True sustainability solutions

We live in a world with very limited solutions to our sustainability problems. I often hear the view, “If we would just get off fossil fuels, then our society would be sustainable.” Or, “If the price of oil would just go high enough, then renewables would become economic, and our economy would be sustainable.”

Unfortunately, our problems with sustainability began a long time before fossil fuels came around, and the views above represent an incomplete understanding of our predicament. When fossil fuels became available, they were a solution to other sustainability problems–rapid deforestation and difficulty feeding the population at that time. Getting rid of fossil fuels would likely lead to very rapid deforestation and many people dying of lack of water or food. If getting rid of fossil fuels is a solution to our predicament, it is one with very bad side effects.

A couple of different events this week reminded me about how deeply embedded our sustainability problems are. For one, I had the opportunity to read a draft of a soon-to-be published paper by James H. Brown and a group of others from the University of New Mexico and the Sante Fe Institute called, “The Macroecology of Sustainability.” This paper points out that sustainability science has developed largely independently from and with little reference to key ecological principles that govern life on earth. Instead, sustainability science is often more of a social science, looking at slightly greener approaches which are almost as unsustainable as the approaches they replace.

A second thing that reminded me of our long-term problems with sustainability was a pair of articles in this week’s issue of Science. There is a research article called, The Aftermath of Megafaunal Extinction: Ecosystem Transformation in Pleistocene Australia by S. Rule et al, and an accompanying perspective article called The Hunters Did It by M. McGlone.  The perspective article explains that there had been a controversy as to why marked changes in habitat took place shortly after humans settled Australia. Some thought that the loss of forest and animal extinctions were the result of climate change. New research shows that the changes almost certainly came from hunting and the use of fire by humans. This is further evidence that humans did not live sustainably, even when they were still hunters and gatherers. (See my earlier posts, European Debt Crisis and Sustainability and Human population overshoot–what went wrong?)

Below the fold, I will offer some ideas about truly sustainable solutions.

Truly Sustainable Solutions

Humans at this point do not fit in at all well with the natural ecology–the natural systems of plants and animals. In fact, we have disturbed these systems greatly, making natural systems “fit” into the little niches we have reserved for them. In order for humans to fit back into natural systems, it almost seems as though humans would have to evolve to become more like monkeys or gorillas. We would need to stop living in houses, wearing clothes, and cooking our food. It would be helpful to be able to live in trees, to stay away from predators. Somehow, this doesn’t sound at all appealing, or likely.

But if we think about the situation, it yields a few ideas regarding where we need to be, if we are to live in an ecologically sustainable way:

1. In terms of local foods, we need to focus on foods that truly grow wild, or with very little support, in our area. We may need to discard some foods that can be grown today, but which require soil amendments which must be hauled from a distance, sprays for insects, irrigating, or much tilling.

2. To limit our ecological impact, we should be eating plants and perhaps small animals (including birds, fish, and insects) that reproduce in large numbers. We certainly should not be eating cows and pigs grown on industrial farms. The food we eat should be minimally processed–not packaged or finely ground. If we could eat food raw, that would be ideal, from the point of not disturbing other systems. The human digestive system has evolved to work better with cooked food, however, so cooking will probably be necessary, perhaps using solar cookers.

3. Our housing should be simple. We certainly shouldn’t be building more huge houses and buildings. We shouldn’t expect buildings to be heated very much, and probably not be cooled at all.

4. Walking should be our primary means of transportation. Perhaps dug out canoes or rafts would also be suitable for fitting in with the ecosystems.

5. Medical treatment should largely disappear, because it interferes with normal evolutionary processes and because it tends to leave a large dependent elderly population. It also tends to lead to far too high a population in total.

6. We probably need to live in smallish groups (<150 people) and have an economy based on a gift economy. With such an economy, people gain status by what they give away, rather than what they accumulate. Land would probably be shared in common. No one would be wealthy.

If Truly Sustainable Solutions are Impossible

If truly sustainable solutions are virtually impossible, then what do we do? There are 7 billion humans on earth. If human populations were similar to those of monkeys or gorillas, there would probably not be more than more than 1 million (with an “m”) humans in the world, mostly living in warm places. Our basic problem now is that there are far too many of us.

