Sustainability - The Magic Word

SUBHEAD: Guided by nature's design, we have to re-think our institutions, processes and values.

By George Mobus on 10 June 2009 in Question Everything -

Image above: Cartoon by "Willis" distributed by the Copley News Service. From 

I have been thinking about this word "sustainability" a lot lately. How could one not? It is used everywhere these days. Sustainable development, sustainable energy, sustainable growth! Everyone, it seems, is on the sustainability bandwagon, and I have been no exception. I developed a model which I call that sustainability criterion for renewable energy production.

The criterion is simple enough, a renewable energy production facility (e.g. solar, wind, etc.) is sustainable only if it produces enough excess energy above that required for economic work to replicate itself before its useful life is ended.

Of course this doesn't meant that every solar panel has to somehow reproduce another solar panel every, say, 20 years.

What it does mean is that in the aggregate of all renewable energy producers and the physical plants that produce those producers, there has to be enough energy produced to produce the next generation of energy producers.

On the whole, then, the combined energy outputs of all renewable sources has to serve the economic work process plus provide energy to run the processes that continue to produce the energy capture and conversion equipment. Currently solar panels and wind mills/generators are manufactured using existing energy infrastructure which mostly comes from fossil fuels.

Eventually, when the fossil fuels are no longer available all of these energy producers will need to supply their own reproduction energy just as biological systems must do.

To be sustainable, in the sense that life has sustained itself on this planet for billions of years by capturing more energy than just what was needed for maintenance, our invented energy capture/production equipment will have to do the same. This is a systems-based definition of sustainability.

Virtually every profession and perspective will define the term somewhat differently based on their particular view of things.

For example, a sustainable business model will reflect the values and beliefs held by capitalists who foresee sales and profits going on and on into the far future.

You know, like General Motors! I've even lately heard the term used in the context of education — sustainable education invokes the notion that we can keep the machinery of school-based education (teachers and students) going on forever, with good 'outcomes'.

'Sustainable' has become one of those words that can mean pretty much whatever we want it to depending on who is using it and under what context they're doing so. Too many of these implied meanings seem contradictory at times. At some point it becomes a meaningless word. The dictionary definition basically says that it means to support or keep going.

No real time frame is mentioned. I think most people apply this general concept to whatever is being claimed is sustainable. We'll keep the business going. We'll keep the education system going.

And so on. But there is also a hint of the notion that we won't be able to keep the business going unless we do something special to the model (process) that makes it sustainable.

We need to change something about education in order that it becomes sustainable. Our energy systems and economy need to be altered so as to be sustainable long into the future. And that, it seems to me, is where things get pretty fuzzy. I'd suggest we take the systems perspective on this issue.

In this approach we view that which is to be sustained as a process. It has boundaries through which inputs and outputs travel. It gets energy, materials, and information from its environment and pumps out heat and wastes and 'products'. In most cases the question resolves to: "can this process continue to pump out that product as long into the future as we wish?"

From this perspective it is clear that three things need to be settled before an answer can be gotten.

First, the inputs are resources and we need to know if there are essentially endless supplies of these.

Second, are the internal workings of the process such that the ratio of product to waste (and energy to heat) is maintainable for all time? Are there possibly flaws in the inner workings that will cause a steady degradation of output over time?

Third, will the environment continue to carry off the product(s) and wastes so that they do not build up and clog the flow through?

This may seem like an oversimplification of the whole problem, but it is only a matter of accounting and measuring in reasonable units of time. Every process has these characteristics even if there are millions of inputs and outputs; even if the inner workings are mind bogglingly complex and stochastic.

All of that may make the question harder to answer, but it does not alter the fact that an answer is possible. And, necessary. Several things can impact the long-term sustainability of a process.

If the resources are finite then the draw down of them clearly makes the process unsustainable. In some cases, alternative inputs might be substituted, but if they too are finite then this just delays the inevitable.

If the process is one that grows, then several things can go wrong. The growth itself may involve slight errors in replicating key sub-processes causing the internal workings to go awry.

If the rate of influx of even an infinite resource is fixed then at some point the growth will outstrip the resource input and the system will neither be able to continue to grow, nor will it be able to have any kind of margin of error, so to speak, should something go wrong.

A related problem is if the growth of a process means an increase in product/wastes output relative to the absorbing rate of the environment then the process can be choked in its own output.

