A Paradigm for Sustainability
We talk about sustainable development, sustainable communities, cities that live, and such things, but what do we really know about creating a culture whose practices and predilections don't overdraw the fund of resources the earth can generate and hold for us? Is it enough to recycle the daily newspaper and ride your bike to the video store once a week, as those clever columns in alternative newspapers suggest in their lists of ten things you can do for the environment? How do we determine whether the things we do and the culture we partake of are sustainable? The Brundtland Commission promotes the following as their definition of sustainability:
"Meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."But this doesn't really say anything. After all, a cash-sated Hollywood lawyer in his Beverly Hills mansion might define "needs" in a way that would not be acceptable to a dreadlocked bicycle messenger buzzing through a Seattle drizzle, both of whom would be at odds with the steelworker loading twelve- packs into his boat at the dam on a Sunday afternoon. And all of their interpretations of "needs" would puzzle a Japanese salaryman, or a rainforest peon sweating under the sunglassed gaze of some Western CEO's hired thugs.
I propose a different, more technical definition of sustainability, one that can be quantified and that is not subject to reinterpretation according to cultural habitudes, and it is this:
"A sustainable community is one whose energy economy does not use more energy in a given time than falls on its hinterlands as sunlight in that time, and in which the material economy is circular rather than linear."Note that this definition makes no mention of a cash economy. Commerce will have to submit to the requirements of survival, regardless of its practitioners' opinions. But there are features to a sustainable culture that will benefit most participants in its cash economy as well, and we will look at these later.
First, except for a modest amount of heat generated inside the earth itself and not readily available to us, and except for the rare and highly poisonous radioactive elements, we have no source of energy except the sun. The fossil fuels upon which we have based our entire industrial culture are nothing more than accumulations of solar energy--accumulations that have been hundreds of millions of years in the gathering. Once we have used them up--which at present rates of use will be in about fifty years--we will have to wait another several hundred million years before we have more. Since humans have been on the earth considerably less than two million years, it is obvious that, though fossil fuels are renewable in the very long term, they cannot be considered so for use by human cultures. Human cultures that depend on fossil fuels will die out within our children's lifetimes, and possibly within our own.
Second, the use of fossil fuels is destroying the capacity of the earth to sustain life, and the capability of culture to make life worth sustaining. Urban and suburban sprawl, and all the ills that run howling in their wake--smog, poisoned water, paving of farmlands and wildlands, wholesale destruction of genetic diversity, petrochemical agriculture, the replacement of rainforest with cash crops (including those which provide the anodyne drugs that plague Western cities), the dissection of neighborhoods for roads and shopping malls, the pervading anomie of citizens dissociated from the earth that bore them--are facilitated by, and often dependent on, fossil-carbon fueled transport and fossil-carbon derived chemicals, and all this, the little that is good as well as the much that is detrimental, will have to end if we as residents of this planet are to survive.
A sustainable economy cannot continue to throw away resources such as paper, iron, aluminum, glass, plant waste, and sewage, burying them in once-living canyons or dumping them into the seas after having wrested them from the earth at great cost in energy and lost land. Beer cans must be remade into bicycles and railcars, old newspapers into books and envelopes, lawn clippings into mulch, sewage into fertilizer. Even plastics, which can be made from plant matter but cannot be recycled as such, can be reformed into new and durable objects, perhaps even building bricks! And buildings themselves, as the work of architects such as Nader Khalili has shown, need not be made of trees or steel, but can be formed, safely and beautifully, out of the earth of their own excavations.
We can change now, with great effort and inconvenience, to a way of life we will find far more rewarding once we become accustomed to it--or we can change later, wrenched by circumstances through a torment of starvation and vicious chaos towards a new world which will only gradually heal itself of the devastations we will have made inevitable.
As the population of a region grows, land for planting becomes converted to land for buildings and roads. There comes a point at which resources must then be brought from outside the populated area of the region in order to feed and power the population. That transport requires energy. Once the energy required to grow and transport food and resources becomes greater than can be generated by wind, water, and biomass in the region, the region has passed the limits of sustainability. It can continue to grow only at the expense of another region's resources. You can power trains with electricity, you can fuel trucks with electricity or alcohol, and you can fuel people (for human-powered transport for shorter hauls) with plant carbohydrates. All this energy must be derived from wind, water, and plant resources within the region in question.
