On the one hand, sustainability is a relatively new topic, and collectively we are just beginning to learn about it; there's not much we agree on yet.

On the other hand, "sustainability" is a popular PR buzzword, so marketers have confused the discussion with whatever will sell their products.

When someone asks a question, their assumptions are likely to be wildly different from the assumptions of other users on the site. For example, when someone asks "What's an effective design for sending sink water to a toilet tank?", I want to answer "don't - use Humanure". But I recognize that many people aren't ready to make that change in their lives.

Other sites that deal with sustainability are typically in a discussion forum format, instead of Stack Exchange's question-and-answer format. I really like SE, but it's not well suited to a community with such varying premises.

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    Another way of stating this problem is "sustainability discussions attract fringe wackos". That's really important, since mainstream, rational thinking is exactly what got us in to this problem.
    – Jay Bazuzi
    Commented Jan 31, 2013 at 4:49
  • Hey, just think - we almost called the site "green.stackexchange.com". Talk about loaded terms...
    – Shog9
    Commented Jan 31, 2013 at 17:12
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    I don't quite agree with rational thinking got us into this problem...
    – gerrit
    Commented Feb 11, 2013 at 16:17
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    @gerrit: It's an interesting, complex discussion, probably beyond the scope of these comments. One piece of it that fits is I change to "conventional thinking, within the realm of what we already see as practical".
    – Jay Bazuzi
    Commented Feb 11, 2013 at 16:59

6 Answers 6


You're right; I've seen a few questions that misrepresent the precepts of "Sustainable Living" from on the outset. But you guys are the experts. When folks come here asking questions with improper assumptions, your mission becomes two-fold:

(1) Educate about the larger domain of "Sustainability" — It's okay to start your answer with "That method would not be sustainable because…" — and go on to explain the inherent problems behind their assumptions, the materials used, the misinformation they received, etc, etc. Even if your beliefs vary somewhat, that's were multiple answers (paired with wiki-style collaboration and peer review) let the "best" answers rise to the top.

But, you're right; you can't expect every user who comes here to instantly ascribe to every method and life change behind these concepts. So…

(2) Answer their question — Part of this site is to help people understand where they can improve their personal sustainability. The sustainability movement offers a lot of incremental solutions and improvements over the current situation. It's okay to explore and offer alternatives if it meets their same end goals. That's where it's important to suss out what the question author is actually trying to achieve. But if the author is adamant to find the best use of plastic, you can help them pick from the lesser of two evils. Just be clear that the solution is not ideal. Then again, if the question goes clearly against the very belief system of sustainability, it may be off topic for this site.


I think that clearly stating the assumptions, concepts or definitions that make the basis for your question will make it easy(er) to understand what kind of answer you are looking for.

For example (just a simplistic illustration of my point), in What considerations come into play when trying to create a sustainable aquarium? you know the author doesn't expect something like "Don't build an auquarium!" as an ansewer, even though I know lots of people (concerned about sustainable living) who would say that.

I guess what I am trying to say is that if we are clear in our questions, we will attract the "expected" kind of answer, the one alligned with our views on what is sustainable, and this will group the varying premises together. This should keep the noise down and the site running.

Of course, no one should take it personally when a different set of ideals (or a person) comes by and leaves an answer. Depending on how its done, it could be anoying but could also provide a reason for the author of the question to question his own ideas. As you said "mainstream, rational thinking is exactly what got us in to this problem."


First, I think this is more or less exactly right (see the previous discussions about sustainable gardening and permaculture).

We might want to discuss in the faq some guidelines for posting effective questions. Something like:

If discussing a project, please be clear about your goals. Instead of asking, "What can I plant around asparagus to better grow it in a permacultural setting" ask "How can I grow asparagus in ways which waste less water?" Please do not assume that everyone will read this question and initially be on the same page about it.

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    This is probably the most important point. We've already agreed there is a very thin line between sustainability and other areas. That's why the sustainability point of view should be required if it's not absolutely clear from the question.
    – Peter Ivan
    Commented Feb 7, 2013 at 20:54

I am generally in agreement with the other answers. This problem is a big one for the parenting stack exchange, and the solution there is to answer the question that is asked; if you disagree with the assumptions made in the question, do not answer. This tries to avoid questions about bottle feeding, disposable diapers, etc. resulting in answers that do not help the poster with the original question. Of course if a question concerns which choices to make, then you are free to provide an opinion.


I would hope the voting process of stackexchange would bring the community together to reach consensus on 'best answers'. Ie we can begin to get agreement on the assumptions - or at least state them in a way that we recognize when there are different questions because of the different assumptions.

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    I believe in SO's ability to bubble up the best answers but this is a problem with the questions.
    – Jay Bazuzi
    Commented Jan 31, 2013 at 6:42
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    Questions also get voted on, and comments provide input on how to improve the question. My point was teasing out the assumptions by collectively working on the question helps participants realize the different assumption sets and phrase the questions accordlingly
    – Duncan
    Commented Jan 31, 2013 at 19:54

I think you've identified the main problem with our slow growth and I agree with the statement that questions are based on different premises.

Our challenge, as an existing community, is to make a coherent Q&A page out of it.

I think I'd be misrepresenting this question if I said it was about "making non-organically grown food organically grown, post-harvest". In my answer, I obviously wasn't aware of any different premise.

But this precisely is the challenge that we face on this site and the challenge that everyone who cares about sustainability faces. Sustainable choices aren't the status quo. I still think our effort in answering questions, which are based on a different premise, is not a lost cause. A small step towards sustainability is still a step towards sustainability.

I think it takes experts like yourself to answer such questions satisfactorily at the same time as presenting a more sustainable paradigm. The questions are asked here out of an interest in sustainability. If we provide answers of the type "here's what you can do, but if you really want sustainable, you should do this", this might educate us all on better ways to think about sustainable living.

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