Some choices that might slightly reduce our impact:

1. Reduce our incomes. The amount of resources a person uses is mostly determined by a person’s income. If a person cuts back on his income, he will use less. Trying to cut back within the same income is less effective, because the money a person doesn’t spend one place is likely to be spent somewhere else. (This is one reason that many attempts at being “green” don’ t really work out.)

2. Plant at least some food crops. This too, disturbs the natural ecology, but it is about as good as we can do. If perennial plants are planted, it is possible that others will benefit as well. Animals, birds, and insects may also get some benefit from the crops.

3. Share what petroleum is available more equitably. If I use less oil, by driving a smaller car, or by driving fewer miles, it doesn’t mean that petroleum will be left in the ground. What it does mean is that the gasoline or diesel that I didn’t buy will be available for someone else to buy. This rather strange result happens because total oil supply is pretty much “maxed out”–total world oil supply doesn’t increase by very much, even with more demand. Instead, all that happens is that price rises. If I use less, price may drop a bit, but the same amount of oil in total will be consumed. So by using less petroleum, someone else, somewhere can use more. The result is better sharing of what oil is available.

4. Have smaller families. One child, or even no-child, families are to be encouraged.

How about all of the “green” things that we hear about?

I have a hard time believing that most of the “green” solutions presented to us today are more than marginally beneficial from an ecological point of view. Even substitutes like wind turbines and solar PV have their difficulties. Most of the time wind and solar PV  are used as parts of large electrical grids, and the grids themselves are not sustainable. In addition, we have to disturb natural ecological systems to make and use these systems. The intermittent electricity they produce is not a reasonable substitute for petroleum, which is the fuel we are having most difficulty with.

The problem our economy is facing now is recessionary impacts associated with high-priced oil. High priced substitutes are even worse, in my view. If low-priced substitutes for oil are available, they may make sense. For example, if natural gas could substitute for oil that would be a small step in the right direction, but even natural gas has its difficulties–it too produces CO2 when burned and it is out of synch with the natural ecology.

If there are “green” solutions that are helpful and not too ecologically disturbing, I expect that most of them will be smaller and simpler–for example, small windmills made with local materials, or small water wheels. Recycled materials may be used for some of these–perhaps parts of old autos or recycled building materials.

About Gail Tverberg

My name is Gail Tverberg. I am an actuary interested in finite world issues - oil depletion, natural gas depletion, water shortages, and climate change. Oil limits look very different from what most expect, with high prices leading to recession, and low prices leading to inadequate supply.
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119 Responses to True sustainability solutions

  1. Pingback: True sustainability solutions »

  2. chrisharries says:

    Time and Money. Or should I say Time versus Money.

    Having been involved in significant behaviour change programs, I’ve learned that these two competing barriers play a great part in what we do with our lives. They largely define our lives.

    When asked what is the main barrier that prevents you from living sustainably, top of the hierarchy of barriers comes time poverty. Caught in a time trap, we believe we don’t have enough time to do things like walk our kids to school, or wait at a bus stop of public transport to come along or turn a compost heap. Let alone enough time to bend down and turn off a power point at the wall. So time is our main excuse.

    A much less acknowledged barrier is Disposable Income – as you’ve mentioned in the article Gail. Most of us spend much of our disposable time earning disposable income. Then what we do with that? The more we become environmentally conscious, the more this becomes an ethical problem. I have one hell of a time trying to explain to people that having disposable income is a problem in itself. We may devise ways to try to dispose of it sustainably, but, really, money just goes around in circles and we lose control when we spend it on anything. Even purchasing a great work of art puts money in the hands of an art outlet the manager of which may go out tomorrow to buy a brand new car.

    And, from my observation, when a citizen accumulates an amount of money over and above his / her basic day-to-day needs, that person is eventually tempted into doing something rash and out of character – like extending a home that doesn’t need to be extended, or buying a boat or justifying a jetting holiday.

    Not all time is locked into earning money (we also are trapped into technology that gobbles up time) but for many people a prudent way to deal with these two competing barriers is to couple them together and re-asses our lives. If time poverty is a major barrier and disposable income is a major (albeit not admitted) barrier, most people can ease off on both by making critical life decisions. In almost every case the person will be better off in relation to physical and mental well being. So too will the planet that they live on.

    • Robin Datta says:

      Disposable income is not always a barrier. General Patton was independently wealthy: he signed over his entire Army income to the Soldier’s Relief Fund and served gratis.

