What is Sustainability?

To be truly sustainable, a society should not be static or stable, as the environment rarely is that, but must have the dynamic ability to adjust to inevitable changes.  This requires that resources and systems NOT be near their limits.  Operating at the limits of capacity leaves no headroom, and significantly increases the risk of catastrophe or collapse.   In other words, sustainability is a dynamic condition in which resources and systems are managed so as to never be so near maximum capacity limits as to pose a risk of collapse or catastrophe if the environment changes.

I am trying to avoid “catastrophizing” in this blog, as I believe we need to be thinking positively about how to manage our future via our planning and actions today.   Unfortunately, it appears that we humans are expanding our demands on the planet ever closer to some seriously hard constraints, and will undoubtedly experience more and worse “Katrina’s” (and hopefully not epidemics or world wars) before we get our population and environmental impact under control.

For example, I don’t care if humans are changing the climate, or nature is … it is changing, and it appears we have not understood just how stable it has been during our short, recorded history.  We need to be thinking about it, planning ways of dealing with the effects, and building (or inventing where necessary) the means to cope with it.  Articles about the risk of one or more of the major ice sheets (Greenland, Antarctica, in particular) sliding into the sea have appeared with increasing frequency in recent months, yet the major corporations with whom I have daily contact aren’t showing evidence of a single thought about how they will deal with such an event.  Maybe it’s just me, down in the workaday trenches, that doesn’t see such evidence … I certainly hope that’s the case … but I just don’t see any hint of it.

Many of our unthinking actions during our century or two of incredible expansion and population growth have created risks, and some of those risks have, are, and will come back to bite us.  It doesn’t have to be climate change or rising sea levels.  We are hearing evidence of increasing risks in the press every day, but perhaps too many members of the  press have abused their credibility too much, and are approaching the status of politicians as far as the average person automatically assuming they are lying, twisting the truth, or just misdirecting our attention for some person or corporation’s short term gain.

In any case, forward-looking, progressive thinking is needed.  Higher levels of creativity, enabled by open-mindedness and education, are needed.  Continued and rapid advancement of technology, and increased education to enable and keep pace with it, are needed.  I am heartened to see the 20-somethings of today taking a sharper interest in practically everything than their predecessors, as their committed efforts will be crucial to working through the next few decades and achieving a new, hopefully-sustainable state of the planet.


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