“‘Sustainability’ is, as far as I can see, a project designed to keep this culture — this lifestyle — afloat…”
– Paul Kingsnorth, Dark Mountain Project co-founder
What springs to mind when you hear the word ‘sustainability’? Is it images of wind farms, earthships or permaculture gardens? Is it recycling, energy-saving lightbulbs or greenbags? Is it organic versus GMO? Is it to fly or not to fly? What is the question?
Much of the sustainability movement is wrapped up in either so-called clean energy lobbying or piecemeal ethical consumption initiatives, causing them to compartmentalize the broader issue and lose sight of the wood for the trees. That’s not to say that people’s lifestyle changes aren’t helpful or worthy of merit in their own right. But these behaviours won’t normalize until – perhaps unless – something more fundamental changes.
What is sustainability?
“The word sustainable has become widely used to refer merely to practices reputed to be more environmentally sound than others.”
– Richard Heinberg
While this may be the case there is somewhat of a consensus around what sustainability means. In the 1980’s Swedish oncologist Dr. Karl-Henrik Robert gathered a team of leading scientists to develop a consensus on the requirements for a sustainable society. Their efforts culminated in the founding of an organization, the Natural Step, and four system conditions for sustainability:
In a sustainable society nature is not subject to systematically increasing:
- concentrations of substances extracted from the Earth’s crust;
- concentrations of substances produced by society;
- degradation by physical means; and, in that society,
- people are not subject to conditions that systematically undermine their capacity to meet their needs.
In examining how our civilization is treating the Earth and our fellow Earthlings it is clear we are fundamentally unsustainable. We have extracted natural resources at far above the rate of renewal whilst pumping out wastes at far above the rate of absorption. We have degraded our water, air and soil, thus reducing the carrying capacity of our landbases. And we have subjected huge proportions of our populations to conditions that systematically undermine their capacity to meet their needs, effectively enslaving people in a vicious cycle from which there are few chances of escape, much less opportunities to engage as responsible global citizens.
The Post Carbon Institute have gone a step further in outlining five axioms of sustainability that together form the bedrock of any sustainable system, if applied.
The first axiom: Any society that continues to use critical resources unsustainably will collapse.
An exception to this axiom would occur in the case of a society avoiding collapse by finding replacement resources. However, there are limits to the exception. In a finite world, the number of possible replacements is also finite. In this case it is not a matter of whether, but when, a society will collapse.
Archaeologist Joseph Tainter demonstrated in his classic study The Collapse of Complex Societies that collapse is a frequent, if not universal fate of complex societies. Collapse results from declining returns on efforts to support increasing levels of complexity using energy harvested form the environment. In our example, the fossil energy that has enabled our current level of complexity is close to depleted, and we are experiencing diminishing returns on our financial and energy investments. We will not be able to sustain society’s current level of complexity for much longer.
The second axiom: Population growth and/or growth in the rates of consumption of resources cannot be sustained.
A mere 1% rate of population growth would result in a doubling of the Earth’s population in the space of 70 years. With this rate of increase, the Earth would need to sustain 13 billion humans by 2075, 26 billion by 2145, and so on. Our current rate of global population growth is higher than this, suggesting that we are heading for a crunch.
The third axiom: To be sustainable, the use of renewable resources must proceed at a rate that is less than or equal to the rate of natural replenishment.
Renewable resources include forests, fish stocks, and topsoil, to name a few examples. While all of these resources are fully renewable, they replenish at a certain rate that cannot support the level of usage our society demands. Hence we are overexploiting renewable resources at far beyond the rate of renewal, thus rendering these resources effectively non-renewable.
The fourth axiom: To be sustainable, the use of non-renewable resources must proceed at a rate that is declining, and the rate of decline must be greater than or equal to the rate of depletion, which is calculated as the amount extracted during a particular time period as a percentage of the remainder.
Sadly we are doing precisely the opposite of this, with our growing populations and increasing affluence placing demands on the system. Purchasing power, not availability, determines “production” for the time being, and we have become unused to being constrained by scarcity. It will not be too long until we experience what unavailability looks like.
