- What have they done to the earth? What have they done to our, fair, sister?
- — Jim Morrison "When the Music's Over," from The Doors' album Strange Days, 1967.
Writing this song only five years after Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, Morrison and his bandmates had good reason to demand "what have they done to the earth?" Forty years later, few of us have any right to talk about "them" destroying anything. So the question becomes, "What have we done to the earth?" Better still: "What are we doing to the earth, and how can we stop our destructive practices?"
We start this inquiry with the impulse to buy. Ever walked into a store wanting to buy the least harmful goods and been bewildered by the trade offs? Should one buy local… naturally grown… organic… fair trade… union made..? Apparently each of these has a claim to being a more sustainable way to go. An item that was all of these things would be rare (in fact, in some cases impossible). So if we value sustainability, is there some guide to which of the above strategies is best, and when? We can no longer afford to be bewildered. We can only make a difference if we choose the most sustainable items and convince others to do the same. The alternative? Don't buy: Grow, make, trade... Or do without.
The very notion of sustainability, as applied to the life of our species on earth, has been called into question. With good reason. Our planet depends on the sun for its existence. This is the source of most of the energy we get. We know that, ultimately, the sun will burn out. While that may not happen for five billion years, it will happen. Thus life on planet earth is, ultimately, unsustainable. Moreover, the human race has been expanding in numbers and in its use of the resources of the planet. As long as we continue this pattern of growth, our resources will run out much sooner than the life expectancy of our star.
So, as Albert Bates says in his Post-Petroleum Survival Guide and Cookbook, what we should be aiming for is a "steady-state economy in which we destroy nothing, reuse and recycle, and try to keep the natural world, which provides our every need healthy and robust."
Given that caveat, we should, perhaps, always attempt to add the word "more" or "increased" in front of the word "sustainability." Pressing on then, we must define what we mean when we say "increased sustainability." The Wikipedia article on sustainability refers to the definition of sustainable development given in the Brundtland Commission report of 1987:
Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.
Or, as Robert Gilman worded it in his definition of an ecovillage: "[capable of being] extended into the indefinite future." That tells us where we want to go, but it doesn't tell us how to get there. The Wikipedia article gives a longer definition of sustainability, which, in the end, doesn't help us know what to buy, do, or make any more than the Brundtland definition does.
So let's try another approach. What we need is a litmus test of sustainability. One such test is The Natural Step. The link gives the background on The Natural Step, but the essence of it is the following:
The Natural Step Framework's definition of sustainability includes four system conditions (scientific principles) that lead to a sustainable society. These conditions, that must be met in order to have a sustainable society, are as follows:
In a sustainable society, nature is not subject to systematically increasing:
- concentrations of substances extracted from the Earth's crust;
- concentrations of substances produced by society;
- degradation by physical means
and, in that society. . .
- the ability for humans to meet their needs is not systematically undermined.
Now we're cookin'! Well, actually, before we start cooking, we have to go back to that store. This time we will know how to buy sustainably. Right? Well, with increases in human population, it will become increasingly difficult for humans to meet their needs worldwide.
Logically then, the first question should be: "Do I need this item?" We are conditioned to buy things automatically. See something you like; buy it. Perhaps we need to think about living simply.
From The Natural Step's definition of sustainability, it follows that we should:
- First reduce our consumption, and
- for non-perishables, buy reused goods, and
- for perishables, food or clothing, buy local, organic, fairly traded goods.
- When local organic is not possible, local, naturally produced (i.e., "no sprays" or natural ingredients) is likely be more sustainable than organic from a distant part of the world.
- Where the item is not produced locally (e.g. coffee), organic, fair trade, packaged locally would be a good choice.
- for durable goods, such as major appliances, consider how much energy it consumes and how easily it can be recycled.
Further elaboration and discussion follows.
Based on The Natural Step's conditions, we want to minimize materials that are extracted from the earth's crust, or require extensive manufacturing, or destroy ecosystems or impoverish humans.
- 1) Local: The first thing that comes to mind is that if foods are transported over long distances there will be extensive use of petrochemicals in the form of fuel. These are taken from the earth's crust. If the food could be produced locally, obviously that would be more sustainable.
