A New Sustainability Ethic

What does sustainability mean to you? I spent four years at university pondering this question, not only because sustainability was the overarching theme of my undergraduate degree, but because I was forced to live simply, out of necessity not choice, on limited financial resources. This experience taught me that I didn’t need much at all, in the way of money or material objects, to survive and be happy. I continue to live this way, although now I embrace simplicity out of choice, not necessity. As the Buddha took the ‘middle way’ between spirituality and materialism, I take a ‘middle way’ approach to consumption, finding a healthy balance between the opposing extremes of deprivation and excess.

Being highly self-governing, I continually navigate the least damaging and most ethical course I can through life, between denial and over-indulgence, to avoid swinging too far in either direction. Creating a spiritual, sustainable life in a modern world is my goal, and although it is an ideal some might say is unattainable. I believe we can, indeed we must, strive to achieve it. I want us to develop a new sustainability ethic, to carry us forward into the future, while allowing us to embrace and explore life to its fullest potential, in these incredible times we live.

Over the last two years, I’ve been documenting my ideas about sustainability in this blog and creating an ethos as an Environmental Warrior. The word ethos has its origins in the Greek word for character and refers to the morals, values and beliefs guiding a person, community, culture or ideology.

I’ve never wanted the Environmental Warrior ethos to become an ideology, because I don’t believe in laying down a rigid set of rules that cannot be deviated from, nor do I want to take a purist approach to environmental issues. Trust me, I’ve been there, I’ve been so concerned and upset about making any kind of impact that I’ve ended up on the floor in a fetal position, unable to do anything. And that’s no way to live.

I have refused, reduced, reused, repaired and recycled as much as I can, and I will continue to refine and streamline my life, down to the bare minimum I can handle. I am more flexible in my approach now, and therefore I advocate a ‘middle way’ approach to sustainability and consumption. We are not meant to lead lives of denial or deprivation, but neither is it right for us to gratify our every desire by consuming endlessly with no awareness of how our actions affect others.

As an environmentalist, I am guided by, and role model, certain principles that help me navigate my way through an overwhelming world, where ideas and information are often conflicting and contradictory. I know we cannot live on the Earth without making an impact. I’m aware my actions have consequences. I actively work to reduce my impact by reducing my consumption. I green my impact by making sustainable and ethical choices. I give back to the community and to the Earth.

We not me

A central principle of the Environmental Warrior ethos is an awareness of the other forms of life, organic and inorganic, sentient and non-sentient, that share the Earth, and an understanding that the planet’s resources are required for the survival of all life, not just human beings. I subscribe to an eco-centric rather than an ego-centric view of the world. I don’t believe we should position ourselves as the superior life form, surveying the Earth, thinking it’s ours to mould in whichever way we want, solely to fit our needs. What about the needs of others? Nature is not a commodity to be traded, exploited and destroyed in the pursuit of power, control and money. The Earth provides the means for our survival – if the planet dies, we die.

The cycle of reciprocity

A second principle of the Environmental Warrior ethos is the recognition that we live in a world governed by reciprocal relationships, a giving and receiving of life force between all forms of life. Clean air, fresh water and nutritious food are the basic needs of all human beings. We have a reciprocal relationship with plants, for example. We depend on plants to produce the oxygen we breathe and the food we eat. We take in oxygen and breathe out carbon dioxide, which is taken up by plants and converted into oxygen via photosynthesis, which we breathe in again. When we eat plants (or animals that have eaten plants), we are essentially feeding on carbon that provides the basic building blocks required for the human body to form proteins, carbohydrates and fats.

Give back to the Earth

A third principle of the Environmental Warrior ethos involves giving back to the Earth in gratitude for the gifts we receive to live, and finding that balance between giving and receiving, not denying our basic needs or taking more than we need. In native North American Indian philosophy, when we receive something as a gift from the Earth, we give something back, in respect, gratitude and the spirit of co-operation and sharing.

Giving back to the Earth in a modern world can take many forms, including supporting animal welfare initiatives, campaigning to end environmentally damaging practices, donating to worthy causes, embracing voluntary simplicity, joining an environmental conservation organization or group, offsetting our carbon emissions, petitioning companies to end unethical practices, reducing our consumption and impact, sponsoring a child or volunteering our time and effort to help others.

A new sustainability ethic

Professor Peter Higgins teaches the academic and practical elements of Outdoor, Environmental and Sustainability Education at The University of Edinburgh, and lectures in Learning for Sustainability: Developing a Personal Ethic, available through Coursera. This online course is an introduction to understanding sustainability from an individual perspective and helps us think about how we can successfully apply principles of sustainable management in our own lives.

In one lecture, Professor Higgins refers to the long periods of geological time necessary for evolution to occur on Earth, and how vast amounts of time were required to lay down the deposits of oil, coal and gas reserves that are now fueling modern civilization.

Professor Higgins’ provides an excellent example of the extent to which human beings have changed the Earth in a short period of time, geologically speaking. Scientists have estimated the Earth to be 4.5 million years old. This can be represented by a rope 45 metres long – a metre is one billion years, and a centimetre is one million years. Human beings (Homo sapiens) evolved in Africa between 100,000-200,000 years ago, a time frame represented by the last 2mm of rope.

Human beings have only been a distinct species for 1/3000th the age of the Earth, a miniscule amount of time. Most of the changes we have made to the Earth have taken place since the start of the Industrial Revolution 250 years ago, when the manufacturing process became mechanized through inventions and technological developments.

