Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Can You Make Sense of Sustainability?

A stream in Julian Price Park along the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina

Sustainability makes little sense in the developed world to the ordinary citizen. How can I know that my lifestyle is sustainable or not?

Guess we need to define sustainability first. A sustainable way of life can be continued indefinitely. That means you can live that way without threatening the ability of your region (the planet?) to continue providing the renewable and nonrenewable resources necessary for maintaining your desired quality of life.

I can probably make some crude decisions about what is more or less "sustainable", but whether driving to work every day in a Hummer is sustainable or not is either very difficult or very easy to answer. If the gas is there and I can afford it week after week, month after month, year after year, then the easy answer is, YES, it is sustainable. It may be sustainable for me, but is that enough?

If I am supposed to determine whether or not my lifestyle is sustainable for the long term, that is, can my children and their children continue to live in the same manner, for example, driving a Hummer every day, that is a much more difficult question. In fact, for the ordinary citizen, that question is simply unanswerable. Of course driving a Prius is likely "more" sustainable than driving a Hummer, but when will that gas run out or when will the cost become a complete budget-buster?

You get the idea that sustainability is much easier to consider as a budgetary matter. If I can afford it, it is sustainable. Income either meets or exceeds expenses, or it does not. If it does not at least meet the expenses, I am living unsustainably.

Of course, ecological sustainability involves not money, but the ecological services provided by intact and well-functioning ecosystems. Will my ecosystem (instead of my budget) be able to continue to supply oxygen, clean water, edible food, the materials to provide shelter, and a relatively comfortable climate?

Well, now things get really difficult. What are the boundaries for "my ecosystem?" It must be bigger than my neighborhood, since not many of us can walk or bike to the farms producing even some of the food we eat every day. It might be bigger than my town if we don't have any coal mines or oil or natural gas wells nearby. And do you get your drinking water from the nearest stream, and the wood or bricks in your house from the nearest forest or clay deposit? How about the metal in your car?

These are not trivial difficulties. A host of Ph.D.s would find considerable challenge calculating ecological sustainability for anyone in a developed country. In fact, they almost surely would have to resort in many instances to recommending practices that are "more or less" sustainable, without being able to determine whether or not a particular practice is actually sustainable for an individual in a particular region.

Oh, and we've left out actually defining the goal of our sustainability. Do we want to live sustainably as our ancestors might have lived a century, or two centuries ago? Or do we want to live sustainably as our parents did, or continue as we are living today? We're talking about the quality of life we would like to enjoy sustainably.

Finally, how many kids and grandkids do you want to have? Sustainability depends on population size. If we agree to limit our family size to two or three children each, sustainability will be easier to reach than if we average four or five offspring!