The problem that confronts us is that every living system in the biosphere is in decline and the rate of decline is accelerating. There isn’t one peer-reviewed scientific article that’s been published in the last 20 years that contradicts that statement. Living systems are coral reefs. They’re our climatic stability, forest cover, the oceans themselves, aquifers, water, the conditions of the soil, biodiversity. They go on and on as they get more specific. But the fact is, there isn’t one living system that is stable or is improving. And those living systems provide the basis for all life. – Paul Hawken, capitalist, environmentalist and author
Obviously, if the foundation for all life is deteriorating, and humans are the cause of this global decline, we are not living in a sustainable manner. But what does that mean? Sustainable is a word that is misused almost as often as it is used. The definition should not be up for debate, however. It is like being pregnant, there is no such thing as “sort of.” Likewise, the phrase “more sustainable” is redundant. Something is sustainable or it isn’t. At its most basic, sustainable simply means capable of being sustained indefinitely. Here’s a quick test for sustainability: If inputs are required and they come from somewhere else (outside the system), it isn’t sustainable. The loop is not closed.
For an activity to be sustainable, preservation of local and global biological integrity is essential. Biological integrity is the ability of a local web of life to support and maintain a balanced, integrated, adaptive community of organisms having a species composition, diversity, and functional organization comparable to that of natural habitat of the region. For humans to have a sustainable relationship with a landbase—and life on Earth—our role is to maintain such a balance without a trend toward a loss of biological integrity—anywhere. Transitioning to a sustainable culture will require that all extractive practices conform to evolutionary processes, not to an imposed economy.
On our biological integrity page, we voice our concern over this definition because humans have so degraded most of the world. So, since no human alive today will be able to experience vast areas of the globe in a state of biological integrity, we’ve come up with a new definition for sustainable:
Living in a manner that does not disrupt the trend of natural evolutionary processes toward increasing biodiversity, soil building, and reproductive capacity for nearly all members of the existing local biotic communities and all the neighboring ones.
To reiterate, sustainability cannot be isolated to a single locale. For example, if we secure all of our food from wild sources and our climatically-appropriate garden, and we are successful at native plant restoration and improved soil and water cycles on our land, that seems sustainable, right? But if we do much of this using machines made in distant factories that run on fuel extracted overseas and refined far away, then what about the serious consequences to all the locales that are needed to produce, ship and maintain these machines? Our economy is based on these sacrifice zones. Most definitions of sustainability these days–like the common triple bottom line of economy, culture, environment–allow for this kind of degenerative extraction.
To be truly sustainable, all “resource” exchanges between regions must be reciprocal over time and not degrade the integrity of the community dynamics of any landbase. An example of this is bird migrations. Birds take “resources” from the regions they move through, but they leave droppings and spread seed.
With a clear definition, it becomes easy to answer more difficult questions. Are there such things as sustainable energy sources? Yes. Is it possible to capture and transfer that energy on a broad scale in a sustainable way? No. Does that mean industrialization can never be sustainable? Afraid so. Can large-scale cultivation agriculture be sustainable? Only in areas where natural regeneration of plants and soil happen extremely quickly. Electricity, cars, planes, stainless steel, all unsustainable? Yup. What about the vast majority of so-called “solutions” that would transform this way of living into a “sustainable” one? They are completely incompatible with genuine sustainability. For example, solar electricity requires mining, industrial manufacturing, and shipping materials great distances. For a short essay that explains this further, see this article.
At what point did the way humans live stop being sustainable? Anatomically modern humans have been on Earth for about 200,000 years, but the advent of agriculture and living in cities happened only about 8,000 to 10,000 years ago. Ever since these two inventions, there has been an ever accelerating rate of land degradation, biodiversity loss, and desertification. There are scientists who believe that some of the poor land management choices causing these declines started prior to the advent of agriculture, but there is a near-unanimous agreement that large-scale degradation begins with agriculture, particularly in brittle (arid and semi-arid) environments. Civilization, by definition (living in cities), is unsustainable because it requires the destruction of most life in the locale where the city is built and degenerative extraction of resources from outside the city.