 If we take this systems approach to characterizing the meaning of sustainability then it becomes clear that claims of sustainable this or sustainable that need to be verified by demonstrating that all of the factors above are met. This will take research, careful observation, careful measurements, and careful use of language!

Of course the bandwagon is rolling already. The word, like the word "green" has taken on a life of its own devoid of any thoughtfulness and so it is unlikely that the powers that be will insist on some kind of standard usage that includes validation of claims made.

Sustainability is a fad, so the likelihood that it will be a terribly useful guide to policy decisions is rather small. Just label something as sustainable and everyone will applaud. Of course, in the really long perspective nothing is sustainable!

If sustainable means keeping something the same forever (or a really long time) it is actually an unachievable status in the real world. Everything is changing and evolving. I mentioned that life has sustained itself through the trick of capturing more energy than it needs to just maintain. That is how it grows. But the life on

Earth today is vastly different from life a half billion years ago. What has endured is the energy flow through driving the internal workings.

Those, in turn have been subject to copy errors and because all processes (cells, for example) are embedded in complicated environments that put stresses on them, they are subject to selection for those errors that happily confer some advantage. Life is sustained as long as energy flows, but species, and higher taxonomic categories as well, are not sustainable. Indeed they should not be sustainable in the very long run.

Our current social systems, our economic and political models, even our organizational forms and family units, are presently undergoing huge stresses from an environment we ironically had a great deal to do with creating. Nothing that we have or are is truly sustainable.

Everything, including us, will change or go extinct in the long run. And the long run may not be as long as most of us think. We cannot sustain our current version of social order and economic activity. We look for ways to fix the inherent flaws (like increasing regulation over capital markets) to make what we do now sustainable.

But it is largely a vain effort. We are all inherently conservatives who want the world we have known to stay the same. We want to go on building so-called wealth and having kids to give it to. We want everything to be as it was for our lives.

We believe our experiences were valid and should be sustained for all time. But we are wrong.

We should not be looking to sustain what we have, just for the sake of keeping it going. We should look for ways to stabilize the parts that work, to buy time and keep the change from being overly destructive.

But we need to embrace evolution. We need to let go of institutions that are dilapidated, that are actually causing us more pain than good. What we need to do is look at our processes as described above and make wise decisions about resource flows based on what is and is not renewable.

We need to evaluate the internal workings, our economic models and our population size, relative to both the resource issues and the piling up of wastes at our feet and in our water. Life abides. It is sustainable. Processes change. We should recognize this and live by it.

We should not believe that we are going to keep everything exactly the same for the indefinite future. That doesn't mean it is OK to be a destructive force or cause damaging changes (as with our over production of CO2). But it does mean we have to think through our institutions, our processes and our values guided by nature's design and be able to change those as seems wise, rather than slavishly follow some vague concept called sustainability out of a foolish desire to preserve a status quo. Right now people are wasting valuable time trying to figure out how we can generate liquid fuels out of vegetation in order to keep driving our cars. They talk about sustainable fuel production trying to make the idea of maintaining our lifestyles seem reasonable. They want to build giant solar arrays that will rob the Ecos of some of its fair share of light so that we can maintain our consumption of electricity (indeed without addressing the population growth this is more than just maintenance).

Human life, in this mode of thinking, is not sustainable. And if we persist, neither might be a livable planet.

[IB Publisher's Note: In a presntation on Kauai Land Use at the Eco-Roundtable LEGS conference in November of 2007, held at Kauai Community College, we offered our definition of "Sustainability" as: Using unrenewable resources no faster than they are recycled. Using renewable resources no faster than they are produced. Maintaining the health and biodiversity of the earth’s ecosystems. Maintaining the art and knowledge of human cultures. In general it is the idea of living within the means of our environment's resources, but more than that it means doing so while providing an enjoyable quality of life. Sustainability is not, however, a technique for the continuation of the status quo.

That last bit is an important part of the responsibility we have going forward. The idea that going Green today means substituting a Prius for a Hummer and switching over to photovoltaics from the KIUC grid. That is maintainability, not sustainability. Going "green", as the corporations are envisioning it, won't cut it. More profound life changes are imminent.] see also: Island Breath: TGI #16 - Kauai Sustainability Land Use Plan 11/1/07

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