A Paradigm for Susainability
by Richard Risemberg

We talk about sustainable development, sustainable communities, cities that live, and such things, but what do we really know about creating a culture whose practices and predilections don't overdraw the fund of resources the earth can generate and hold for us? Is it enough to recycle the daily newspaper and ride your bike to the video store once a week, as those clever columns in alternative newspapers suggest in their lists of ten things you can do for the environment? How do we determine whether the things we do and the culture we partake of are sustainable? The Brundtland Commission promotes the following as their definition of sustainability:

"Meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."
But this doesn't really say anything. After all, a cash-sated Hollywood lawyer in his Beverly Hills mansion might define "needs" in a way that would not be acceptable to a dreadlocked bicycle messenger buzzing through a Seattle drizzle, both of whom would be at odds with the steelworker loading twelve- packs into his boat at the dam on a Sunday afternoon. And all of their interpretations of "needs" would puzzle a Japanese salaryman, or a rainforest peon sweating under the sunglassed gaze of some Western CEO's hired thugs.

I propose a different, more technical definition of sustainability, one that can be quantified and that is not subject to reinterpretation according to cultural habitudes, and it is this:

"A sustainable community is one whose energy economy does not use more energy in a given time than falls on its hinterlands as sunlight in that time, and in which the material economy is circular rather than linear."
Note that this definition makes no mention of a cash economy. Commerce will have to submit to the requirements of survival, regardless of its practitioners' opinions. But there are features to a sustainable culture that will benefit most participants in its cash economy as well, and we will look at these later.

First Things First

A sustainable economy cannot depend on fossil fuels. It cannot use them at all and be sustainable. The reasons for this are simple.

First, except for a modest amount of heat generated inside the earth itself and not readily available to us, and except for the rare and highly poisonous radioactive elements, we have no source of energy except the sun. The fossil fuels upon which we have based our entire industrial culture are nothing more than accumulations of solar energy--accumulations that have been hundreds of millions of years in the gathering. Once we have used them up--which at present rates of use will be in about fifty years--we will have to wait another several hundred million years before we have more. Since humans have been on the earth considerably less than two million years, it is obvious that, though fossil fuels are renewable in the very long term, they cannot be considered so for use by human cultures. Human cultures that depend on fossil fuels will die out within our children's lifetimes, and possibly within our own.

Second, the use of fossil fuels is destroying the capacity of the earth to sustain life, and the capability of culture to make life worth sustaining. Urban and suburban sprawl, and all the ills that run howling in their wake--smog, poisoned water, paving of farmlands and wildlands, wholesale destruction of genetic diversity, petrochemical agriculture, the replacement of rainforest with cash crops (including those which provide the anodyne drugs that plague Western cities), the dissection of neighborhoods for roads and shopping malls, the pervading anomie of citizens dissociated from the earth that bore them--are facilitated by, and often dependent on, fossil-carbon fueled transport and fossil-carbon derived chemicals, and all this, the little that is good as well as the much that is detrimental, will have to end if we as residents of this planet are to survive.

A sustainable economy cannot continue to throw away resources such as paper, iron, aluminum, glass, plant waste, and sewage, burying them in once-living canyons or dumping them into the seas after having wrested them from the earth at great cost in energy and lost land. Beer cans must be remade into bicycles and railcars, old newspapers into books and envelopes, lawn clippings into mulch, sewage into fertilizer. Even plastics, which can be made from plant matter but cannot be recycled as such, can be reformed into new and durable objects, perhaps even building bricks! And buildings themselves, as the work of architects such as Nader Khalili has shown, need not be made of trees or steel, but can be formed, safely and beautifully, out of the earth of their own excavations.

We can change now, with great effort and inconvenience, to a way of life we will find far more rewarding once we become accustomed to it--or we can change later, wrenched by circumstances through a torment of starvation and vicious chaos towards a new world which will only gradually heal itself of the devastations we will have made inevitable.

New Worlds Next Door

What the new paradigm will tell us is what sort of community we can build on any particular landscape, if we want that community to be truly sustainable. Almost all communities in existence now depend on fossil-carbon energy for their continuance. The communities of the future will depend on solar energy for their sustenance. And it will not be as difficult as it seems, because there is much more to solar energy than photovoltaics and rooftop water-heaters. Hydroelectric energy is solar, too, because it's the sun's heat that has lifted up the water into the hills. Methane, methanol, and ethanol derived from composting plant scraps is solar, because plants very efficiently capture solar energy to use for building their tissues. Human and animal muscle power, derived as it is directly (if we are to be kind as well as efficient) from plants, is also solar energy. Wind-generated electricity is also solar. All of these energy sources are either inherent to a region (wind, water), or can be grown within a region. The population of a given region is determined by water, wind, and how well the plants of that region can collect energy from the sun.

As the population of a region grows, land for planting becomes converted to land for buildings and roads. There comes a point at which resources must then be brought from outside the populated area of the region in order to feed and power the population. That transport requires energy. Once the energy required to grow and transport food and resources becomes greater than can be generated by wind, water, and biomass in the region, the region has passed the limits of sustainability. It can continue to grow only at the expense of another region's resources. You can power trains with electricity, you can fuel trucks with electricity or alcohol, and you can fuel people (for human-powered transport for shorter hauls) with plant carbohydrates. All this energy must be derived from wind, water, and plant resources within the region in question.

