Let's Talk About Sustainability

Humans have never had to pay much attention to the Earth's limitations. For thousands of years, our activities have been insignificant on any but a local level. This has changed. Enormous advancements in mechanical and chemical technology have greatly extended the power of individuals, and world population has mushroomed to the point that our actions are now felt all over the globe.

This has significantly changed our relationship with the Earth.

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Sustainability has always been the bottom line in evolutionary judgment, but it has taken the problems caused by our rapid growth in population and technical strength for us to realize that it will also be the final measure of our success. We have come of age as a species. Where we were treated as young offenders in the past and dealt with leniently by natural law, we are now fully responsible for our actions and subject to the same laws which rule the survival of any organism.

Almost all of our customs and institutions were created before environmental limits were recognized. Many of them served us well in past centuries. Today, however, our survival depends on learning to respect the laws of nature and on adapting the way we make decisions and do business accordingly.



The ability to sustain ourselves -- to survive -- is of primary importance.

The topic of sustainability has become controversial since humanity has grown to stretch the limits of living on Earth. Survival now requires extensive change, yet some people are attempting to define sustainability in a way that would avoid change. Some of the arguments are valid. Some are not.

The purpose of the Sustainability Project is to focus debate on what is and what is not sustainable. This document contains an outline of sustainability and some introductory explanations. Compare it with your view of the world and let us know if we share common ground and/or if you think this account can be made more accurate.

The goal of sustainability is not served by avoiding disagreements. Truth is uncovered through the encounter of differing opinions. Until this debate takes place in the open, with everyone adding their insights, we will not resolve the differences which keep us from decisive action. Without action, civilization will sink deeper into the environmental and social peril which threatens our future.

The need for change was confirmed by the United Nations' World Commission on Environment and Development (also known as the Brundtland Commission,) in their report, "Our Common Future". They stated that: "Many present efforts to guard and maintain human progress, to meet human needs, and to realize human ambitions are simply unsustainable - in both the rich and poor nations. They draw too heavily, too quickly, on already overdrawn environmental resource accounts to be affordable far into the future without bankrupting those accounts."

They identify sustainability as: Meeting "the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." The Sustainability Project aims to expand debate on how to do this by asserting the following:

logo ACTIVITIES ARE SUSTAINABLE WHEN THEY:
#1 Use materials in continuous cycles.
#2 Use continuously reliable sources of energy.
#3 Come mainly from the qualities of being human (i.e. creativity, communication, coordination, appreciation, and spiritual and intellectual development.)

ACTIVITIES ARE NOT SUSTAINABLE WHEN THEY:

#4 Require continual inputs of non-renewable resources.
#5 Use renewable resources faster than their rate of renewal.
#6 Cause cumulative degradation of the environment.
#7 Require resources in quantities that undermine other people's well-being.
#8 Lead to the extinction of other life forms.

WE HAVE TO CLARIFY THE DESIGN CRITERIA IF WE HOPE TO FOCUS ON RESOLVING THE CRISIS.

    • Do these points seem accurate ?
    • Is anything missing ?
    • Can a sustainable society exist within other boundaries ?
Brief explanations of these eight points follow.

SUSTAINABLE ACTIVITIES

1) Use materials in continuous cycles.


Pictures from space show our blue and green planet as a small sphere orbiting with its moon in a vast emptiness. A closer look reveals that the layer of materials actually of use to living things is only a very thin film over the planet's surface.

Within this limited stock of materials, any substances needed regularly must over time, be used again and again. The cycles which bring the needed materials back for reuse must either occur naturally, like the cycles of water and carbon, or they must be maintained through mindful recycling programs.

2) Use continuously reliable sources of energy.


We are consuming supplies of coal and oil at a far greater rate than they are created. The dangers of releasing all the carbon in these resources aside, their massive use cannot be our custom if civilization is to be a permanent presence on Earth. The same is true of nuclear energy. The enormous cost and danger could perhaps be overcome, but the raw fuel is, in the end, also limited in supply.

This leaves heat from the Earth's core, tides, the sun (nuclear fusion at a safe distance) and the wind and water which the sun sets in motion. These power sources are abundant, and can be harnessed practically anywhere. With the exception of the problems associated with large dams, these renewable sources of energy have little or no negative environmental impacts.

3) Come mainly from the qualities of being human.


Once we have secured the food and shelter necessary for healthy life, worlds of opportunity open up for personal growth and satisfaction. The three "L's:" Learning, Love and Laughter, as well as art, music, dance, sport, communication, service, and appreciation of the universe within and around our selves, can all make life worthwhile. They can provide pleasure, purpose and meaning to our lives without harming the Earth.

