Thursday, December 3, 2009

Rethinking Sustainability

Sustainability is arguably the most critical concept of our time, yet it is also a notorious buzzword co-opted for a variety of purposes. In many respects, if your goal is to mobilize the world to address the dire eco-crisis of the 21st Century, the word falls well short of the mark. Are we really supposed to get enthusiastic about “sustaining?” Wouldn’t it be better to “thrive?” Perhaps the rallying cry should be “Thrivability!” Nevertheless, given that the S-word seems to be what we’re stuck with for the moment, I need to ask: What does sustainability mean to you? This is a question we all should be contemplating. And the answer should be based as much as possible on a clear-headed view of the world. With the latter in mind, I would like to address what I see as three major misconceptions about sustainability, fundamental assumptions that must be recognized if we are to forge a viable path into the future.

Misconception #1: Humans are separate from (nonhuman) nature.
Today, the most commonly used definition of sustainability comes from the 1987 Report of the (UN-convened) Brundtland Commission: “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” A central premise of this definition is that sustainability refers solely to human sustainability, in turn founded on the presumed separation of humans from the rest of nature. Although the latter idea has been a persistent illusion of Western societies for centuries, it has become increasingly difficult to maintain in a world of global warming, species losses, and ecosystem collapses. We are but one weedy species among millions, and the heart of sustainability, the “things” most in need of being sustained, are the stunningly complex ecological networks that support us and the great bounty of life forms with which we share this planet. To state what should obvious to all thinking individuals—sustainability in any meaningful sense will be founded on the balanced articulation of human and nonhuman nature. In this revised conception, an overly simplified alternative definition might be “living within Earth’s limits.”

Misconception #2: Sustainability is a destination.
Sustainability is commonly thought of as an ultimate goal or endpoint, a utopian state of equilibrium where humanity final reins in its excesses and strikes some sort of balance. Commonly cited characteristics of a sustainable future include greatly improved energy efficiency, a shift to clean energy (“green electrons”), a vast reduction of wastes and toxins, a focus on locally produced organic food, and conservation of diverse ecosystems. Yet ecosystems and human societies, arguably the two most complex systems known, are dynamic and open, operating far from any equilibrium state. Like all such systems, their behaviors do not follow simple linear cascades of cause and effect (A influences B, which influences C, and so on). Instead these systems are chaotic and nonlinear, ruled by mutual causality (A, B, and C all influence one another, along with many other components in the system). Small inputs frequently generate large and unpredictable consequences (the infamous “butterfly effect”), and ecosystems have the ability to change in response to shifting conditions. Rather than being a final goal or destination, then, sustainability is better regarded as an ongoing evolutionary process. Truly sustainable societies will mimic nature’s ecosystems in being resilient and adaptable, capable of absorbing perturbations and undergoing transformations once limits are exceeded.

Misconception #3: Sustainability is a global phenomenon.
Closely related to the fiction of sustainability as a destination is the notion of “global sustainability.” Yes, we now live in a deeply interconnected world in which a gazillion bits of information travel around the planet each second and the global economy is vulnerable to local collapses. I get that. Yet the idea that sustainability must be global is rooted in misconception #1, the presumed separation of humans from nature. Let’s consider, for a moment, the idea of sustainability from Mother Nature’s perspective. Natural environments vary dramatically in their capacity to provide food, shelter, medicines, and energy, to assimilate wastes, to process and store carbon and nutrients, to purify water and regulate runoff, to build and maintain soils, and to house biological diversity. Sustainability, then, must be attuned to local (rather than global) needs. Add to this the fact that human social systems are also highly diverse, dependent on such factors as religion, ethnicity, and governmental structure, and the need for localization becomes even more evident. Notwithstanding present trends toward globalization, sustainability must be locally and regionally based, adapted to place-specific limits, and achievable at larger scales (for example, states, nations, and the biosphere) only on a cumulative basis. Of course, innovations in both technology and education will provide critical tools applicable in a wide range of settings. Yet there will be thousands upon thousands of sustainable solutions rather than one; indeed, in a very real sense the process will be unique to every place.

Imagine if the vast bulk of us understood—not just intellectually, but on a deeper gut level—that humanity is not separate from nature, but rather intricately interwoven into the fabric of the biosphere. Imagine if we thought less about reaching some utopian endpoint and worked instead to create adaptable societies capable of responding to inevitable perturbations. And imagine if the elements of those societies—for example, housing, transportation, industry, and energy supplies—were designed so as to be embedded into native landscapes, mimicking the workings of natural systems. Such a revamped perspective would make us think entirely different about our daily decisions, since we would know that those decisions have ramifying effects that either nurture or harm the places we live.