    • Your point of “Time” versus “Money” is a good point. I think it is especially true for men. Women have the option of saying, “No” or “My family comes first,” if they are married, and have a husband earning a good salary.

  3. Robin Datta says:

    Sustainability is misconstrued when taken out of the context of its timeframe. Ultimately nothing is sustainable when considering concepts such as the Heat Death of the Universe or the Decay of the Proton. Whenever the word sustainability is mentioned, the implicit (but usually overlooked) assumption is a timeframe sufficiently long to be omitted from mention.

    The processes in natural systems that ate sustainable move in closed loops. This actually refers to matter rather than energy. Energy on the whole moves in only one direction, from the concentrated (ordered, low entropy) to dilute (disordered, high entropy). Even CO2 is a trash/garbage/waste when produced in excess of the biosphere’s reabsorption rate, but its ease of disposal into the atmosphere is matched by the difficulty in statutory regulation. It does not lie around, visible to everyone.  

    The closed loops of nature cycle at various rates, from the local ecosystems within soil to the tectonic plate subduction balanced by seafloor spreading. 

    Humans evolved in a tropical climate. Even the Garden of Eden story refers to humans who needed neither clothes nor shelter 24/7/365. In all places where either clothes or shelter is needed, we are an invasive species, although we do not deem ourselves to be such.

    The control of fire was our first paradigm shift: it made possible the cooking and eating of previously indigestible grains, setting the stage for farming, agriculture, civilisation, resource depletion (deforestation) and the use of fossil fuels. All these are linear systems from resource to product to trash/garbage/waste instead of closed loops. Even the green energy craze involves energy capture methods that use machinery on the linear flow from resource to product to trash. 

    Recycling is touted as a solution for sustainability, but is only so if it is 100% with NO leftover trash/garbage/waste even from the process of recycling. 

  4. Lee Bentley says:

    Interesting article, I enjoyed reading it. A real life example of what life would be like with minimal outside inputs can be seen in the Pueblo People of the Southwest. Up until quite recent times these communities were entirely self sufficient all trade was financed with surplus. They lived, and some still do in multi storied adobe fortress/apartments. They were and still are skilled desert gardeners, hunters and gatherers of the many wild food plants. During favorable climatic conditions their communities swelled to 2000+ (I am told). Their model shows us that a society can function providing a meaningful life within the carrying capacity of even a high desert climate. I have been privileged to call these people neighbor for 40 years.

    • I agree that there are/have been a number of groups like this. In many cases “civilization” has been encroaching on their lifestyles, killing off the animals they used to eat.

  5. Tony Weddle says:

    Good post. I’m glad some have the courage to talk about medicine aiding population growth. I think that could be a big factor. Death was a normal part of life (as it were) for most of human time, but we now almost seem frantic to avoid it for as long as possible. We could probably get by without medicine except for some reliable means of pain control and of terminating ourselves, when we’ve had enough. Of course, this would be in a completely different kind of existence with reality forming our collective mindset.

    I’m not totally convinced that 7 billion can’t live sustainably. Richard Heinberg distilled some ideas on sustainability in his essay “Five Axioms of Sustainability”. They sort of boil down to: not consuming any resource faster than its renewal rate and not degrading our habitat. How we go about measuring the degradation of our habitat is probably problematical. However, I think it’s a global, rather than local question. If there is somewhere to move to after we’ve degraded one locale, but not fatally (i.e. nature can repair the damage), then locally unsustainable behaviour may be globally sustainable. Though that is much harder to do with 7 billion people, than with 1 million.

    So, I’m not sure the conditions for sustainability that you state comprise the only possible list. I don’t think (sustainable) hunter-gatherer societies are feasible with the current level of global environmental degradation and extinctions but permaculture techniques could offer a way forward. But for global applicability, we also need to get rid of artificial borders/boundaries.


  6. keithakers says:

    In your article of about a year ago, “There is No Steady State Economy (except at a very basic level)” you indicated that “sustainable” meant going back to about the economy of 1750. Now, it seems, “sustainable” means going back to 50,000 years B. P., or maybe 5,000,000 B. P.