The Carboniferous Period began between 300-360 million years ago (or 3.6m from the end of the rope), and this is when all the oil, coal and gas deposits were laid down. If we move forward to the end of the rope, the last 250 years of the Industrial Revolution are represented by the thickness of a human hair. During this time, we have used up most of the oil, coal and gas reserves laid down in the Carboniferous Period, at a rate that has led to global warming and climate change.

In the documentary Planet Ocean, it is revealed the Industrial Revolution has cost the Earth one hundred million carbon years and every year we burn the equivalent of one million years of the laying down of carbon-rich plankton. We have built our modern civilization on finite resources and continue as though these resources are infinite. But there isn’t an infinite supply of oil, coal and gas reserves in the Earth, and we are using up the available supplies faster than the Earth can replenish those supplies naturally.

Finite versus infinite resources

A finite resource is a non-renewable resource that cannot be renewed naturally by the Earth in sufficient time frames to allow us to continue to use that resource at the rate we currently use it. Fossil fuels, including oil, coal and gas, metal ores, and rare earth minerals are classified as finite, non-renewable resources. It won’t work if we limit, ration or conserve our use of finite resources, because those resources will still eventually run out at some point. Aren’t we simply postponing the inevitable, over a longer time frame?

An infinite resource is a renewable resource that can be renewed naturally by the Earth in sufficient time to allow us to continue to use that resource indefinitely, provided the resource is managed sustainably. Solar energy, trees, fish, electricity and wind are examples of infinite, renewable resources. Our challenge is to avoid taking these resources at a rate faster than the Earth can renew them, but our even bigger challenge is calculating the maximum amount of a resource we can take at any one time.

Sustainable systems thinking

I subscribe more to a holistic, synergistic view of life than a scientific, reductionist one. Of course, the scientific approach (and the scientific method) is a valid tool for understanding life, but reducing objects and systems down to individual parts, and then expecting those parts to work in the same way every time and in the same combination is not how environmental systems work. The effects of our actions in the present won’t be realized until some other time (temporal scale) and place (spatial scale) in the future.

Up to this point, I don’t believe we have acted with awareness or foresight when planning our lifestyles, or the infrastructure required to support those lifestyles. We need to understand the patterns and rhythms of nature and consider the geological and biological cycles of life and evolution unique to this planet, so we can live sustainably on the Earth long-term. This idea is at the heart of a new sustainability ethic.

A new model for sustainability

I’ve been thinking about whether we can develop a model of sustainability where we can find the threshold or limit or number within which we can realistically use infinite, renewable resources in a way that enables us to continuously use that resource without depleting it. It’s an idea I’ve been thinking about for a while. I don’t know if this model is realistic or even achievable. I know other environmentalists and scientists have proposed and/or tried to construct similar models.

Imagine a school of 100 fish. We think of these fish as being there solely to meet the nutritional needs of the human population, and the economic needs of the corporations that control the fishing industry. But these fish are critical elements in a healthy marine ecosystem and are a major food source for other marine organisms, including seabirds, cetaceans and seals.

Our current approach is to take the entire school of fish, using large-scale, modern extraction methods that destroy the marine environment, to feed the human population directly, or to grind up into fish meal to feed farmed fish to satisfy a luxury need we have created. We completely ignore the impact our behaviour has on the oceans and other marine species.

Instead of taking every single fish, and then having to wait x amount of time for that population of fish to replenish itself, we should only take y number of fish, so that population of fish will be able to renew itself naturally in z amount of time (however long it would take for nature to replace that population of fish), so the species will not become over-exploited or fully exploited. The problem is we don’t know what those numbers are.

How do we calculate x, y and z?

Of course, I’m mulling over the idea of what those exact numbers might be. Fisheries scientists use a concept, based on a hypothetical equilibrium state, known as Maximum Sustainable Yield (MSY) to calculate the highest possible annual catch of a given stock that produces maximum growth and be sustained over time.

We need to know how many fish we can realistically take, to feed the human population, while leaving enough fish for marine species for their survival, growth and reproductive requirements, in a way that doesn’t contribute to biodiversity loss or over-exploit the species of fish we are extracting. The way we currently harvest fish (and trees) is to take everything, wipe out the entire ecosystem, cause the loss or depletion of other species that rely on that resource, and damage the ecosystem to the extent that it needs our help to recover, if it has the capacity to recover at all.

Living within our environmental means

I find it interesting how most countries and individuals in the developed world are living outside of their financial means, and are saddled with crippling amounts of unsustainable debt, to live a certain way of life. We are also living outside of our environmental means, running up huge debts we have no hope of ever being able to repay. We are running on empty, living on borrowed time, and using up resources faster than the Earth can renew them. On both a personal and a collective level, we need to live so that our actions and our consumption are sustainable.

Shifting our consumer mentality

Our consumer-based society cannot continue in its current form. We need to change the way we live. We need to honour and work within the rhythms and limits of the Earth so we can live on the planet long-term. Many organizations are already building sustainability strategies and protocols into their operational plans and designing sustainable and ethical products and services. As individuals, we can do so much in our own lives, we can change our own behaviour, we can reduce our consumption and we can share our ideas and solutions with others on how to live a simple, sustainable life.

In service to the Earth

We need to ask ourselves how we can be of service to the Earth, and how we can live sustainably to get our needs met, without exploitation and greed, while respecting the other life forms who share the Earth, so all sentient beings can live simply and well, including humans, animals, birds, trees, rivers, lakes and oceans.

© 2016 Environmental Warrior
Photo by delfi de la Rua on Unsplash

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