There is a lot of talk going around about “sustainability”, primarily in the context of human societies.
Many people think sustainability is a good thing. Many people think we need to make changes, and become more sustainable soon, or we will be in big trouble. Some people think we are doing just fine right now, thank you. Others fear we are too late, and humankind is doomed because we are not, and cannot be sustainable as a species, or at least not in time to save ourselves. Still others don’t think about it at all.
Well, for those of us who think we should be paying attention to sustainability, here are a few thoughts.
One basic concept: there are limits. Within the envelope of the earth’s atmosphere there are a finite number of atoms. Over geologic periods of time this number does not change much. Everything is made up of atoms, so when there is more of one thing (human beings, for instance) there is less of something else (clean water, for example)
Another basic concept: The natural world is an incredibly complex dynamic balance in constant change. It tends to become both more complex and more disbursed over time, with periodic upheavals. Most of these upheavals are on a timeline much longer than is of usual concern to human beings. (We don’t pay much attention.)
Yet another basic concept: Human beings are only a small portion of the natural world, and non-essential to it. The world was here before we were, and will do fine if we go away. To continue as a species we must develop ways to prosper within the dynamic balance of natural systems.
And perhaps the basic concept with the most impact, in the context of our sustainability: As individuals, and as a species, if we consume more that we produce, we are being subsidized – by resources or other people. This is impossible to maintain over time, i.e. it is unsustainable.
We have very little time in which to transform our societies. We all live unsustainably – for the last 100 years or so, and particularly in the last 50 years, human society generally, and western society specifically, has been subsidized by abundant, easily obtained, compact and portable, dense energy (oil). We are coming to an end of that resource. Nothing else comes close to petroleum as an energy source. No alternative energy source, or combination of known energy sources, will be able to replace petroleum. The petroleum subsidy will be a thing of the past in the next few years, a decade or two at most.
We may return to slavery as our primary subsidy – the usurpation by the few of the fruits of the labor of the many. It worked for most of our societies for many centuries. Or we could simply consume less. Either will work.
Certainly population will fall dramatically, as will consumption. With a small enough population, and knowledge gained in the last ten centuries, we would not have to revert to savagery, nor even the grinding poverty of Dickens’ time, but we will live much more simply that we do now, and the productive arts will need to flourish. Small scale agriculture, fiber arts, carpentry and ironsmithing, carriage building, herbal medicine, and myriad other forgotten arts will need to be recovered from the few of us who still retain the knowledge and skill, and these reconstituted arts will need to take advantage of the advances in knowledge that will allow us to thrive.
It can be done, but we need to acknowledge that we must make changes, and we must start now.
Personally, as I said in an earlier blog, I think we can, but I don’t think we will.
What do you think?