Tuesday, July 11, 2006
What Does Sustainability Mean
This post is based on the thoughts of John Ikerd. John is an agricultural economist who has spent a lot of time thinking, writing and talking about sustainability.
There were two previous transformations of social structure on the same order of magnitude. The first was the Agricultural Revolution, during which human society transitioned from hunter – gatherers to farmers. The second was the Industrial Revolution in which fossil fuel combustion replaced muscle power.
Sustainability will be the third fundamental transformation of human social structure. The fundamental shift in sustainability is a shift to permanence. Today we are optimizing for maximum production. After the sustainable transformation, we will optimize a balance between meeting the needs of the present and ensuring that the future has a sound resource base from which to meet its needs.
The fundamental thing in both industrial and sustainable society is energy. Industrial society is optimized to extract energy. It extracts energy from human and natural capital. Industrial society does not expend energy to restore or renew itself. There is no economic benefit, in the classic industrial worldview, to expending energy on restoration or renewal. That is why the industrial age is coming to an end. It has depleted its resource base and is becoming increasingly nonfunctional.
A sustainable society is optimized to balance energy between extraction for use today and investment in restoration and renewal. It deliberately chooses to invest some energy that could be used today in restoration in renewal. As we begin investing in restoration and renewal we face strong resistance from parts of society firmly locked into the industrial mentality.
Fundamental transformations require fundamental shifts in worldview. In the industrial worldview the world is a factory. It is optimized to extract, exploit, specialize, standardized and control. This is the way industrial society provides more and more stuff that is cheaper and cheaper. That's the goal of industrial society. More cheap stuff.
In the sustainable worldview the world is a living system. It is optimized to interact, balance, invest, diversify, communicate and relate – much like the natural world’s web of life. Creating this web of relationships is not driven by a desire to give everyone a warm fuzzy feeling. Rather it is a necessity for permanence.
A permanent society is more difficult than an extractive society. It requires a more advanced worldview. The interrelationships and interdependencies between a field mouse and a prairie ecosystem are orders of magnitude more complex than an industrial fertilized corn field growing in that same prairie top soil.
Social transformation won't happen unless people think it's in their best interest. Why is a sustainable society better than an industrial society?
Let's compare the two. In an industrial society the primary goal is the accumulation of wealth. In a sustainable society this is replaced by a desire for permanence.
In industrial society everyone wants to be independent. In a sustainable society people are capable of functioning independently but deliberately choose to depend on each other. This is termed interdependence and it requires both the ability to be independent and the ability to relate in mutually beneficial ways.
In industrial society everyone wants to get rich, then they will live a good life. In sustainable society people decide to skip the get rich step and jump directly to living a good life.
In a sustainable society you are willing to give up a fair amount of cheap stuff in return for getting a better life for yourself and future generations.
(Thanks Mark - I hope you do not mind me posting this on my blog)