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Monday, March 5, 2012

The Meaning of Sustainability

The term 'sustainable' is lightly tossed around in conversations about the environment, food, energy, and even the economy, to demonstrate that we as a civilization are in trouble if we continue on our current trajectory.  It has become a buzz word that triggers euphoria in hippies and nausea in conservatives.  From my personal experience, I have approached the word with great concern and interest, especially when presented with compelling data, but have grown callous to it with over exposure.  This has triggered me to reflect on the true meaning of the word, and how it relates to the way we live our lives.

Without consulting a dictionary, I would define something as sustainable if it can be continued indefinitely.  A sustainable system is one in which the inputs feed the outputs and the outputs feed the inputs, leading to a closed cycle which is balanced.  I have seen this imagery in the form of an ouroborus, and Aristotle described the universe as the mythical snake eating its own tail and constantly regenerating.  If we care about self preservation, it is worth caring about whether we are living sustainably, that is in a way in which we can preserve our collective quality of life or improve it indefinitely. 

It became clear with the economic collapse, that our system was not sustainable, and it needed a large boost to stay afloat.  Its questionable if that boost has put it on track to be sustainable from this point on or if it was merely a band aid on a much larger wound.  Looking at the world economy would lead one to believe it was just a band aid.  And if our economy is not sustainable, it is not likely that other parts of our lives are sustainable either.  We're running out of things.  Quickly.  While I could write a list of things that we can never get back, its better said that we are running out of the ability to continue doing what we are doing.

I'm not here to argue about conserving fossil fuels, or conserving water, or conserving soil, or conserving the environment.  I think those are all important things, but they don't really matter.  They don't matter because we are currently not living sustainably and this means that we either change our ways or we perish.  What matters is that we, as a species, as a civilization are able to continue to thrive.  And this ability is currently being threatened by our current lifestyles. 

I'm not here to argue about the right way to live your life, or that you should bike more often than drive, or that you should eat local organic foods because I do not have the answers, and I'm not sure our best actions could solve the current system of unsustainability.  It is estimated that the world can only support 1-2 billion people, and I'm not eager to see how that goes down.  But I do find it believable that life has value and it is important to preserve our world, our quality of lives for our children, nieces, nephews, grandchildren, and neighbors if we value our existence and the ability for civilization to thrive.   It seems people want to take everything they can before its all gone and leave nothing for the future (either for themselves or the next generations).  We are destroying instead of building, consuming instead generating. 

 Nature will correct itself as it always has and always will.  This means we can begin to live sustainably either by choice through consciously changing our ways, or by force through an unstable environment, government, and economy.  I do not fear continuing on the current path because I know it cannot happen as it is by definition not sustainable.  Sustainable is the only thing that can persevere and is the natural order of things.  The only question is what will the future to get to sustainability look like and how do we make it the least painful?  Make your changes now so you won't be forced to do so later.  Cleaning up the mess begins with the individual cleaning up his or her own life.

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