What Is Sustainability?



by Paul Shippee

“The process of providing for people’s needs within ecological limits requires a cultural revolution.” 

– David Holmgren, Co-originator of the Permaculture Concept


On a warm Tuesday in May, Alice was sitting on the patio under a large green umbrella. We were talking about how difficult it is to make an observation instead of a judgment. Out of the blue the term sustainability popped up. Alice paused for a thoughtful moment, then said, “Sustainability is a beautiful word, but I don’t know what it means. It seems to mean different things to many people.” Whatever it is, I thought, it’s a buzz that is drilling down deeper into our modernist culture.
While driving home that night, thoughts about sustainability began to move like white clouds through my mind. I remembered what US Senator Ken Salazar has been saying in public recently — that sustainability awareness, and renewable energy activity, now have three drivers. One is high and uncertain energy prices. Another has to do with security – energy and food security as well as national security (because of resource wars). The third driver is climate change and global warming.
Does it seem reasonable and possible that these three drivers can combine in real ways to bring catastrophic interruptions? Then, naturally, this gets people’s attention as the public gets more educated about the factors affecting modern lifestyles.
And there’s all the books coming out in recent years like Power Down, The Long Emergency, The Party’s Over, Going Local, Four-Season Harvest, etc. Just google or do an amazon search on sustainability or peak oil to see the display for yourself. There are a number of terms –both old and new– now orbiting around the sustainability cluster such as renewable energy, solar, self-reliance, relocalization, self-sufficiency; they all make reference to the same general thing.
And what is that same thing? The ambivalent part of the question about sustainability and its meaning is based upon an uncertainty: Will we be able to continue our modernist hi-energy lifestyle as dependent consumers with business-as-usual, or are we entering into an age of precipitous energy decline? One unmistakable sign is that cheap energy is already in decline. Is it going to hurt more than that?
People have lived sustainably in the past. Think of Native American tribes, nomadic cultures, indigenous folk, Helen and Scott Nearing of Maine, and Eliot Coleman who harvests fresh vegetables year-round in a harsh and rocky northern climate.
I suppose sustainability means something very simple: living in balance with, and awareness of, nature. Now there’s a mysterious word: nature. Urban cultures seem to have lost touch with nature. Sustainability means living so that the human ecological footprint (ie, total natural resources used) does not outstrip nature’s carrying capacity to regenerate. It means not taking more than can be naturally replenished. It means getting in touch with nature so to know how pollution and toxins and over-fishing and deforestation can one day bring doomsday. It means not treating nature, the biosphere and the earth, like an endless machine that can run on perpetual motion.
There was a conference in the fall of 1999 by Chelsea Green Publishing Company titled The Invisible Universe. This is a term used to describe the people who understand and practice sustainable living. Now, eight years later, we are those people and we are being called upon to magnify the scale of that undertaking.
In our Crestone/Baca/SLV community we can touch the ground and get some real traction with sustainable living by, for one thing, growing our food locally. Can we grow vegetables year-round in a community-service winter solar greenhouse run as a community corporation business? Can we cultivate fish ponds for protein food like they do in Israel, and in Hooper/Mosca and at Trinidad State in Alamosa? If we can do that, then perhaps we can grow a mountain grain called quinoa (keen-wa) in a cooperative farming agreeement with our neighbor to the west, the US Fish and Wildlife Service.
For all these local food enterprises we must evolve a business structure or entity to help secure social sustainability so that the people element is also sustainable.
When thinking of sustainability I ask you not to get seduced by the beauty of the word. The key element, it will always turn out to be, is social sustainability. How mature are we in community vision, in people skills and conflict resolution? How far have we moved from urban mentality and hyper-individualism, the business-as-usual hallmarks of our modernist culture?
When we can gather together in a common vision and focus on sustaining ourselves, our neighbors, and nature –then beauty will surround us and we might even someday learn how to make observations instead of judgments in a natural way.

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