Thoughts on Sustainability and Human Impudence

I’ve been away for the past week in an area in South Africa that has very little connectivity. You get time to think. On this occasion, to think back on long held beliefs. In this case sustainability.

I’m all about the sustainability movement. I care about the future of this planet, about what future generations will have at their disposal, resource-wise as well as what the quality of the water will be like and how much air pollution they will be able to tolerate. 

There is a problem with this though. Currently, sustainability has a different meaning to it’s intended definition. It would be more accurate to call current efforts “attempted sustainability”. Being sustainable is the ideal but it is not (/yet) possible. Largely sustainability has to do with air pollution and emissions. It is such a wide all encompassing term that many more less popularised aspects fall under it. 

Mineral extraction, even without carbon emissions is not sustainable. Treatment of effluent water can not be considered a break even or maintainable endeavour. Not in the short time frames we are considering. 

Every attempt at sustainability falls short of the mark. Largely this stems from the fact that we are part of a closed system (99. many 9’s % closed, in terms of matter at least ). Energy is a side matter, though not unrelated at all.

In terms of the chemicals on earth, baring relatively tiny amounts of matter to and from space, the system as a whole is capable of maintenance. A closed system is the definition of sustainable, it’s mass and chemical structure is by an large maintained. On earth due to it’s temperature and chemical make up and sheer size this is observed in the nutrient and chemical cycles. In smaller chemical systems reactions never cease to take place there is only an equilibrium from which one substance converts to another and back again in a fixed ratio (barring disturbance).

Earth is sustainable, at least for the foreseeable anthropocentric future. What we have done is chosen the wrong yard stick to measure ourselves against, we’ve chosen the wrong word. I’m sure in the beginning it made perfect sense to aim for a maintainable system where each generation has as much at their disposal as the one before. It sounds nice, it is marketable.

However, what I believe matters more is our impact on Earth’s habitability, defined within parameters capable of supporting human life, as we know it, and as we have previously experienced it.

How can we manage towards something when the meaning of the word, the eventual end point causes confusion? Perhaps this is a social problem, not a substantive tangible problem? I’ll answer that with a question, how can we tackle any problem if the problem, and what we imagine it’s eventual solution to look like, are not defined correctly?

The aims of sustainability are noble, but are they entirely practical? 

Every new generation has more information at their disposal, more technology. What they do not have is the same options as previous generations. Why should they? An extreme example: Slaves could have been considered resources but I think society as a whole is far better off without them. Another example though less extreme is meat. If we can find away to use less resources to make food, why not reduce our reliance on farmed animals? 

I move that the eventual solution would be far better represented as Habitable Parameters.

The ability or burden to carry out large scale projects has moved from slave labour, to mass labour to manned machinery and is currently on it’s way to full scale autonomous robotics. 

Maintaining the availability of food for all mankind will soon make a similar transition having come from from communal fields to private farms and now moving towards factories.

Sustainability measurement would better be applied to smaller more manageable arenas, where their measurement tools could give more concise and focused answers. These answers would then be considered and contribute towards maintaining humans and those other organisms we believe we are stewards of within our prescribed Habitability Parameters.

This is all to be considered within the context of our supreme arrogance that we would seek to shape the destiny of all life and all life as yet to come on Earth (and hopefully elsewhere). I do believe that dying out is not useful and as we are the only organisms we know of that are capable of examining the universe and attempting to understand it, it would be a far greater shame to roll over on this for fear of over stepping the moral mark. 

Arrogance shows ambition, and ambition is necessary to breed ideas, ideas that with guidance and an ethical leadership could see an almost ever brightening future.


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