NON-SUSTAINABLE ACTIVITIES

4) Require continual inputs of non-renewable resources.


Non-renewable resources are resources available only in limited quantity. Metals, coal and oil are notable examples. They can be very useful, even essential, for building a sustainable society, but if our way of life always requires that more and more of these materials be extracted, we will eventually run out. Dependency on more at that point would be disastrous.

5) Use renewable resources faster than their rate of renewal.


Renewable resources are resources which grow and increase through natural processes. Some examples are forests, fish stocks, ground water and soil fertility. As long as the rate at which they are used is not greater than the rate at which they grow or accumulate, the situation can remain viable. When the rate of use exceeds the rate of renewal, the stock will become depleted and problems will follow.

6) Cause cumulative degradation of the environment.


Certain amounts of pollution are cleansed by natural processes. When we create waste which nature cannot handle, or which cannot be absorbed as fast as we create it, pollution builds up, causing problems which become more and more serious as the activity continues. Some pollutants can create serious hazards even when thoroughly diluted. Small amounts of toxic materials, after being absorbed by tiny organisms, can accumulate in the flesh of the creatures that eat them. If these creatures are then food for larger ones, the accumulated toxins are concentrated even further. Through this biological accumulation, some poisons, although thinly dispersed, can be found in dangerous concentrations -- for example, in the fish people eat from polluted water.

7) Require resources in quantities that undermine other people's well-being.


The cooperation needed to build a sustainable world order will not come about as long as some groups of people take unfair advantage of others. Inequity often leads to social strife and armed conflict. Furthermore, the people at the bottom of the pyramid of exploitation are often forced by desperation to degrade the environment around them for day to day survival. The degradation of their territories not only makes life worse for them, it undermines the global systems which provide for those at the top of the pyramid as well as for those below.

8) Lead to the extinction of other life forms.


The web of life is intricate and mutually supporting. However, it is weakened with each life form lost. If we maintain patterns of development which regularly destroy or significantly diminish the presence of other forms of life, we progressively undermine our own existence as a part of the global ecosystem. With the loss of species we also lose genetic possibilities for fighting disease, in people and in food crops, as well as potential new sources of food. In addition to the dangers and loss to people, one can also argue that other living things have their own right to exist.

Why Does the Issue of Sustainability Come Up Now?

Humans have never had to pay much attention to the Earth's limitations. For thousands of years, our activities have been insignificant on any but a local level. This has changed. Enormous advancements in mechanical and chemical technology have greatly extended the power of individuals, and world population has mushroomed to the point that our actions are now felt all over the globe.

This has significantly changed our relationship with the Earth.

Sustainability has always been the bottom line in evolutionary judgment, but it has taken the problems caused by our rapid growth in population and technical strength for us to realize that it will also be the final measure of our success. We have come of age as a species. Where we were treated as young offenders in the past and dealt with leniently by natural law, we are now fully responsible for our actions and subject to the same laws which rule the survival of any organism.

Almost all of our customs and institutions were created before environmental limits were recognized. Many of them served us well in past centuries. Today, however, our survival depends on learning to respect the laws of nature and on adapting the way we make decisions and do business accordingly.

* * * * * * * * * * *

A PATTERN TO REMEMBER

Economics is 3/5 of Ecology.

Economics only deals with:

Materials, Processing & Distribution.
_____________________________________________

Resources, Materials, Processing, Distribution & Waste

Are the concerns of ecology

Environmental problems come from the economic process overlooking waste and the base of natural resources.

The entire range of economic activity can be looked at in terms of three basic steps.

1) Assembly of Materials:
Locating or gathering raw materials like soil and seed, metallic rocks and energy; or information and images.

2) Processing the assembled materials:
Planting, cultivation and harvesting; extracting metal from the ore and forming it into useful items; or organizing the information into a coherent, useful or entertaining format.

3) Distribution of the end product:
Getting the produce grown, the goods manufactured, or the report, film or whatever has been produced, to people and places where they can be used and appreciated.

In a well developed economy, the raw material for one economic activity is often the product from one or several other activities. However, the three steps are basic to them all.

From an ecological viewpoint, these same three steps are present. Plants and animals collect nutrients, process (digest) them into useful forms and distribute them to organs and limbs for use in their growth and activity. Sometimes, creatures even gather materials and form them into "artifacts" for specific purposes, such as nests and honeycombs.

In both the human economy and the natural world, these steps of assembling materials, processing and distribution are accompanied by two further considerations: the natural resource base, and waste. In economics, these concerns have seldom been accounted for. In the study of ecology, however, the limitations these impose are often observed and sometimes explained as the "law of the minimum" and the "law of tolerance":

The Law of the Minimum states that growth will continue drawing on available materials as needed until one of those materials is exhausted. The first material to be used up is the limiting factor. Soil degradation, loss of genetic diversity, and the depletion of fossil fuels, forests, fish stocks and other resources, are examples of the problems which arise when this 'law' is overlooked.