Let us look at a just the most obvious examples of how this could be brought about:

You Win Some, You Lose Some

The first criticism you will hear (or perhaps make) about these suggestions is that they are labor intensive, and will increase the cost of transportation. After all, a sailing ship cannot be as large as a supertanker (not that you'll need supertankers in this economy), and it requires proportionately more crew per unit of cargo than a fossil-carbon fueled steamship. So it will indeed cost more to ship something to Australia from France than it does now. But that price will reflect the true cost of shipping, because we are currently subsidizing almost all transport with the legacy of the past in form of fossil-carbon fuels. It really costs much more to transport goods than we notice, because it is our current practice to fob off part of the cost on the environment in the form of pollution and waste from the use of fossil-carbon fuels, and to fob off much more onto our grandchildren, who will have to suffer the consequences of our present dependence on the windfall of compressed Mesozoic forests. So we will not ship as much, and it will cost us more. And the capitalists will suffer, because where will the bulk of that extra money go, the premium we will pay for hauling goods and passengers without the help of those long-dead forests? It will not, as it presently is, be sucked upward into the pockets of administrative staff and investors. It will go to ourselves and our neighbors, who will be operating those boats, pedaling those trailer-hauling bicycles, stirring bacteria in the methanol stills, and tending the generator by the neighborhood stream. Ourselves, our neighbors--and our customers. More people working means more people spending. This change will be better for the economy, if in "economy" you include all the population of a region, and not just investors.

What About Wilderness?

What about wilderness, then? We can cover the earth with human habitat, be it farms or cities, without transgressing these principles--perhaps. But if we do so, even with a more localized agriculture that no longer depends on petrochemical monoculture and its tractor-graded ranks of obedient fruit, its gallons of coercive poisons, we still will have limited the genetic diversity of life on this earth too much. People oversimplify. Contrary to popular belief, the life of a primitive human is not simple: where the tribesman must know hundreds of plants and animals and the techniques for finding, acquiring, and using them. The average modern, however, need only be able to read streetsigns and the labels on tin cans, because knowledge has been reduced to symbols whose validity we entrust to the kindness of strangers. Nature is abundance, though often subtle abundance; humanity tends towards the simple lines of such sterile environments as freeway lanes, row crops, the rigid formats of television, the well-ordered warrens of cubicles in offices (whose inmates qualify the signs and symbols assigned to their care in accordance to their training). No matter how meticulous we are in establishing a sustainable culture, a certain portion of the earth must be reserved for wildness, where the subtle factories of futurity can do their work, unnoticed by a species which is ever amazed to learn anew that insects outweigh mammals as a mass of life on our earth.

It's In Our Hands

The tools to understand this life are in our hands. The coefficients necessary to make the determinations mentioned above are generally known: how much sunlight falls on the earth in what seasons at what latitudes, how well plants convert it into calories, how well we can convert those calories into motion either directly or through machines. It would be possible, though perhaps not simple, to write computer programs that would allow people working on the ground to calculate what sort of civic life one could build in any given area and be able to continue it indefinitely--or to determine what must be unbuilt to make sustainability possible. The problem is not one of technique. It is one of honesty, courage, and will. Can we see it through? Can we even begin? It is up to you and me to answer those questions.

We have used industrial technology to reduce the world to a few simple terms that are easy to know, and we have abstracted most of that into money, a symbol of a symbol, which we use as the only measure of worth. The result is now a dirty, dying world and an atrophy of our minds and souls. You can print more money but you can't print sunlight; if you are rich you can buy a painting by Monet but you can't buy back the genetic poetry of vanished lives. Living within a solar budget will require us to attend to the details of life once more. Walking five blocks to a farmer's market will remind us what that spinach, redolent of dark clean earth, will be remade into by our cells--and will remind us that that earth once passed through our own bodies, or others like them, and that we ourselves will be remade into earth, in due time; and if we must dim the lights that now turn the night skies of our cities into an untextured yellow smear, we'll gain by that a crowded universe of stars shining down together into each back yard, each streetcorner, each public square. Life will be busier but less hurried, and if there will be more to pay attention to, it will be because everything we touch and do, from bathing to breakfast to coming home from work, will carry resonances of a planetary process that, immense though it is, takes place in the unseen cells that form us and our fellows on the earth.

Right now we are living as inmates of industrialism, our lives constrained by hard concrete and rigid thinking; we live encelled in rooms, cars, cubicles, rushing from one to another in nervous orderly rows, and like prisoners we spend our evenings slouched forlornly in front of television sets. The walls that keep us from a free full life are sometimes actual but more often habitual. There's still a whole world out there. We have the chance right now to take the better parts of technology and philosophy and build a civilization that lives within its means. The means to that accomplishment are within ourselves: eyes to see, heart to care, mind to comprehend. And hands to build with. Once we've built a sustainable culture, we'll have a place in the world again, and the world a place in us.

Richard Risemberg