The fifth axiom: Sustainability requires that substances introduced into the environment from human activities be minimized and rendered harmless to biosphere functions. In cases where pollution from the extraction and consumption of non-renewable resources has proceeded at expanding rates for some time and threatens the viability of ecosystems, reduction in the rates of extraction and consumption of those resources may need to occur at a rate greater than the rate of depletion.
Humanity’s ecological footprint is, at present, 40% larger than the earth can sustain through regeneration. This is, by definition, unsustainable, and if we do not address the issue ourselves then Mother Nature will take matters into her own hands, restoring to balance that which we have unbalanced. “Earth Overshoot Day” falls earlier and earlier each year, demonstrating quite plainly that we are doing precisely the opposite of what we need to be doing. This year’s Earth Overshoot Day fell on August 20th, while 10 years ago it was on September 22nd, and 20 years ago it was on October 21st.
The truth about sustainability
It seems that much of what we refer to as “sustainable” is far from it. So-called ethical consumption partakes of the globalized industrial economy in most cases, perhaps slowing the rate of resource depletion and destruction slightly, but by no means getting off the carousel. Money is the motivator of any business, and to limit production to only what is necessary is anathema to profit. With resources finite as they are, we are all going to have to consider quantity as well as quality: we are going to have to want less stuff, locally produced stuff, not just greener stuff.
Proponents of Big Green Tech claim that sustainability can be achieved by installing large-scale hi-tech “renewable” energy production infrastructure. While it is true that so-called renewable energy sources emit significantly less greenhouse gases and other pollutants than fossil fuels, they are hardly a panacea, and are far from being ecologically neutral, if we are to accept axiom five. They are also far from renewable, if we are to accept axioms three and four.
All energy sources require infrastructure, all requiring the use of finite resources. Concrete and steel rebar are essential components of wind farms and hydro dams, and these, aside from being finite, have a hefty impact on the environment in terms of their production. Rare earth metals used in wind turbines, such as neodymium and dysprosium, and in solar panels, such as yttrium, are complicated to extract from the Earth as they are found dispersed in small deposits, and their extraction is anything but environmentally friendly, pumping toxic wastes into the environment in a manner no better than fracking or conventional mining. Make no mistake: a carbon-free world is not a toxin-free world, and we are poisoning the world – our air, water and soils – with or without fossil energy.
The water footprint of “renewable” energy is also something we should be concerned about. Solar farms require water, usually groundwater, for washing mirrors, replenishing feedwater, and cooling auxiliary equipment. Geothermal power plants are failing to allow for the replenishment of groundwater supplies at the rate of depletion, with some projects peaked and running out of steam. Hydropower dams have the nasty propensity to hoard sediment, thus killing river life – a knock-on effect being loss of riverine biodiversity. The production of biomass requires extensive irrigation in many parts of the world, and this is already leading to depleted water sources and insufficient water (and land) for food-based agriculture.
Another issue with “renewable” energy, particularly the large-scale centralized big-green tech sort, is land use. Land is cleared to make space for solar farms, often in delicate desert ecosystems where water is scarce to begin with. Electricity transmission requires infrastructure, and power lines and roads disrupt wildlife corridors, fragmenting and thus weakening ecosystems. Do not make the mistake of disregarding the grid overhauls necessary to restructure a nation’s power supply, this is no small infrastructure project and engineering companies will profit greatly. Perhaps most insidious of all is the clear-cutting of forests and grasslands for the purpose of producing biofuel. Deforestation and removal of carbon sinks for the sake of growing materials to burn doesn’t sound all that green to me. Not to mention the usurpation of food sources, which will undoubtedly hit the third world hardest as the world’s wealthy minority continue to make demands on the world’s ever-scarcer resources while the poor starve.
According to science writer Dawn Stover, meeting the world’s increasing energy demands with renewable energy alone may prove impossible. To meet our projected demands in 2030 it is estimated that we would need 3.8 million wind turbines (each with twice the capacity of today’s largest machines), 720,000 wave devices, 5,350 geothermal plants, 900 hydroelectric plants, 490,000 tidal turbines, 1.7 billion rooftop photovoltaic systems, 40,000 solar photovoltaic plants, and 49,000 concentrated solar thermal systems. We cannot be so sure of a global renewable energy future with this demand on our rare earth metal deposits, groundwater, and limited available land.