The Law of Tolerance deals with the ability of different organisms to tolerate changes in their living conditions. Changes in climatic conditions or the chemical composition of their surroundings can lead to intolerable--and therefore limiting--situations, as can the arrival of a competing organism or a new predator. Among the concerns associated with the limits of tolerance are: the greenhouse effect, ozone depletion, pollution of soil, water and air, the loss of natural habitat, pesticides and garbage.

Every environmental problem results from either overlooking the resource base or the waste we create. Some complex problems, such as overpopulation and militarism, have effects in both areas.

If Mother Nature were to present invoices for resources extracted and wastes absorbed, conventional economic accounting would be able to keep human activities in balance with the rest of the natural world. Now that Mother Nature is ailing, we may have to tally the costs and pay the bills to raise the money so badly needed to prevent catastrophe.

The Motivation of Volunteer

There is no shortage of vision in the land. Wherever there are problems, people dedicate themselves to solving them. Tens of thousands of people have, for many years, been working on the entire spectrum of issues related to sustainability. These include environment, development, peace, justice and the fulfillment of our potentials as human beings. The understanding, experience and vision coming from the voluntary/non-profit sector, provide an encouraging picture of the world we could create, if only we could agree on doing so.


The Sustainability Project

The eight point outline of sustainability was derived from a four year study of the concerns, aspirations, and initiatives of voluntary and non-profit organizations.

The impression made by the assembled materials was dramatic. Clearly these people understand the problems and know what we can do to solve them. In addition, numerous groups pointed out that we have a limitless ability as human beings to enjoy ourselves. Friendship and creativity are the real thing. The rat race is optional.

Taken as a whole, this voluntary/non-profit view of the world is reassuring and inspiring. It seemed important to find ways to share it, and so, the Sustainability Project evolved, promoting the eight point outline of this voluntary/non-profit view. This document and the materials we distribute provide various amounts of detail and the means to share basic ideas. As more and more people come to see sustainability as a viable option, society is more likely to adopt appropriate priorities.

Share this eight point reference with people you know. You will find they agree in principle, but may feel we cannot change the direction in which society is heading. It is an "Emperor has no clothes" situation. We can see that sustainability makes sense. What we don't realize is that enough others see it the same way to establish it as our priority. Help us press the issue into public debate and together we can create a mandate for change.

THE SUSTAINABILITY PROJECT EXISTS TO HELP YOU RAISE THE SUBJECT IN YOUR COMMUNITY. In addition to the materials listed, we are prepared to help you organize meetings on the topic with your friends and associates.

The Sustainability Project is a non-profit organization incorporated July 22 1985 in the Province of Ontario. Its objectives are: To collect, study, develop and teach; ideas, information, technologies and customs that could be useful in developing human societies toward a harmonious relationship with the ecology of the Earth.

Debate

Differences of opinion are often expressed which inhibit the process of adopting sustainability as a clear priority. This page aims eventually to host discussions about these differences. When we find the resources to concentrate on this service, any item outlining the basic goal of sustainability can be highlighted to indicate a arguments about its validity. Links will be made to the arguments and anyone interested may contribute to finding the truth of the matter.

The purpose of this aspect will be to demonstrate that most of the arguments made against sustainability are simply put in the way to cover for interests vested in maintaining their non-sustainable activities. However, there is no doubt many points on which clarification will help us all.

"It is from the differences of opinions that the light of truth shines."

Materials


The Sustainability Project offers a variety of materials for clarifying the issue of sustainability and promoting discussion about the goals of society.

How You Can Participate

Get in touch and we will help you find ways to introduce the issue in your community.

A Time of Change A Time to Choose


Judging all things by the measure of profitability has left us with serious environmental and social problems. This booklet introduces sustainability as an alternative value by which to measure what we plan and do. You are invited to consider how our future would differ if we made sustainability our goal.

It may be difficult to imagine the kinds of changes involved and how we will be effected. But if you and your family, friends, or others who share this goal talk about it and exchange ideas, a sustainable future becomes more imaginable. The more people who discuss it, the more imaginable it becomes. Remember, there are literally billions of us with our futures in the balance. We each have creative abilities and more than enough cause to act. When we recognize the strength we have together, taking on the challenge of our times will be a matter of course.

Humankind has more knowledge and ability than ever before. The prospects of material security with enhanced quality of life are unparalleled. We can secure the future. The question is whether or not we will make it our priority to do so.