If you’re searching for inspiring examples of true sustainability, look no further than the nearest forest, grassland, desert, or reef. Life has persisted on the planet without interruption for over 3.5 billion years. And every ecosystem throughout most of that unfathomable duration has collected and dispersed solar energy and recycled wastes, all the while maintaining trillions of diverse lifeforms. While resilient to change, those untold ecosystems have also had the capacity to transform in the face of changing conditions. In the sustainability venture, then, Nature must be our guide. I could never make this claim as eloquently as the poet Rainer Marie Rilke, so I leave the final word to him:

“If we surrendered to earth’s intelligence, we could rise up rooted, like trees.”


  1. Sustainability DOES require a balance between our species and others as we do our best to thrive and interact with our home. Our neighbors need to be looked after as equals.

    That is what Sustainability means to me. :) And, before I go, I would like to thank you again for another thought provoking post.

    Take Care, Dr. Sampson!

  2. Sustainability not global? Are not the tropical forests that provide wood for the stuff we buy at Wall Mart and oil from Saudi Arabia that we buy in Europe & the US not within a global economic network? Is not the climate determined on scales far broader than local? Local burning of fossil fuels and production of greenhouse gases have global effects. We are getting some rain, finally, in California as a result of heating of the Pacific that extends to Darwin, Australia. The temperature of the atmosphere is global, affects regional and local climate and weather, and it is affected by local human activities. Your essay is very good, and would be correct if you were to say that global sustainability is part and parcel of local activities. Regards, Don

  3. Don,
    Of course, you are absolutely correct. In such an interconnected world, local actions have regional and global impacts, and thus acting sustainably on an international level is an absolutely essential part of the equation. My point is that this is where most people stop, at the level of the globe, whereas there can be no sustainability without the local component rooted in local needs. Thanks for the feedback!

  4. Scott: Thanks, good response. I teach ecology and intro bio, and emphasize to kids who are very concerned about the environment, that the big stuff (deforestation, AGW, the human food chain, overfishing, dewatering, etc) is taking place over large areas; global change is global. Their input is local, as in what they do with their personal waste, and it is global, as in what propagates from their personal behavior to very large scales.

  5. Scott: I'm hearing Nature-as-an-entity in so many environmental issues. Nature is not a thinking entity and does not deliberately respond to what we do (or don't do). We should be addressing our mistakes with good science, as opposed to politically or passionately driven solutions. I agree with what you say, and the need is urgent, I'd just like to see us stop pretending (especially in educational arenas) that Mother Nature even has a perspective. Until we can agree on our science, we need to be careful of solutions like poisoning a whole lake or stretch of river to kill all the Asian carp because they might destroy the local Great Lakes species. The USGS rep on the news this morning made environmental protectionists look like morons - admitting after the fact that they really had no idea how many were there (they found only 1) and what they really would do to the Lakes. I usually have the greatest respect for the USGS, but this made me want to weep. Is this what they are going to tell us if serious human-induced global warming doesn't happen because of something else? I'm not saying it wasn't necessary, I'm saying it appears that they were not certain of what they were doing. This was a passionate response, not knowledge driven. It destroys credibility. There are too many ifs for scientists on either side of these issues to be so arrogant.

  6. Hi Jan,
    Thank you for the passionate (yet science-based) comment. Rest assured, I use the term "Mother Nature" only as a figure of speech and do not imply sentience. I also agree that we should use the very best science to address environmental problems and not let our emotions get the better of us. Science, however, is not enough. Indeed science is one of the reasons we have the problems that we do, since pure objectification turns nature into "other" and is rarely able to speak to what is right and wrong (e.g., whether we should do something just because we can). So I would maintain that we need both passion and science in equal measure if we are to address our current plight. And, although ecosystems may not be sentient, they do have needs; we need to recognize those needs (with the best science) and then act on them (applying passion where necessary). For what it's worth, I think we need to be extra cautious about adding some new (unnatural) element into ecosystems to correct our mistakes. We know so little about how ecosystems work that such juryrigging often has disasterous results, as may have been the case with the example you cite.
    Best wishes, Scott

  7. Thank you, Scott. If we replace the word passion with the word consideration (or even wisdom) I agree with you. I still think our educational (and news reporting) word choices are an issue. Let me try this: I would rather we teach that WE have the need for ecosystems to be sound rather than say that the ecosystems have needs. It depersonalizes 'Mother Nature" and might eliminate the us vs. them fight. Us against animals, us against rivers, plants, etc. I'm pretty sure I'm much older than you; I remember the ugly labels used back in the '60s & 70's. I believe the words that teachers, news reporters & scientists use to explain the issues can make a big difference in the public's perception of the problem. It's just a personal hot button. I applaud your approach and look forward to more posts!

  8. One of the things I personally abhor is the "save the planet" political crap. I'm not implying sentience, but I am saying that without scientific wonderstanding, we can't be innovative to sustain and thrive.

  9. The universe has always existed, it has no beginning or no end, it is pure energy as everything we see irradiates to the space vacuum, making the vacuum not empty as they tell us but full of energy, energy that continues the process of creation.
    xl pharmacy