Diversity is Essential to Sustainability, But Native Cultures Offer Little to the Sustainability Discourse… Huh? More reflections on “Sustainability Unpacked”

I spent the last several posts (1) (2) (3) unpacking the 2011 book Sustainability Unpacked.  In each post, I dig deeper into the authors’ premises, in an attempt to open up their narrow framing of the sustainability problem.  However, this does not imply that I always disagree with the authors.  One statement I can unpausingly agree with is this one:

“One definition [of sustainability] cannot and should not encompass the complexity and capture the nuances that are inherent in the word ‘sustainable’.  This does not mean that there is no value in this word.”  – pg. 3, Sustainability Unpacked

Even though sustainability may not have one uniform definition, that does not mean that this word is not an important tool for rallying around visions for how to live in better ways.  Rather than being a limiting factor, the diversity of existing definitions of sustainability clarifies the importance of the sustainability movement, and enriches its chances for success.

Yet…

“History would suggest that humans have not been very capable of living within their social, environmental and economic footprints; this means that we do not have acceptable models that can be used to learn what works, to increase the possibility that a country will make sustainable choices.”  – pg 8, Sustainability Unpacked

Now, I hate to point out–but I will–that “history” involves the extermination and suppression of multiple histories and narratives of countless native cultures.  So if “history” presents few examples of sustainable living… might that be because colonizing cultures aren’t sustainable, and through colonizing processes we have erased countless stories that might have told of how to live sustainably?

No social group has ownership of the ‘realistic’ answers.  However, we can learn lessons from the struggles of many different sectors of our global society and how these groups have resolved their problems.  Yet, we also should not naively believe the vision that societies more closely linked to their bio-resources (i.e. the ‘back to nature’ approach) are more sustainable and could, therefore, be used as a guideline for ‘how to consume resources’ sustainably.  This would be naive and foolish.  People living ‘close to nature’ have a tough life and it is not as idealistic as some portray.” – pg. 8, Sustainability Unpacked

With Sust Enable 2008, I can attest to the truth that inserting oneself in a “close to nature” situation is NOT automatically a way to be more sustainable… so long as one still possesses the view that one is trying to “consume resources” more sustainably.  The authors may be right–native cultures, through being embedded in their ecological contexts, some for thousands of years, may not provide models for “how to consume resources” more sustainably.  Let’s look carefully at the words chosen here.

The Haudenosaunee Native American philosophy I am most familiar with (via my friend Phil Seneca) centers on being in dynamic relationship with myriad living systems, and describes material boons supporting human survival (i.e. a good harvest, a successful hunt) as gifts.  Maybe by relating to the world in terms of “how to consume resources”… maybe therein lies the problem.  Maybe this attitude is what “societies more closely linked to their bio-resources” can instruct us about.  Maybe this attitude is incompatible with sustainability–as the lessons I took from Sust Enable 2008 made clear to me.

By inserting myself abruptly into a tent, into a so-called “natural” environment, without any respect for the natural systems I was invading, I was reenacting my culture’s “brave pioneer” hero idiom, pushing myself into the landscapes of alien systems and aiming to conquer them through human will and ingenuity.  And through my subsequent struggles, I learned to relate to the systems defining and making possible my life, instead of trying to subjugate them to my will–instead of just “consuming resources,” I saw myself in dynamic entanglement with equally complex and sovereign living systems.   Continue reading

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“Constraints to Human Capital”: More Unpacking of “Sustainability Unpacked”

When I came across the book Sustainability Unpacked at my local library, I was thrilled by the book’s sexy title.  I was personally hoping to discover the global sustainability discourse critically unpacked… but instead, this book does little to unpack claims of “sustainability.”  It is fairly traditional in its interpretation of “sustainability”–that “sustainability” means figuring out how many humans, and in what configurations, can we fit on planet Earth, indefinitely.  What it “unpacks” is a whole lot of aggregated data about the planet and humans.  The word “unpacked” seem misleading to me… the title suggests a bold claim of critical inquiry, but it delivers authoritative scientific information within a mainstream “sustainability” framework, as though “sustainability” needed no unpacking at all, apart from being defined by four interlocking ecological necessities (for human survival): water, forests, food, and energy.

In my last post, I “unpacked” some of the implicit assumptions buried in the authors’ problem statement around which their book orbits.  Here, I am going to delve further into the book’s preface, in which they set up their interpretation of the sustainability “problem,” which the data in their book will address.