So where do we go from here? As a local community and as a global one, we have to have a goal to live sustainably. Any goal that includes taking more than you give back will result in the same demise, the same need for ever-growing sacrifice zones. The only valid question left is, “At what level of degradation do we want to sustain ourselves?” The critical follow-up to that question is: “Can we sustain ourselves at that level without increasing the number or size of sacrifice zones?” If the answer is negative, then we must plan for a decrease in our population. That is where we are, globally.
Locally, too. For example, if Tehama County residents had a say in it, and democratically voted to maintain the current depleted state of the land, life and water within its boundaries, then we would have to map out a way of living that prevents the further loss of soil, biodiversity, and all biological populations, and stops degradation of the water cycle in our region. Since we would want to maintain our own population, we’d have to continue to depend on exploitation of lands elsewhere, making the whole venture unsustainable. The only way to live sustainably is to ensure that no life systems anywhere are degraded over time on our behalf. So we’d have to know how many people this county could sustain in its current crisis state. We’d have to know carrying capacity.
Carrying capacity is a term that most ranchers are familiar with, as it is used to determine how many head of stock can graze a given area. The definition (the maximum, equilibrium number of organisms of a particular species that can be supported indefinitely in a given environment) is vague in that it doesn’t mention the role of the complex interdependencies between species in each locale. It hints at that by using the word “equilibrium,” but we think it more accurate to say that the term applies to life as a whole as well as to each individual species. The critical word in the definition is “indefinitely.” That implies sustainable, reciprocal relationships. For example, the carrying capacity of the perennial native bunch grasses and associated forbs, shrubs and oaks of this part of California sustained tens or hundreds of thousands of elk, deer, pronghorn and rabbits. In return, the grazers and browsers left their manure and urine, as well as their blood and bones when they died. As those native grasslands have been transformed to annual grasses, housing developments, and so on, the carrying capacity has decreased for nearly all species, while increasing for “invasives,” including civilized humans.This points out what may be the critical role of these exotic species in returning vigor to the land. For more on this, see our “invasives” page. Another factor about that critical word “indefinitely” is that all actions and materials used by humans to boost production of a given landbase, if they are created or transported by using electricity or fossil fuel, for example, cannot continue indefinitely, so they are not sustainable. Therefore, irrigation, as it exists here and almost everywhere it is employed, is unsustainable even though it may briefly boost carrying capacity of target species and weeds. Globally, the current numbers show that the Earth, in its current depleted state, takes one and a half years to regenerate what humanity uses in one year, clearly showing that global carrying capacity for humans is in overshoot. (Source: Population Matters)
Once we knew the carrying capacity for humans in this region, as the land is now, we could then extrapolate a carrying capacity at various levels of regeneration. If our human population goal could not be met with the current conditions, but it could if, for example, salmon numbers were quadrupled, blue oak tree canopy densities (and all the associated benefits) were increased 25%, and we had an average of one-half inch more topsoil throughout the county, then those would become our goals to sustain a human population similar to today’s.
Given that most cultivation agriculture—especially irrigation-dependent—is an unsustainable venture, and that it is impossible to return this region to the way it was before Europeans arrived, we see that the most likely route to sustainability here is by integrating the useful feral plants and animals into indigenous principles of tending to a native species-heavy landscape. And given that land ownership and economic hierarchy aren’t going away any time soon, either, we see that grazing animals are the next best thing to wild herds of pronghorn and elk. Deer, turkey and quail still live here, so boosting their populations by land care practices that expand their browse, habitat and predators is also a high priority.
If we want to avoid the consequences of overshoot–a die off of humans–here in our locale and across the globe, we need to restore the land. As the land is the foundation of our existence, restoring it really should be the highest priority for humanity right now. We recommend a transition strategy that maps out how to get to a sustainable culture as soon as possible. A government that wanted to serve humanity would be putting this plan together already. Of course they are not, so local governments need to be pressured to begin planning for the future with the real definition of sustainable in mind.