Sustainability rant

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.


7 Responses to “Sustainability rant”

  1. Frogdancer Says:

    Right on, sister!!
    *backs slowly away…*


  2. Barb. Says:

    Okaaaayyyy, I wanted to be sustainable ’cause I know I will never be self sufficient…
    Now I don’t know what I am. lol.
    I’d like for my gardens to have nothing in, nothing out but I am not there yet as I still buy in seeds and use mollasses that I have bought…some other stuff too…



    • foodnstuff Says:

      Hi Barb, thanks for the comments. Don’t worry about being sustainable. As I’ve said above, we in the present can never claim to be sustainable.

      And like all of us in Western society, you’re probably not self- sufficient either, but at least you’re trying! The main thing is, just keep on adding to your self-sufficient lifestyle ambitions…..each year aim to become self-sufficient in one more thing.

      Growing your own herbs is easy and a great way to start. Oh, and collecting your own seed, too.


  3. Chris Says:

    I agree, and I don’t, LOL. I’m going to challenge your definition that growth in a finite system is impossible: because nature is infinite and doesn’t stop growing. By definition, natural evolution is infinite growth.

    Do you think that is what’s behind the definition, “sustainable growth”? It’s more along the lines of respecting natural limitations into the future, rather than exploiting them without measure.

    I’m not personally into using the term “sustainable” in what I do. It’s more about “recycling” and being mindful about our activities. I don’t even think I’d describe our pursuits as becoming more self sufficient, as I know how many resources we still use!

    I think many English descriptions are quite faulty in their application. I would consider “sustainable growth” an aspirational definition for our times, rather than a measurable one according to historical data. When you think about it, we are the first generation to really “coin” the phrase as part of our cultural lingo. 😉


    • foodnstuff Says:

      Hi Chris, I’m wondering what you mean by ‘nature is infinite and doesn’t stop growing’. Life on this planet will cease eventually when the sun burns out, so life (here, at least) isn’t infinite.

      I don’t know about natural evolution being ‘infinite growth’. My best definition of evolution (I read it BTW, didn’t make it up myself) is that it is a change in the frequency of genes in the gene pool. That flummoxed me till I thought about it and finally saw it.

      Our present culture is a growth culture. We focus on continued growth and get paranoid if the economy isn’t growing.

      But since enough people have pointed out that growth can’t continue on a finite planet, the proponents of growth have had to modify things a bit and talk about ‘sustainable growth’, as though that were OK and something to aim for. That’s why you see it quoted everywhere.

      Yes, we’re probably the first generation to coin the phrase, because we’re the first generation to realise that our activities are destroying our own life-support systems and we’d better do something about it.


  4. Chris Says:

    There may well be an end at some point, but if nature limited it’s development according to the end (before it got there) it wouldn’t evolve. Whether it be genes in the pool or some other measure, Nature has an infinite supply of possibilities to grow upon. If it was limited in any way, there would be no evolutionary process we could track now.

    What I’m proposing is that many of these ideas are just constructs of mankinds current knowledge, and may have absolutely no bearing on the natural future whatsoever.

    We can call it whatever we want because it’s a story about mankind’s progress, but it doesn’t mean it has bearings on the full forces of nature. Take for example the story about the Rainbow Snake, told by Indigenous Australians. I remember being read that story in Kindergarten. Now that I’m 37 and witnessed an inland Tsunami, such as happened in Janurary’s floods in our region, I can only now fully appreciate how a “Rainbow Snake” (or water with reflective qualities to cast colours of the spectrum in the vapour) can actually, carve landmarks and rivers across the plains.

    Whether we call it an inland Tsunami or Rainbow Snake, it’s just a story about mankind’s ability to observe natural elements. On one hand, you’re absolutely correct that saying “sustainable growth”, in now way, actually means it is – but on the other hand, there is no definitive construct mankind can grasp outside of the infinite possibilitie of evolutionary development anyway.

    That’s why I said, I agree with you and I don’t. 🙂


  5. Astro Gremlin Says:

    Agree completely. There are ways of living known to be sustainable. Living like native people in the Amazon forest, for example. No one living a modern lifestyle has any evidence that any of it can be sustained. And with population growing at the current rate, we lack evidence that it can be prolonged for very long. Whether energy, water, climate or growing space turns out to be the choke point is an open question.


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