected to reward corporate sponsors, so the VIP lounge became a kind of crash pad for deal makers.

Which might seem a tad selfish until you realize that the near-universal ideology reflected at the expo was that corporate-driven innovation is humanity's savior.

The next world's fair of great interest will be in Shanghai five years hence. With China's population at 1.3 billion, and Shanghai's at 17 million, the world will have a chance to compare Western capitalism side by side with Chinese communist capitalism. The question of defining and coping with limits will take center stage again. Shanghai will be a proving ground for the sustainability concept—and whether, in the face of global growth, the idea itself is sustainable.


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