- 2) Lower impact: Another consideration is purchasing foods that are produced through unsustainable practices. Many aspects of conventional agriculture are untenable, especially factory farms and any method of farming that destroys ecosystems (most especially the soil biota) or limits biodiversity. As such, they are unsustainable based on the third of The Natural Step's four criteria.
- 3) Organic: The application of inorganic herbicides and pesticides destroys ecosystems and reduces biodiversity. Such toxins have many serious problems for humans. Some of these chemicals accumulate in the biosphere and are linked to persistent health problems, including respiratory illnesses (such as asthma) and cancer. Since they are byproducts of the petrochemical industry, they rank highly on three of The Natural Step's system conditions: they depend on substances extracted from the earth's crust; they are the end products of intensive manufacturing, and they contribute to the destruction of ecosystems. Buying organic food obviously reduces and, in some cases, eliminates these concerns.
- The label "Certified Organic" ensures the consumer that no toxic or inorganic substances have been used and no corners cut. It is a minimum standard. It is impossible to ensure that goods sold as "organic" without the certification label meet the minimum standard.
- 4) Triple bottom line: Mass production (at least in the developed world), has brought us cheap plentiful food. While that seems like a good thing, it has conditioned us to look for the lowest price. That may not be such a good thing. Given the economies of scale, it is obviously cheaper to produce food in large factory farms and truck it, or ship it, long distances. While it is cheap to do so, such a process treats environmental factors and health concerns as "externalities." What that means is that environmental problems or health issues are not factored into the "costs." We need to look at the true costs or, the "tripple bottom line." Smaller-scale organic production is thus highly desireable. However, given the extra costs and our tendency to look for the lowest price, can it expand beyond a niche?
The risks and problems are serious. Now, rather than dwell on this, let's move on to a more positive vantage point. Awareness of environmental risks is growing and has led to a worldwide growth in organic food production. There is also a growing awareness of the importance of "eating local." Let's examine some potential solutions.
Growing your own food
Growing one's own or one's communities' own food would be a basic premise. Almost everyone can grow something, whether in a backyard or community garden, a permaculture rooftop plot, or in pots on a balcony.
Community Supported Agriculture
Community-supported agriculture is a step in the right direction. Beginning in the early 1960's, Germany, Switzerland, and Japan, led the way as food consumers and producers got together and worked out a better, safer and less expensive (economically and ecologically) means of getting wholesome foods produced and distributed more conscientiously. Biodynamic agriculture was developed in Europe around this time. This brought the concept of natually grown food that could be offered in community-supported format. The idea blazed through Europe and into the Americas via the Topanimbur project co-founded by Jan Vander Tuin beginning near Zurich, Switzerland. Vander Tuin (who coined the term "community-supported agriculture" or CSA) then brought the concept of CSA to North America around 1984, joining a large network of folks on the East and West Coasts of both the US and Canada. In Japan the CSA equivalent is called the teikei system.
The phrase "eat local" says it all. The popularity of the book The 100-mile diet shows the growing awareness of the importance of eating locally grown food, in season. Farmers markets are increasingly common in cities and towns and during the summer, these tend to be lively places to go. If we are serious about living more sustainably, year-round local markets are something we should all be pushing for.
There is a growing awareness of the importance of fair trade (as opposed to "free" trade), not only for developing countries, but also in the developed world. An organic farming cooperative in Saskatchewan has recently begun a fair trade initiative for North America and are meeting with organic farmers and cooperatives in Wisconsin to discuss fair trade strategies.
The choices here are perhaps clearer than with food, since the use of petroleum products is a requirement in most internal combustion engines. So one guideline is: reduce consumption of petroleum. How do we do that? Well, we can:
- use rapid transit
- car pool
- use electric-powered vehicles
- use diesel engines powered by vegetable oil
Reducing our reliance on the automobile requires a major shift in thinking. Nevertheless, each one of us can work on strategies to reduce our dependence. Where vehicle use is unavoidable, biodiesel or electric powered vehicles use more sustainable sources of power. Waste vegetable oil is plentiful right now and restaurants pay to have it taken away. Oil seeds can be grown to make vegetable oil for fuel. A diesel engine can be converted to run on 100% vegetable oil. However, should we be allocating large tracts of the planet to the growing of biofuels? If this is destructive of ecosystems (e.g., the conversion of rainforest in Brazil to sugar cane for biofuels) or causes food prices to rise, this would seem to be unsustainable. Electric vehicles, particularly if they are powered from solar or wind power locally, are relatively sustainable.
