Posts Tagged green

The Scale of Sustainability

Posted by on Saturday, 4 September, 2010

This is something I’ve had on my mind for a couple years now, on and off. Does the pursuit of sustainability have a problem of scale?

Consider tea tree oil. I’ve switched all of my personal care products so that I’m only using organics, and tea tree oil is fairly useful as an anti-microbial agent in these products. But it’s oil from a tea tree, which means it must be pressed out of some part of that tree, leaving a lot of detritus behind. How many pounds of waste are generated per ounce of tea tree oil, and how much water, arable land, etc. is used to grow the tree for that oil? Are these trees grown on land that previously hosted diverse ecosystems, or grew food crops?

If I’m the only one using tea tree oil, it’s a sustainable practice. I’m sure I could use as much tea tree oil as I need without ever affecting the health of the biosphere. But then, I’m also sure I could use all the coal or oil I wanted without seriously affecting the health of the biosphere. It’s when you add in the other 6.7 billion of my fellow humans that we have problems with diminishing oil supplies and a heating globe. So…how many of my fellow humans can subscribe to a given “sustainable” practice before it becomes unsustainable?

I’ve recently read The Transitions Handbook, which talks all about reducing the climate impacts and oil needs of a community. One of the big themes in this movement seems to be re-skilling, or learning to do some of the things that our forebears knew how to do in order to get by on less. It’s not as stark as all that, but that’s not really the point. I guess what I want to know is, just how sustainable and regenerative were the practices that we still have access to? Things like the burning of firewood and the building of sailing ships for transoceanic commerce stripped landscapes bare of trees across large swaths of Europe and the eastern United States. Are those the skills we need to re-learn? Other, more harmonious ways of living with our local piece of nature may be lost in the pages of deep history.

All in all, I think the Transitions approach is the only practical idea we’ve had for facing the threats of peak oil and climate change, mostly because it isn’t a single idea. The concept is really just to get people together in a particular community and talk about what’s likely to be in store for the future, and how that community can best cope with it. It’s less about a single practice or strategy, and more about facing the issue squarely and engaging the ingenuity of communities.

But I do wonder whether there actually is a way that 6.7 billion people – likely to be 9 billion people before the trends reverse – can live sustainably on this planet.

I’m unconvinced, but hopeful.