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The Nature of Sustainability


This blog is about sustainability, a subject I’ve been interested in my whole life.  50 years ago, in college, I didn’t know it was sustainability I was learning about when I did an independent study on the effects of technology on human society.   Nor did I particularly think about sustainability when I started learning about building science and energy-efficient buildings, or when I started building solar greenhouses because they stayed warmer and were ‘cool.’

In graduate school I studied  environmental science, and two classes, Ecological Theory and Political Economy, helped me to understand what sustainability really meant and what I had really been studying.  At this  time, few people had any knowledge or interest in sustainability.   

My passion for the subject has taken on many forms over the past 50 years. I’ve taught high school and college environmental science courses, I was New Hampshire’s second certified energy auditor, I administered the state’s energy codes and I started the first 2 year energy services degree program in the Northeast.  

I’m still obsessed with sustainability, which I’m sure after this introduction you’ll be shocked to know, is the subject of my new blog.  I intend to explore various topics related to sustainability.  

Let’s start by getting on the same page about what sustainability means. Sustainability has become a commonly used word in the last few years.  It is often used, like the term green, with a vague meaning, like eco-friendly.  I think it is important to understand in more detail the meaning and implications of sustainability.

In the natural world, there is no such thing as waste.  One organism’s waste is another’s lunch.  Anything built up by nature has an equal and opposite process to break it down.  Imagine a great Lego set.  Today some of the pieces are made into a house.  Tonight we will take the house apart and tomorrow we will make a Lego Locomotive with the same blocks.  With the exception of the rocks that hit us from space and the material we have sent into space, all life, all natural processes, and all systems use the same recycled materials over and over again. All the different living and nonliving cycles that occur on the earth are driven by solar energy.   These cycles are called biogeochemical cycles (bio from biology ie life, geo from geological and chemical cycles) Everything is present that is needed to keep the system going indefinately. 

These biogeochemical cycles, the processes that build up and  break down both living beings and non-living systems didn’t just appear as they are now.   They have evolved over millions of years into the self-sustaining processes humans have been discovering since our emergence of humans  five million to seven million years ago.  For the first 99% of the time humans have walked the planet, we were (and still are) an integral part of the ecosystem.  Initially, we used only natural materials available to us, and like the rest of the ecosystem, we used direct and indirect solar energy to fuel our existence.

Some call the current geologic period, the Athropocene.   The Anthropocene is a proposed geological epoch dating from the commencement of significant human impact on Earth’s geology and ecosystems, including, but not limited to, anthropogenic climate change.   Our actions are having a profound effect upon the world’s ecosystems causing the mass extinction of thousands, if not millions of species.  What has changed?  

We no longer use only the materials found in nature.  We make our own new materials by the thousands, and distribute them over land, sea and air. They are usually untested, and certainly never tested for the effects of random mixing with each other in the air, soil and water or living creatures including humans.  

These materials have been introduced into our environment and nothing has  co-evolved with them to break them down. Since these materials have not been made by nature, there is, of course, no natural process to break them down, so they persist, and build up as what we have come to call pollution.  This is one of the sources of our current imbalance.

There is a second way we affect the environment and change the course of evolution.  Natural systems can be overwhelmed.   Here’s an apt analogy:  Your liver filters out toxins quite effectively.  If you have a couple of alcoholic drinks, your liver will filter out the alcohol.  Try drinking three bottles of whisky, and it may kill you.  You had a working filtration system, which was overwhelmed and can no longer protect you.  

The same is true on the macro scale.  In balance, natural processes evolved to effectively remove carbon dioxide from the earth’s atmosphere. These processes co-evolved long before man came onto the scene. It was only in the past century, humans, fueled by population growth and the demand for fossil fuel energy, have overwhelmed the natural system causing a historic buildup of carbon dioxide.  This overwhelms the system, causing it to break down and not perform its ecological function. 

Matter and energy move through ecosystems, providing natural infrastructure from which has evolved all living, interdependent organisms, including humans.  

Sustainability in effect means the ability to continue those  life support processes indefinitely.  

This does not mean the environment does not change naturally, it absolutely does, but until recently most of those changes and adaptations to those changes came over long periods of time.

Over the last 100 years, change has been extremely fast,  causing the destruction of natural habitats and  pollutants that  overwhelm systems which up until now provided ecological services to us and the rest of the ecosystem.   Materials  that have never been seen in nature are at the root of the increased pollution of air, land and water pollution, as well as the mass extinctions we are witnessing.  As Bob Dylan said, “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.”   You don’t need to be an ecologist to know that what we are seeing and what we are doing, is clearly not sustainable.

I would suggest that the best way for humans to become more sustainable is to try to closely mimic the natural world.  Like the natural world that breaks down anything that it builds up, it should be the responsibility of any person or company that introduces a material that has not natural to have an end-of-life plan for the material so that it breaks down into its original parts, and mimics the rest of the natural world in producing no waste. 

The fact that all life has managed to survive and thrive powered only by the sun should suggest that solar energy is our best alternative for an energy source. 

Until the last year or so, energizing ourselves with solar energy would have cost more if it could be done at all, but to quote Dylan again, “The times they are a changin…”  It now costs the same or less to install solar than buy electricity from the power company.

When we stop thinking of the environment as our garbage dump and  add in the real costs to the environment, and to human health, we find that solar and other renewable energy sources are a much  better deal.

How did we get here?  Most indigenous peoples had a basic belief that they were part of the whole. The term “Mother Nature” describes, in general  the nature of the relationship between indigenous people and the natural world.  One example of how this played out was that  Native Americans not only thought about the consequences of their actions in the short term to themselves, but also concerned themselves with the consequences of their actions  eight  generations into the future.

Unlike the indigeonous people of the world, the Judeo-Chrisian European worldview puts humans above nature and at the center of the universe.  Galileo, living at the time of the inquisition, was excommunicated for having the audacity to assert that the earth revolved around the sun, and not the Copernican view of earth and humans as the center of the universe.  

Despite all our knowledge, the idea that humans are superior to nature persists. It is  embraced in the myth of ‘rugged individualism.’  Why do I call it mythology? Because there  is no such thing as rugged individualism in nature–everything is connected. Everything depends upon everything else; nothing lives or benefits in isolation.

The key to sustainability is using nature as a model. Everything is recycled, there is no waste, and everything is run on solar energy.  Since every component is a necessary part of the whole, there is no one part that is ‘better’ than the other. There is no such thing as racism in nature; take one part away and the system falls apart. 

Humans can learn a lot about sustainability by watching and mimicking nature. In this blog,  Adventures in Sustainability, I, and some guest bloggers, will explore different ideas about how we can  become more sustainable in different facets of societies and in our lives. 

Thank you for reading this, and I hope you will come back and read further posts.

Wes Golomb


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