Interestingly mainstream sustainability advocates do not mention approaches such as downshifting, eating fewer (or no) animal products, re-wilding domesticated tracts of nature, and localizing our resource production and consumption. Consuming less and more modestly, and eating in accordance with the constraints of our local landbases isn’t as appealing as being able to continue with business as usual pending the wave of a magic wand that establishes boundless renewable energy. It is also not an approach much advocated by proponents of our growth economy, which few of us even think to question.
Sustaining a way of life
With the emphasis on ethical consumption and Big Green Tech one could be forgiven for thinking we want to have our cake and eat it too. We don’t want to destroy our environment, you see, but we would really love to be able to keep all of the shiny toys and gadgets that we’ve become so attached to.
Our efforts toward sustainability have been largely focused on sustaining our way of life, rather than sustaining nature in a way that makes any life at all possible. Apparently the term sustainability, as used by many advocates, does not mean defending the nonhuman world from the expanding empire of homo sapiens; it means sustaining one particular human civilization in the manner to which we have become accustomed.
So often we put our faith in techno-fixes. We trust that salvation will appear in the form of a distant and magical technological advance that will unpick the damage we have done and set us straight on course to sustainability – without us ever having to alter our own lifestyles. We conflate needs with wants, rationalizing our desires for the latest iCrap with a confused expression of “need” in lieu of “desire”, and perpetuating a paradigm of escalating consumption and depletion. It is as though we simply do not understand that one day things will run out, and we will be forced to embrace simplicity. It seems we will not go voluntarily, and the few that do are not viewed as the positive role-models that they are, instead portrayed as fringe radicals who want to return us all to the Stone Age. So we turn away from the bigger picture, and look only at what can be tweaked with little or no adaptation required.
Our reductionist mentality leads us to compartmentalize our problems and reach obvious conclusions that do not necessarily solve them. For example, if we understand that carbon emissions are a problem, then going “zero carbon” is clearly the solution. So long as we can build enough of the right kind of technologies to generate the power we “need” without producing CO2 then we’ll be fine – we’ll never need to downshift our consumption or alter the foundations of our economic system. In precisely this way many so-called sustainability advocates have reduced the entire notion of sustainability down to a single component, usually carbon, and treat the matter as an engineering challenge alone. We fail to think integratively about the whole issue, addressing components in a linear manner, completely blinded to the holistic picture we need to see.
Sustaining the Earth
If we are to sustain our planet, and any chance we have of any way of life at all, we are going to have to come to terms with the fact that Mother Nature doesn’t negotiate, and that her rules are already mapped out. We are not at liberty to break them. As it is, our species has, in the words of Stephanie Mills, “deforested, plowed, bulldozed, dredged, drained, dammed, polluted, or paved one-half to one-third of the land surface of Earth.” According to the United Nations’ Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, “The structure and function of the world’s ecosystems changed more rapidly in the second half of the twentieth century than at any time in human history,” which has resulted in a “substantial and largely irreversible loss in the diversity of life on Earth.” Clearly this is a trajectory that cannot continue. But what are we doing to stop it? Changing our lightbulbs, recycling more, and eschewing plastic bags? Waiting for a Big Green Tech revolution?
We need a more fundamental change. We need to downshift, we need to live localized lives, we need to live fully in accordance with the limitations of our landbases, we need to take the five axioms of sustainability as seriously as the laws of thermodynamics, for they are unshakeable dictates that we have no power to alter.
It is unlikely that we will be able to combat issues such as climate change as long as we are able to unlock carbon and pump it into the atmosphere. The reality is that people want to continue using the fruits of carbon’s labour more than they want to save the world, and renewables technology isn’t capable of delivering the same. We are far too removed from the effects of our actions and desires, living in a technological bubble that separates us from nature and obscures our view of its destruction. Until – or unless – we are threatened directly (and that does not include threats to those in the third world, for they are not the global decision-makers), we are unlikely to take action to reverse our trajectory.
We need to grow up. We need to learn that we cannot have our cake and eat it. We need to move away from an anthropocentric worldview that places humans at the centre, with the world our playground to do with as we wish. We are not the chosen ones, there is no promised land, and we do not have dominion over nature.
Ultimately, sustaining this system that we have grown to depend on is not worth it. The only thing that is worth sustaining is that which sustains life itself, not just a way of life.