    But I don’t think even that technology is sustainable, even at a suitably lower population level. The next village over is going to have better spears and hunt more aggressively for those prairie turnips. They will succeed, and their power and population will increase. To counter them we will have to sharpen our spears and expand our own search efforts. Soon we will be back in the “vicious cycle,” doing the same unsustainable things that we have been doing for millennia. As Dilworth suggests, it is not the technology which is or isn’t sustainable, but human nature and the vicious cycle principle.

    To become sustainable, we don’t need to have sustainable technologies. We need to change human nature. If you could wave a magic wand and change human nature, there are probably numerous technology adaptations which would be sustainable. Just a thought.

    • Chris Harries says:

      And a very good thought, at that, Keith.

      The simple view is that we just made a few wrong turns, especially with our technological choices. The common masculine solution is to just mend these errors by switching from coal to wind and solar. Problem solved.

      The difficulty in attending to this is that these folk are generally very earnest and well intentioned. To tell them that, in advocating technology change, they may simply be adding to the big problem is a very hard thing to do. Cruel almost.

      At every workshop I attend I prefix my address with a commentare which goes along these lines:

      “Our problem is perhaps 10 percent to do with technology, the other 90 percent is to do with culture and human psychology. We do have to deal with that 10 percent of the problem, and good luck to those who are working in that area. But we should not be obsessed by it. We can put solar panels on every home and an electric car in every garage and we still wouldn’t have the problem licked if we don’t deal with higher up problems like our growth ethic and our consumer culture and our alienation from each other.”

      I find that this sort of message helps the technophile sort of people put things into perspective without attacking them or alienating them.

      Although most technology devotees are males, the whole idea that we can fix things up by buying our way out of trouble is a feature of our modern culture.

      • Jan Steinman says:

        “The common masculine solution…” “most technology devotees are males…”

        I don’t think the “fairer sex” gets a free pass, although I’m not suggesting you were saying that.

        The two sexes tend to have subtly different ways of destroying the Earth. Although yes, men do love their technology, women love their safety and security. For example, the men engineer the SUVs that the women buy because they feel safer in a huge vehicle.

        The maternal instinct is very powerful, and often comes out in absolutist terms, as though it were self-evident that a 0.000001% reduction in harm to progeny is worth almost any cost. For instance, I’ve seen very aware moms defend driving their pre-school kids to gymn class, claiming they’ll need those skills to survive the coming hard times, rather than taking them out back and teaching them to climb trees, a real survival skill.

        I do agree, as Riane Eisler writes in The Chalice and the Blade, that male dominator culture is responsible for much of our woes, and that we could use a good dose of feminine nurturing culture, but these archetypes are just that, not accurate models of reality. No one has dragged half the human population into worship of shiny plastic techno things — women are willing participants, albeit perhaps more as followers, rather than leaders.

        Eisler describes how in one culture, the women refused to have sex with their husbands until they stopped a particular war. Can you imagine modern women refusing to have sex if their husband brought home a big-screen TV? No, they end up having sex in front of the big screen TV instead.

        Women could have incredible power to change the world — and some wield that power. But by and large, women are just as complicit in our dilemma as are men.

        • Chris Harries says:

          Yes, well I wouldn’t want to start up a gender war over who causes the most harm. But as one who deals with energy issues, I can’t avoid noticing the evangelical fostering of various energy supply technologies is an almost exclusively male preoccupation.

          There’s not need for blokes to get all defensive about that. Women are known to shop, shop, shop, and much has been said about that preoccupation.

          Since gender and energy have such a strong cross-over I must conclude that the gender factor is very relevant all the same when discussing energy issues. I seem to have spent a lifetime listening to technology devotees trying to persuade the world that they have a brilliant solution to the energy problem, nearly all supply-side technologies and nearly all to do with electricity production. It’s a huge distraction from the deeper changes that we need to be debating.

          (Being a bloke I have no trouble identifying with the syndrome. I’m no Luddite.)

      • Chris,

        Your approach sounds like a good one. Even at that, I expect it is a hard sell for those who think we can fix our problems with yet another invention.

      • Bruce says:

        Talking about human behaviour and psycology being 90% of the problem, don’t forget that the main reason we cannot live in 150 person HG groups and live off windmill power is because invariably a larger more well organized group will attack and enslave you. In oder to keep this from happening, you need to join a larger group and develop technology, all of which is unsustainable and leads us exactly where we are right now. This is precisly why we will have the mass extinction…….and a good riddance.

