This is the 4th posting in a series on ecology
To sustain is to maintain. With regard to ecosystems, that isn’t enough. While sustaining certain ecosystems may be all that can be done now to preserve what would otherwise be lost, the word “sustainability” allows us to continue to see the world as composed of “resources” to be used—ideally in ways that don’t contribute to greenhouse gasses. Further, it relegates human beings to the role of manager, as if the planet is a machine that we can control. Nature cannot be controlled; we can only respond to it. We cannot sustain life as we know it, or as it has been. Attempts, though good and necessary, will always be partial and temporary. But there’s good news ahead. Keep reading.
Sustainability invites a linear response to a nonlinear problem. But Earth is not a machine; it is alive, and it will remain hospitable to life only if we treat it as such.
So what is our proper response to change? How can we best relate to nature and life processes in ways that both sustain and enhance? Leave it alone? We can’t. As the population increases at an estimated 82 million people per year, racing toward 8 billion, the demand for resources will only grow.
Paleontologists have identified five mass extinctions during the past 500 million years. “Estimates of current extinction rates due to deforestation and the destruction of other habitats, indicate that the Earth is now in the midst of a sixth mass extinction (Elizabeth Kolbert: The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, 2015). This one, according to the 2010 report of the Royal Society of London “is caused, for the first time, by the activities of a single species: Homo sapiens.”
Concern with the environment is no longer one of many ‘single issues.’ It is the context of everything else—our lives, our businesses, our politics. The great challenge of our time is to build and nurture sustainable communities and societies.
G. Tyler Miller (Living in the Environment, 2017)
“The fundamental dilemma underlying the major problems of our time seems to be the illusion that unlimited growth is possible on a finite planet… Our current economic system is fueled by materialism and greed that do not seem to recognize any limits… It’s maintained by economists who refuse to include the social and environmental costs of economic activities in their theories. Consequently, there are huge differences between market prices and the true costs, as, for example, for fossil fuels… These movements are facilitated by ‘free-trade’ rules, designed to support continuing corporate growth. Economic and corporate growth are pursued relentlessly by promoting excessive consumption and a throw-away economy that is energy and resource-intensive, generating waste and pollution, and depleting the Earth’s natural resources.” (Fritjof Capra and Pier Luigi Luisi, The Systems View of Life: A Unifying Vision, 2014.)
So here’s the good news: It doesn’t have to be that way. We created a relationship to the Earth that is no longer viable. Now we can create a different, more sustainable relationship, one of stewardship. And there’s a way forward. “We do not need to invent sustainable human communities from scratch but can model them after nature’s ecosystems, which are sustainable communities of plants, animals, and microorganisms. Since the outstanding characteristic of the ‘Earth Household’ is its inherent ability to sustain life, a sustainable community is designed in such a manner that its ways of life, business, economy, physical structures, and technologies do not interfere with nature’s inherent ability to sustain life… This wisdom of nature is the essence of ecoliteracy.” (Fritjof Capra, The Hidden Connections: A Science for Sustainable Living, 2002)
In last weeks posting—Number 3, Ecoliteracy—I identified the basic principles of ecology, perceptions of nature that can affect a shift toward sustaining and enriching the Earth.
Does sustainability mean lowering our standard of living? “Not at all true. It does mean that we have to do more with less, but as (Paul) Hawken argues, ‘Once we start to organize ourselves and innovate within that mind-set (of sustainability), the breakthroughs are extraordinary. They will allow us to achieve greatly superior rates of resource productivity, which in turn allow us to be prosperous, fed, clad, secure.’” Moreover, he and others maintain that the innovation at the heart of sustainable living will be a powerful economic engine. “Addressing climate change,” he says, “is the biggest job creation program there is.”
In a strange paradox, we who have unprecedented power over the planet are at the same time at its mercy: if it does not thrive, neither can we.
Sallie McFague, Christian theologian
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