“Sustainable” – a goal we are all supposed to strive for. Sustainable companies, sustainable products, sustainable lifestyle, sustainable development. What does it mean? Accompanied by lots of arm-waving, it’s got to do with living a decent life today and not screwing up the chance for future generations to have decent lives. The devil’s in the details and one’s point of view.

The original concept comes from ecology. Basically, a set of populations of plants and animals stay at a relatively steady proportion to each other because they maintain a balance of life and death through recycling of materials via eating and being eaten and propagating at a replacement level within a geographic area (an island or the whole earth). On a day to day basis, there are fluctuations in the size of the populations, but in a sustainable ecosystem, there aren’t large changes to the composition and sizes of the populations.

To have a sustainable (unchanging) ecosystem, you can’t eat too many of an existing population before they have a chance to produce progeny. And you can’t reproduce so much that you run out of food. Some of the food isn’t live and supplies are fixed: natural resources of sunlight, water, minerals. Populations grow to the point where the balance is struck between eaters and the eaten and the recyclability of natural resources. The circle of life.

But populations aren’t static – they evolve and gain or lose advantage over others. The ecosystem balance changes and sets a new equilibrium or level of sustainability at a different mix of populations. E.g., when fish developed legs and came on land, they exploited a whole new source of food and developed a whole new kind of ecosystem.

Changes to the supply of natural resources also affect the equilibrium and will set a different state of “sustainable.” A meteor or monster volcano throws up particulate that blocks out sunlight, kills off plants that feed large animals, wipes out dinosaurs and allows little mammals to find a new niche of things to eat and begin to reproduce and evolve to the point that they establish a new “sustainable” ecosystem with a new mix of living populations.

So, in reality, the earth has never had a single static sustainable period on earth. We’ve had several “sustained” periods – ice ages, oceans covering most of earth, tectonic plate assisted migrations, evolution of species, etc. These many “sustainable” ecosystems often lasted hundreds of thousands, if not millions of years each.

And then this new animal appeared with an incredible ability to exploit and change ecosystems to its advantage – homo sapiens. Ecosystems have been continually changing since we humans showed up in significant numbers. Attention: it’s not us vs. “the ecosystem.” We are a part of the earth’s ecosystem. Humans are just another population in the mix. And we haven’t yet hit equilibrium. (We may never hit equilibrium if we survive long enough to travel into space and keep expanding our ecosystem boundaries.)

But unlike the dinosaurs or other populations that just go with the flow and settle (or disappear) as the ecosystem breaks may fall, we are more or less aware of the changes we are making in the ecosystem.

Plus, to some degree, we can decide what changes we are going to make. We certainly have opinions on whether or not we like the changes we see and predict – each with our own value systems and models.

I’m not sure when you could say things were last in a “sustainable” state or whether it was all that great from a human standpoint. Before mankind got out of the trees and spread out from Africa? When the Middle East was a garden? When there were only 100,000 humans? 1,000,000? A billion? Frankly, picturing some past ecosystem nirvana is a waste of time.

As stated before, the earth is not now in equilibrium or a sustainable state. The ecosystem is changing – fast. Most think for worse – to the point where there may be (are) dramatic population changes. The winners of the next sustainable state may be the cockroaches, bacteria, and a few scrubby plants or a earthwide aquatic ecosystem. I personally am confident homo sapiens will survive, regardless. (Oh no! Not Waterworld!) We may not like it, but we will survive as a species because we are really, really good at adapting.

While I believe the next sustainable state is unknowable, I think we can try to do things to make it a more desirable state. But first we need to slow the rate of change so we can mitigate unintended adverse consequences that could limit our ability to survive and thrive. We can’t drastically reduce the world population. We can’t stop economic development and growth in lesser developed countries. We can’t significantly reduce the standard of living in the developed world. (At least we can’t do so on purpose ethically .)

I believe, with enough time, we can:
– develop technological solutions (something humans are uniquely good at) and
– change behaviors (something humans are not so good at)

I happen to be a technology optimist and believe that innovative solutions will be developed. I also believe we have enough concern for each other and the survival of humankind that we can learn to change behavior toward shared goals. Things based on life cycle thinking like:

using less energy and materials to do things
polluting and wasting less
recovering and recycling natural resources
better controlling population growth
thinking about the consequences of our actions

Will the world be different than it is today? You bet. Worse? That’s a point of view that focuses on the past that can never be again. Will it be sustainable? Maybe for awhile, until the next evolutionary changes take affect. A world where the majority of the human population can survive and enjoy the opportunity to be alive? I think so.


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