28 May 2011

Real Sustainability

Humanity's use of planetary non renewable resources should be between 600,000 and 9 million times less than current usage, if we are serious about our use of the word “sustainability”.

Our current society-view of sustainability (and the oxymoronic “sustainable development”) is coloured by the desire to maintain the myth of progress.

This is why the often quoted Brundtland definition has been so popular:
Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. ... Pretty woolly eh?

One definition I like - which is clearer than the Brundtland Definition - is ...

Real sustainability is when we use up no more resources than are naturally replenished by the earth. And we throw away no more waste than is naturally absorbed by the earth.

Even this definition begs the question; “does the human species have an inalienable right to exploit these resources in any case”?

The key question is; “how do we measure the resources that we can use up under the rubric of real sustainability”? It will of course be different for each resource, but we could start off by looking at fossil fuels about which we know quite a lot.

The coal, oil and gas that we are using up now was created by the crushing of animals and plants laid down mainly during the Carboniferous Period, between 354 million and 290 million years ago.

We have been exploiting coal, oil and gas significantly for about 250 years ago. The easily extracted fossil fuels have now been used up. We have - if we are lucky - about another 250 years worth of the fossil fuels left under the ground, although the future exploitation period is very much dependent upon the energy cost and monetary cost of extraction.

To summarise then - in just 500 years we will have used up all the fossil fuel resources created over at least a 300 million year period. It could be argued therefore that we are using up fossil fuels at a rate 600,000 times faster that we should do, in order to meet our requirement of “using up no more resources than are naturally replenished by the earth”.

So - to be truly sustainable - our use of fossil fuels should be 600,000 times less.

But what about other minerals; bauxite, iron ore, molybdenum, gold, diamonds, copper etc?

Well, amazingly, we will see all these materials disappear over the same 500 year period that fossil fuels will be used up. However, these materials were naturally created over a period way before the carboniferous period, stretching back to when the planet was first formed; 4.54 billion years ago. Fossil fuels are the most recently formed resources.

Therefore the sustainability overuse ranges between 600,000 and 9 million.

Thus we need to use non renewable resources between 600,000 and 9 million times less, if we are really serious about our use of the word “sustainability”.

i.e. our use should be virtually zero. ... Now that’s what I call real sustainability!


  1. I take your point, but all these gigantic numbers bamboozle me and make me feel small and helpless.

    Tell me a story that will move and inspire me.

  2. Hi Fireseed,
    Numbers are indeed symbols that show how much Industrial Civilisation has come to dominate (and decimate) nature. By reducing everything to numbers we have lost the essential magic of our relationship with nature.

    I apologise for the numbers. But - to me - it is another way to express that humanity is not really anywhere near becoming really sustainable.

    Your point, though, is eloquently made... As well as telling stories about the aweful truth of our impact on this planet, we also need to weave in messages about how we can "reconnect" at all levels, and how that is a joy.