However, most vehicles, as they are currently made, have other problems meeting the criteria for sustainability. They contain huge amounts of metals, vinyls and other products of intensive mining and manufacturing. There is a great deal of embodied energy in a car. We need to re-think our approach to transportation.
Within the past decade, green building has become increasingly popular amongst building professionals. The U.S. Green Building Council has established LEED Standards for construction. There has also been a concurrent growth in interest in natural building.
Life cycle assessment, which takes into account embodied energy, among other things, is essential to green building. Many commonly used construction materials have high levels of embodied energy. Some, that rate lower in amount of embodied energy (such as concrete) are produced in manufacturing processes that give off high levels of greenhouse gases. Moreover, concrete is used to extensively in many types of construction that it is often the largest source of embodied energy in a particular building project.
Note that higher embodied energy may justified in LEED standards if it is contained in a good that is more durable, takes less energy to recycle, or contributes to lower operating energy. Thus galvanized steel or tile roofs are favoured in green building.
Because of its process of reducing energy and environmental impacts, green building is obviously more sustainable than conventional construction. However, natural building, which makes use of local and rapidly renewable materials, tends to be the most sustainable way to go. Natural building systems include the following:
- Systems using renewable or rapidly renewable materials: strawbale, timberframe, cordwood/masonry
- Systems using various combinations of earth, sand and clay: cob, adobe, earthbag, rammed earth
Appliances and electronics
People the world over need/want a wide variety of goods to live and to make their lives better. How sustainable is the march to ever more, and better, goods? Energy is a major consideration in selecting goods in these categories. There are two key aspects of this: 1) How much energy goes into the manufacture, distribution, use and disposal of the product (i.e., its life cycle assessment, and embodied energy) and, 2) How much energy does it consume?
The Natural Step's conditions also suggest that it is necessary to consider where the substance comes from. Is it a metal (i.e., from the earth's crust) or a plastic—a fossil fuel derivative, likewise from the earth's crust, but also heavily manufactured (with all of the byproducts and externalities inherent in any petroleum-based manufacturing process). Plastics are one of the most persistent substance yet made by humans. Plastics will endure long after humans have gone.
Can we do without a refrigerator, stove, washing machine, dryer? At best, probably only partially. So we need to consider each product's life cycle and energy consumption. What materials is it made with? Where does it come from? How is it disposed of and can it be recycled?
Ah, the very arrangements of electrons that allow you to read this, and perhaps listen to music while you do so. Some technologies (the Internet) enable learning, many (IPods, radios, televisions, video games) increase enjoyment, some (telephones, cellphones) are almost staples of the human condition. How do the groundrules of sustainability apply to such necessary goods?
Perhaps the key to the whole picture is energy: how we get it; how we use it. Renewable energy is undoubtedly the means to becoming more sustainable as a species. Energy consumption is basic to human activity. Embodied energy is present in all our products. How can we generate energy to balance that which we consume?
An oxymoron? The spectacle of people buying Lexus Hybrids and 10,000 square foot vacation homes made with reused lumber seems strange. But maybe the "lite greens" aren't part of the real problem, as a New York Times article suggests, quoting sustainable living guru Michel Gelobter:
- “A legitimate beef that people have with green consumerism is, at end of the day, the things causing climate change are more caused by politics and the economy than individual behavior,” said Michel Gelobter, a former professor of environmental policy at Rutgers who is now president of Redefining Progress, a nonprofit policy group that promotes sustainable living.
- “A lot of what we need to do doesn’t have to do with what you put in your shopping basket,” he said. “It has to do with mass transit, housing density. It has to do with the war and subsidies for the coal and fossil fuel industry.”