Let us look at a just the most obvious examples of how this could be brought about:
- One thing we can do is bring farmland closer to the cities. The closer farmland exists to urban agglomerations, the denser those agglomerations may be, as less energy will then be required to transport food to mouths. If farmland is scattered within cities, then a simple walk or bicycle trip is sufficient to bring fresh food home, and the citizens have green spaces in which to relax from the pressures of community while they purchase their dinners. Urban areas interspersed with farmland (or is it vice- versa?) provide an excellent balance between an invigorating population density and a sustainable (and pleasurable) landscape.
- Another is to localize the production of electrical energy. Power losses in electrical transmission from distant generators are generally very large--about seven percent. Solar panels on every roof would generate a great deal of electricity only inches from where it would be used. Hydroelectric could usually fulfill the rest of the demand. In many places, this would include numerous micro-hydroelectric units on local streams. However, if a region builds a large dam for hydroelectric power, that dam might not raise the water level behind it so high that a neighboring region could not let its share of the river fall the full equivalent of its drop from one end of the region to the other, which would produce the maximum of power for that region from within its borders; a reservoir that extended into another region would also deprive that region of use of the land covered by the water.
- A very important change we can bring about is to recognize the dignity of moving ourselves under our own power. Motorized transport is grossly inefficient, and is prevalent only because of the windfall of fossil-carbon fuels. But personal transport vehicles use many more calories to move the engine and vehicle than to move the passengers--a problem inherent to electric- and alcohol-fueled, as well as fossil- carbon fueled, vehicles. If people transport themselves primarily by walking and bicycling, and their goods--as far as is practical--by bicycle trailer and pedicab, there will be more food and fuel to accommodate a larger population in the region. (Human powered transport, though slow, is much more efficient in its use of calories than motorized transport.) In the transport of goods, or of large groups of persons, trains are four times as efficient as trucks, because proportionately more of their energy is used to transport the goods than the vehicle itself. (Aircraft, on the other hand, are the most inefficient of all.) In a sustainable economy, only trains will operate at a tolerable cost for long-distance overland hauling, and will be a premium service at that, with their energy expenses pro-rated among the regions they serve and subtracted from those regions' energy budgets. Water transport could be supplied by electric or hybrid sail and electric boats, which have already been used on the open seas.
We have used industrial technology to reduce the world to a few simple terms that are easy to know, and we have abstracted most of that into money, a symbol of a symbol, which we use as the only measure of worth. The result is now a dirty, dying world and an atrophy of our minds and souls. You can print more money but you can't print sunlight; if you are rich you can buy a painting by Monet but you can't buy back the genetic poetry of vanished lives. Living within a solar budget will require us to attend to the details of life once more. Walking five blocks to a farmer's market will remind us what that spinach, redolent of dark clean earth, will be remade into by our cells--and will remind us that that earth once passed through our own bodies, or others like them, and that we ourselves will be remade into earth, in due time; and if we must dim the lights that now turn the night skies of our cities into an untextured yellow smear, we'll gain by that a crowded universe of stars shining down together into each back yard, each streetcorner, each public square. Life will be busier but less hurried, and though there will be more to pay attention to, it will be because everything we touch and do, from bathing to breakfast to coming home from work, will carry resonances of a planetary process that, immense though it is, takes place in the unseen cells that form us and our fellows on the earth.
Right now we are living as inmates of industrialism, our lives constrained by hard concrete and rigid thinking; we live encelled in rooms, cars, cubicles, rushing from one to another in nervous orderly rows, and like prisoners we spend our evenings slouched forlornly in front of television sets. The walls that keep us from a free full life are sometimes actual but more often habitual. There's still a whole world out there. We have the chance right now to take the better parts of technology and philosophy and build a civilization that lives within its means. The means to that accomplishment are within ourselves: eyes to see, heart to care, mind to comprehend. And hands to build with. Once we've built a sustainable culture, we'll have a place in the world again, and the world a place in us.