Sustainability? What’s that?

by SprinklinThoughts

When we look at peak oil, climate change, water availability, food production, etc. it should be pretty clear by now – to anyone who really wants to see what is going on – that a rather drastic change in all our lifestyles is needed and is coming. Yet we continue to take, at best, half-measures…


As I read, study, and think about “sustainability” it occurs to me that nowhere have I found a simple, intuitive, and/or logical definition of what sustainable is. Rather, it seems to me that those definitions I have encountered are overly complicated, hard to understand, and not exactly intuitive. Why do people do that – complicate things – this one in particular?

Maybe it’s because we really don’t want to be truly sustainable – as that could mean facing some radical changes. Maybe all we’re really trying to do is find some way of defining sustainable that will allow us to preserve our current lifestyles – so we can pat ourselves on the back and say “we’re doing it” without really changing much (let’s be honest, OK?).

For example: while we talk of peak oil, we plan a city’s future around increased traffic and improving flow – instead of planning a city that requires less traffic.
Or worse yet, we seek out new areas to drill for oil or we process tar sands for it.
How about this: If oil is so available, why the heck are we expending so much effort to extract it from “tar sands”? It takes about 1 barrel of oil to extract 30 barrels of oil from a Middle Eastern oil field — for tar sands it takes about 1 barrel of oil to extract 1.5 or maybe 2 barrels of oil — that’s 30:1 vs. 2:1… a huge difference. Somehow this seems to me either an act of desperation, or a (literally) brutal scalping of Earth Mother for profit – or both. Not good.
Perhaps a better line of thinking would be: how will this or that city feed itself and surrounding towns when the produce trucks stop rolling in from California or the ships stop motoring in from overseas? I mean, do you really think they’ll continue forever?

Back to the definition…

One of the fundamental precepts of sustainability goes something like this: Sustainability is meeting the needs of the present while preserving resources for future generations.

Sounds good so far. But, in my travels, I see a dissonant, repeating pattern – the “necessary” expansion or subdivision of the concept to include things like “improving the quality of life”, “development”, “green-business”, production, agriculture, etc. – all of which are mostly promoted by, built upon, and imply earning profit ($$$).

Please… this is not meant as a rant against well-intentioned efforts, but more in hope of helping redirect (or refocus) our thoughts and energies to where (IMHO) they are needed and will make a real difference.

I have yet to see anyone define what sustainability is – in a manner that is actually useful to us, the ordinary people.

Thus far, the best (and most useful) definitions I’ve encountered are the simple ones – from the dictionary:

– Capable of being continued with minimal long-term effect on the environment (
– of, relating to, or being a method of harvesting or using a resource so that the resource is not depleted or permanently damaged (

Basic, understandable, and intuitive. I like it. Now how do we apply it?

In my opinion, (the key to all this is) in order to properly apply the concept of sustainable to any one area – food, clothing, housing, energy, etc. – we must first answer four basic questions:

1) what – what is it that we are trying to sustain?
2) how – how will we produce this – what resources are needed?
3) where – where will the resources for this come form – how large an area is available (or required)?
4) when – for how long do we wish to sustain this?

Here’s an example (a somewhat arbitrary one, but should suffice to make my point):

1) what – 1,214,000 automobiles (as registered in NH – 2009 – and the ability to drive around when/where we please
2) how – steel, oil/gas, rubber, plastic, tar & concrete (for roads) plus more – (consider also all the machines/resources needed to make these cars, and then the machines to make the machines, etc.)
3) where – keeping in mind the term ‘local’ but being extra generous, let’s say the entire state of New Hampshire (or even all of New England)
4) when – Oh, how about 30 years

Using this “formula”, it should be relatively easy to realize that automobiles are just not sustainable… Not.

Add to this that we’ve not even considered the ‘how will this affect the seventh generation’ concept – i.e. after we use up all those resources, what will be left of this “local environment” for the 7th generation to use or live on? Simply put, cars are not sustainable.
So why are we not making any real effort to move away from cars? Why do we continue to plan & live as if they will be around forever?

Now apply the above to food… clothing… housing. I won’t even mention things like plastic toys, TVs, swimming pools, dishwashers, golf courses, or metallic helium-filled balloons. Oops, I just did didn’t I? Oh well. Might as well think about these too.

Finally, after considering each one, put them all together and apply the formula/questions again – to the whole.

Lest I be accused of being overly negative without providing ideas for solutions (since people ask “what am I to do?”)…

In my opinion, the solution to this problem (of sustainability) is in some ways simple and in some ways complex.

It is simple in that it requires a simpler view of life – a simpler, non-consumer, lifestyle.

It is complex in that it cannot be forced by any one individual upon any other one individual – we must each learn and adjust ourselves.

Is that a cop out? I don’t think so, but here are some more specific but generic suggestions (for self-education):

Stop… We’re so geared up to go, go, go all the time that we no longer even realize that we’re running the treadmill – which is taking us nowhere (except to disaster). Heck we no longer even realize we’re humans, not machines. Take a break. Take at least 10 minutes in each day and sit still. No books, no radio, no TV, no smart phones/computers, no eating, smoking, or drinking. No distractions. Just sit still. (OK, walking is cool for a start, but not the same nor nearly as effective.)
Look… Look at what is real & surrounds you all the time – look at yourself, inside yourself. Remove all those distractions that keep you from facing reality. Turn off your TV for a period of time and see how much your perceptions change.
Listen… Listen to what is around you – to your heart, your soul, and your own mind. Slow down and catch up to your real self.

If you can do these 3 things for even just one month, I think you will consciously begin to see what it is I’m trying to get at here. It’ll be a good start. Then you can take off and fly on your own… be free.

Just a thought,