Sustainability

When I was growing up, and when I was a productive member of the work force, my goal was to save and to share with the future (to sustain) the “American dream.” Of course, that wasn’t my only goal, but it was foundational, and it defined the boundaries of my personal dream. The whole point of “my” dream was that we all can have different dreams so long as my dream does not cause harm to you or your good dream. Of course, that’s an ideal — an impossible island within which to function. Therefore, the other half of my dream is a continual process of negotiating the boundaries of our individual dreams so that our community is a positively functioning whole.

It was only after retirement that I realized some of the people I worked with — and with whom I shared a mutual commitment to the “American Dream” — it wasn’t the same dream at all. We had never explained ourselves to each other, never negotiated our ideas, and so we all were seriously trying hard to sustain different and incompatible dreams. This was a shock to us all, and we very soon were arguing/debating/fighting rather than sustaining. It became clear that we can not build an American Dream if we don’t know what it is and discuss it among ourselves before we start to fight over misunderstandings that we don’t know exist. We cannot understand each other unless we define our words.

Sustainability a word that we must understand if we are to build a future for ourselves, first because Americans have multiple different ideas of what should be sustained, and more importantly because the word was deliberately co-opted by the economic community, following the green revolution, to mean the exact opposite of what it means. The idea of sustainable growth (which is impossible within the living earth ecosystem) has overcome the actual meaning of sustainability. The implications of this reality are, to me, genocidal. I see this campaign to change the meaning of the word sustainability as a deliberate attack on the life and health of the whole earth ecosystem for the profit of a few. Worse, the attack seems to have succeeded, and the result, literally, is a Ponzi type of growth scheme that is manipulating the resources of the entire world. Unfortunately, however, it is not sustainable. The fact of sustainable growth is physically impossible, even though the concept of sustainable growth has become embedded in our culture as a synonym for sustainability.

So the word sustainability is a problem because it seems that most or many Americans believe that it means sustainable growth, and the earth ecosystem can not grow. The size of the earth ecosystem is fixed. The ecosystem has become more efficient in its use of organic energy (it did this primarily by increasing diversity), but we can not change the size of the ecosystem, because the ecosystem functions according to natural laws such as gravity and the second law of thermodynamics that we can not change. If we continue to try to grow the ecosystem, the result will be the same as it sooner or later is with all Ponzi schemes, because sustainable growth is impossible in a living system. Growth in the ecosystem is limited by the ability of plants to convert light energy to organic energy, and we are destroying our plants in our efforts to grow.

If the word “sustainable” has communication problems, another approach might be to use some different words to explain the physical realities of the ecosystem and the things she needs to survive. Rob Hopkins likes to describe ecosystems in terms of “resilience,” and describes resilience as a reflection of the relationship between diversity and survivability, and this is very important (download pdf from Google, title Resilience Thinking). Diversity is one of the basic realities of life systems; higher levels of diversity generate higher probabilities of survival because the living system is a network. As is true of the computer network, diverse possible pathways make for fewer crashes (well described in “Linked: the new science of networks” by Albert-Laszlo Barabasi).

In the human body we might think of cancer as a threat because of the decrease of diversity when one type of cell overtakes the myriad other cell types that individuals require for their survival. A good general discussion of how this has played out in human populations is found in the historical events described in Jared Diamond’s book “Collapse.”

It is also true of ecosystems. The high survival value of diversity in living systems is easy to demonstrate. Still, diversity/resilience is not the only essential element of ecosystem survival, is not identical in its meaning to “sustainable,” and none of these terms refers to growth of either the economy or the biomass on the earth.

The most widely quoted definition of sustainability is the “Brundtland definition” of the 1987 Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development: “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” According to your computer dictionary, sustainability is: “Able to be maintained.” Or, in relation to smaller ecosystems: “exploiting natural resources without destroying the ecological balance of a particular area.”

We have already stressed the requirements of the ecosystem:

1 – A forever balance between the amount of available organic energy that flows into the system and the amount of organic energy that is used up within the system (remembering that we are within the system);

2 – A continual flow of information through the system (this is mostly genetics, genes in all organisms carry the code of life and are passed to future generations). In brief, the effective flow of information increases the survivability/diversity of living systems. For example: (a) we know that some people are genetically more susceptible to certain diseases; when the flu comes around, some people are hit harder than other people. If everyone were the same, then everyone would be equally as likely to die of flu. This is a biological survival value for the human species. (b) Similarly, each small or large ecosystem is composed of many different species. The many species permit the ecosystem to use more of the available organic energy to do more kinds of work before all the energy is converted to work or heat and lost. (c) Again, the whole earth ecosystem is composed of a diversity of smaller ecosystems. Clearly, resilience, as defined by Prof. Hopkins, is importantly based in diversity, and is essential to maintain life on earth.

3 – The third major factor that must stay in balance if the living earth is to survive is the cycling of materials such as water and oxygen and carbon dioxide through the whole ecosystem. That we will discuss information flow and materials cycling in separate chapters.

The bottom line is that all these definitions are accurate, and for once the computer definition is excellent and the simplest definition of “sustainability” is: “Able to be maintained.”

We have said that LIFE is not the same reality as A LIVING THING, and that is essentially because a living thing is not sustainable. That is why we all have hopes and dreams of a sustainable ecology/economy for our grandchildren, and that is why our various versions of the “American Dream” always involve pictures in our heads of the children and the grandchildren working the land as we do or boating on Lake Bryan as we do, or celebrating Hannukah as we do or enjoying whatever world view that we enjoy.

But dreams and pictures and words of today are not a reality for tomorrow. It is not the function of the living earth to fulfill our dreams, but to maintain her own life. If we really want our grandchildren to be a living, laughing presence upon this living earth we MUST understand what the ecosystem needs to stay alive and then we must give it to her, because otherwise our own rampant growth upon the earth, just like a cancer in our own bodies, will reduce the resilience and upset the balance to such an extent that the productivity of the earth ecosystem will be reduced and unable to provide enough organic energy to nurture our grandchildren.

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