Still from Preface:
“These unavoidable constraints control the globe’s productive capacity and set the boundaries for how much the human capital can be developed.”

That the fairly static, material quantities of organic molecules, water, soil, and sun, control the planet’s capacity to produce material goods–this seems like an intuitively solid claim.

… but that they also “set the boundaries for how much the human capital can be developed”?

What on Earth do they mean by “human capital”?  Well, I sure hope they don’t actually mean how much cash money humans can generate in the world–which seems like it could be implied, by a scheme to account for all the world’s resources and convert them all into commodities for our human economic marketplaces–but which would be a laughably absurd measure for the book’s grand claims of universal significance.  Does “human capital,” then, mean the number of existing human living bodies?  In that sense, yes, increasing the number of living human bodies does require soil, water, sun and other inputs, and thus does have a “material constraints” component.  But why not say “number of humans,” then, than “human capital”? Continue reading

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The # of Humans Problem! Or, the Ongoing Framing of Sustainability through Implicit Mainstream Premises

“The question must be raised: how many humans can the Earth sustain under the unavoidable constraints of climates and soils?” –Preface to Sustainability Unpacked

When researching formal literature on sustainability, I often encounter questions and statements like this one.  From this mainstream framing, “sustainability” is viewed as being an issue of finding a way to manageably “fit” together the puzzle pieces of the natural environment and our human aspirations.  It is no wonder to me that my original design for the Sust Enable episode series in 2008 consisted of seeking a universal “one-size-fits-all” system for balancing that finicky ratio of existing humans to natural resources.  I bought the premise that we humans have managed to transgress our niches in the global self-regulating ecosystem, and thus we desperately need to speed up our efforts–whether through advanced technology or massive consensual behavior change–to “fit” on planet Earth.  This attitude is, to put it mildly, twisted.

Within this question, posed so early on in Sustainability Unpacked, there are several premises I’d like to, myself, unpack.

1. Your question is too narrow.  Here’s my suggestion for a better question:
“Given almost 7 billion humans at the time of writing, and one planet Earth, what kinds of people would be able to sustain themselves here?  What kinds of systems would allow for the maximization of life potential (recognizing that human potential is usually enhanced through enhancing overall living systems)?”

2. “How many humans” is lazy wording.  It’s how we choose to live, not how many we are.  Continue reading

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Hunger and Education are the Two Biggest Factors Affecting a Place’s Sustainability, according to “Sustainability Unpacked”

Sustainability Unpacked: Food, Energy, and Water for Resilient Environments and Societies, by Kristiina A. Vogt plus a conglomerate of authors, is a somewhat technical book that analyzes recent global data about the planet and its human population, and attempts to draw links between human activities and our planet’s stock of finite material resources to see if some populations can, will, or do attain “sustainability.”

This book delves into the sustainability data by national borders: in a given nation, how are they doing, proportionally, with regard to human population, forest area, agricultural land, fresh water availability and treatment, and energy resources? While there are problems with examining global sustainability by the politically-consensed-upon boxes of national borders (when, in reality, the Earth and her overlapping ecosystems have no such borders), one reason to do so is to examine how the political conditions of particular nations (especially, in comparing decision-making processes and histories of “developed” countries with “developing” nations) impact their consumption of natural resources.

“Natural resources…” I feel compelled to say that this term gives me the willies. I should note here, that my overall discomfort with this book (and others like it) is its assertions that continued heavy manipulation by humans of their natural ecosystems is the only methodology for achieving global sustainability; simply–and simplistically, in my opinion–because humans have heavily manipulated their landscapes up to this point in history, so we are just going to keep doing so. Thus we need to use science and governments respectively to develop formulas for global equilibrium (aka “sustainability”) and implement those formulas effectively. Since surviving my arrogant one-size-fits-all attempt to develop a universal method for 100% sustainable living in 2008, this attitude agitates and disturbs me, for reasons I will discuss elsewhere. However, I recognize how widespread is our society’s faith in science and government (over other methods of knowing), so I respect the weight of such publications in shaping future activity around sustainability. I also respect the authors’ expertises in their areas of study, and their urge to share what they know in the ways they know it.

Of the many socio-environmental-economic vertices studied, when comparing a country’s measure of sustainability to other factors affecting the country, the data proclaims one thing clearly: the two most pronounced trends globally, is that sustainability is contraindicated when a country suffers from (1) hunger issues, and (2) lack of education.

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