    • Keith,

      Your summary is pretty much what I have come to believe. Our real problem is as Dilworth says, we are too smart for our own good. (See my post, Human Population Overshoot-What went wrong?) Technology is not sustainable, because it requires too much disturbance of natural system, and too much transport of different materials from one place to another, and generally use of external energy as well. Even overhunting using spears, or by driving animals over a cliff, is a problem.

      It looks as though we need to change human nature to be more like chimpanzees and other animals, in order to be sustainable.

      It seems like the more a person learns, the worse the story becomes. It is a little like peeling an onion. But it is hard to explain to people who have not peeled the onion themselves.

  7. Lionel Boxer says:

    Fantastic. I wrote a book along these lines for businesspeople – THE SUSTAINBLE WAY.

  8. Leo Smith says:

    Of course all this discussion is predicated on some kind of implicit assumption that we know how the world OUGHT to be, and that is not how it actually IS.

    Consider: the world OUGHT to be clear of its most dangerous parasite, human beings. So crash and burn, baby!

    Consider: the world is there for man to use, so use it. Nothing is sustainable, so don’t worry, When it runs out, ‘fin du civilization’ baby and time for a new approach.

    In both cases we are doing EXACTLY THE RIGHT THING.

    Hastening the inevitable.

    One thing is for sure, human population has never been so great, and probably never will be so great, ever again. Megadeath looms. Sit back with your euthanasia syringe and watch the show.

    The choices are between not having kids, or watching them die, or dying yourself, first.
    I chose the former.

    The rest is just irrelevant chatter really.

    Happy Easter!

  9. Stu Kautsch says:

    Sorry for leaving a second comment, but this post has made me think a lot.
    It’s true that nothing that humans have done in our so-called “civilization” phase is remotely sustainable over millions of years (with the possible exception of permaculture of perennials), but we may be looking at the wrong time frame.
    Humanoids were pretty “sustainable” for about 3 million years (until about 10,000 years ago). This was mostly as hunter-gatherers, true, but we should not ignore the fact that Mother Nature would, on a pretty regular basis, wipe out 95% of our numbers through huge calamities like super-volcanoes. The last one was about 50-100,000 years ago and almost snuffed us entirely.
    There’s no way to avoid these things (or comets or asteroids), so “sustainability” really needs to last only for a few hundred thousand years at a time. Small comfort, I know, but it gives us a realistic boundary for our efforts.

  10. Alan Clarke says:

    I read this blog whilst also making my way through “Farmers of forty centuries” F H King, 1911. This book details a tour of agricultural practice in China and Japan at the turn of the last century, and describes systems that have stood the test of time for millenia – which I think meets most definitions of sustainability. Of course to maintain populations of say 35 million in Japan alone requires a use of land completely different from hunter gathering – in some ways more intensive than current agriculture, as all energy and mineral inputs are from renewable resources. So all waster recycled, rivers controlled and water pumped, and minerals eroded from mountains captures and used.
    So, yes we can’t maintain a fossil-fuelled society for long, but humans do have the ability to manage their environment to feed clothe and house dense populations in a sustainable manner.

    • These things seemed to pretty much work, especially before changes in healthcare allowed population to grow so rapidly, and all of the new technology allowed new practices which fed many more people. The old practices do work for many years, and they support a population greater than hunter-gatherers, but they likely will not support 7 billion people.

    • Dave Lea says:

      Alan, What a wonderful comment and what a fantastic book. I too recently purchased it and I am amazed at the foresight that E.F. King had at that early date. He wasn’t fooled at all by the hype of technology, but pointed out very astutely the impossibility of importing so many agricultural materials from so far away and products that were finite and non-renewable. Hats off to Dover for republishing this very essential piece of the documentation for sustainability!

  11. Or… in a phrase, why not ask “What kinds of negative feedback follow any particular positive feedback?”

    That question at least requests an answer to the complete certainty that a negative feedback WILL follow positive feedback, easily proved by several means. Then you waste less time with the baloney.

  12. dianaryoo says:

    Reblogged this on diaooo and commented:
    Gail Tverberg dives deep into the problem of an unsustainable present and offers solutions that promote a sustainable future for our planet and the people that will reside within it.

    I came to realize all the more, how much this society thrives on consumption of materialistic goods. It scares me because I know that this materialistic society won’t be allayed any time soon. Rather, people will continue to crave the bigger and better things.

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