What does Sustainability mean to us?

By David Sutton, Ph.D.

Sustainability has become a confusing term and without going into why this is – I would like to say that it needn’t be.

Principles of sustainable development are easy enough to understand. They simply require that we look to nature for guiding principles. Natural systems have undergone 4 billion years of R&D in perfecting their life-sustaining processes. Moving towards sustainability and a circular economy will require a fundamental understanding of the natural systems that support us and all of our activities.

There is a set of laws that influence all human enterprise; they are the Laws of Nature. There is virtually universal agreement on the parameters set by our Earth’s natural life-support systems. They can be clearly expressed as:

  1. All systems on earth are ultimately powered by the energy of the sun.
  2. A constant input of solar energy drives all life’s processes as well as the global physical forces that maintain the land, oceans and atmosphere that harbor life.
  3. With respect to matter, the earth is a closed system.
  4. There is a finite amount of physical resources at our disposal.
  5. Living systems sustain themselves by accessing the constant flow of incoming solar energy and circulating the material resources they need through grand closed looped cycles of use and reuse.

These are the systemic parameters within which all sustainable practices must ultimately exist…

Based on the false assumptions of unlimited natural resources to draw from, unlimited ecosystem services to support us and unlimited places to put our wastes, human society has evolved linear economic systems that takes natural resources, makes products and then disposes of them as waste when they are no longer useful to us. Sooner or later, in a finite world, this one-way industrial process must end – It is NOT sustainable. There is a limit to resources available as well as the capacity for the earth’s life-support systems to absorb the impact. The myriad of environmental problems we are experiencing today are a manifestation of reaching these limits. Calls for moving towards sustainable development come from such an understanding.

Whether we like it or not Sustainability is and always will be fundamentally an environmental (ecological) concept. Like all living things, the human species and their systems of operations must adapt to the limits imposed on them by the earth’s natural life-support systems. All the human device and accord in the world cannot transcend those limits.

We have lost our sense of place.

Sustainability and Sustainable Development are not about technology: they are about state-of-mind. As the great American Naturalist Aldo Leopold once put it (over 60 years ago):

“Civilization has so cluttered elemental man-earth relation with gadgets and middlemen that awareness of it is growing dim. We fancy that industry supports us, forgetting what supports industry.”

We need to embrace the Daoist flow of moving in the alignment with forces of Nature.

We need to appreciate our place in Nature and our absolute dependence on the natural processes that sustain us. Technology may give us the tools to more effectively interact with natural process but brute force technology forced upon the living landscape is not wise “scientific development” and certainly not sustainable.

Sustainable living is mindful living – being conscious of how we are involved with, directly affect, and are totally dependent upon our planet’s life-support systems.