I’ve been meaning to do a rant about sustainability for some time and it’s just been triggered by the newly-arrived DVD I bought called Urban Permaculture, which features permaculture guru Geoff Lawton.
Now, don’t get me wrong; it’s a very good permaculture educational tool. There are lots of good ideas there for anyone interested in putting in a backyard permaculture system.
But Geoff keeps using that word, over and over and really, he should know better.
Sustainable means for a long time. A very long time. Millennia. Hundreds of millennia, even.
It’s not possible for anyone living in the here and now to claim that they’re living sustainably, because there’s no way future events can be forseen. Events that might cause a group of humans, or even our entire species to die out. Events like major climate change, for example.
Only if we leave descendants far into the future can they claim that we, their ancestors, lived sustainably. Because if you die out, you don’t leave descendants.
Similarly, going in the other direction, we can claim that our hunter-gatherer ancestors lived sustainably because we, their descendants, are here to prove it.
So, how do you define sustainable?
The best definition I’ve heard is the one we were taught in our permaculture design course:
“A system is sustainable if it produces more energy than it consumes, with at least enough surplus to maintain and repair itself during its lifetime.”
So, things and people can’t be sustainable. Sustainability applies to systems. And sustainability is about successful energy capture.
(Which is why I nearly had a cardiac arrest when I read in the morning paper recently, in an article relating to the carbon tax and how families can lower their carbon footprint, there was a family saying they’d “bought a more sustainable fridge”. Aaarrgh!)
And there’s another point. Tacking ‘more’ onto sustainable. You can’t be more or less sustainable. There are no degrees of sustainability. Either you are or you aren’t. Either you can maintain your way of life for a very long time, or you die out.
Of course the big brain-dead no-no is tacking ‘growth’ onto sustainable. How many times have you heard the phrase ‘sustainable growth’?
Since it isn’t possible to be living sustainably if any part of that living relies on exploiting finite, non-renewable resources (like oil), or renewable ones at a greater rate than the renewal rate, and since no species can grow indefinitely on a finite planet, sustainable growth is an impossibility. An oxymoron. (I wonder if that’s because only a moron would believe in it?)
What people mostly mean when they say sustainable, is self-sufficient.
It makes much more sense to say, “I am trying to be more self-sufficient”, rather than, “I am trying to be more sustainable”, because that’s simply nonsense.
So please, watch how you use this latest buzz-word. In fact, don’t use it at all. Say self-sufficient, because that’s what you really mean.
And remember also, continued growth in a finite system is impossible. Either we stop it voluntarily, or nature will stop it for us.