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Book review by Richard ReeseWhat Is Sustainable

I was recently interviewed via email by a group of ecologists in France. I’m sharing it with English-speaking folks because it provides an easy map for learning, a basic introduction to environmental history and ecological sustainability.

My blog now contains reviews of 170+ sustainability-related books, and dozens of essays — stuff that would take more than a month to read. Over the years, a number of important reviews have gotten buried in the pile, and get fewer views than recent work. In the following interview, I have included links to my reviews of a number of important books. Most reviews are less than three pages. Bookworms may discover some neat books to add to their reading list. Have fun!

How would you define the concept of sustainability?

There are two varieties of sustainability.

(1) The form you encounter many times every day is what I call ersatz (fake) sustainability — sustainable forest mining, sustainable fish mining, sustainable soil mining, sustainable development, sustainable growth, sustainable cities, and so on (even “sustainable mining!”). Ersatz sustainability is oriented to the ongoing viability and profitability of business enterprises. It’s a deceptive marketing buzzword intended to befuddle the clueless, and grease the wheels of destruction.

Recently, I watched a video of Derrick Jensen being interviewed. He said, “Somewhere along the way, environmentalism stopped being about protecting the Earth, and it became about ‘sustainability,’ which is about continuing this culture that’s killing the planet.”

(2) The rare form is the essential one — ecological sustainability. An ecologically sustainable way of life is one that can continue for millennia without causing permanent degradation to the ecosystem. All (normal) animals have succeeded at living in this manner, and they have done so for millions of years.

For example, the San people of the Kalahari, in southern Africa, have been living in a very low-tech manner for maybe 100,000 years. Until recent decades, they did not use nonrenewable resources, and they did not overuse renewable resources. See The Art of Tracking, and Great Leaps.

The “dominant” society or culture, based on the ideology of unlimited growth that now proposes (because it needs evermore primary resources) to mine meteorites, the moon or the ocean floor isn’t very sustainable, would you agree?

I agree! Understand that we don’t “need” more nonrenewable resources; we “want” more. What all living things “need” is simple, stuff like food, water, air. What modern consumers “want” is everything in the world.

Other important words include finite, carrying capacity, drawdown, renewable, nonrenewable, bottleneck, and overshoot. To understand these, Overshoot by William Catton is outstanding. The Essential Exponential by Albert Bartlett does a superb job of debunking the idiotic fantasies of perpetual growth.

Afterburn, Snake Oil, and The End of Growth, by Richard Heinberg, introduce readers to Peak Oil, and the dangers of creating a super-complex civilization that is fatally dependent on finite nonrenewable resources. Scarcity by Christopher Clugston discusses the current consumption and remaining reserves of other nonrenewable resources that are essential to industrial civilization.

Renewable Energy Cannot Sustain a Consumer Society by Ted Trainer explains why alternative energy cannot replace the current levels of energy consumption provided by sequestered carbon (fossil fuels). Too Hot to Touch by William and Rosemarie Alley reveals a super-important challenge that gets far too little attention — the failure of industrial civilization to figure out how to safely store nuclear waste, which remains highly toxic for a million years or so.

Limits to Growth by Meadows and Randers was a classic, warning humankind of troubles ahead. Living Within Limits by Garrett Hardin contributed to this discussion. Foolishly disregarding limits led to a growing human mob. The Population Bomb and The Population Explosion by Paul and Anne Ehrlich sounded alarms. The Ostrich Factor by Garrett Hardin, and The Rapid Growth of Human Populations by William Stanton, provided additional insights. In Old Fashioned Family Planning I commented on approaches used in different civilizations.

What do you think of the fact that most people believe in “progress” despite the growing social unrest and the unraveling of numerous ecological crises?

Do fish believe in water? No, fish spend their lives in water. When youngsters learn the meanings of words, they begin to absorb the beliefs of their culture, and imprint its worldview, which almost everyone will carry throughout their lives. The worldview’s memes are constantly reinforced by education, religion, government, mass media, advertising, and everyone around them. They tell us that our way of life is excellent, and the best is yet to come. There is no challenge that technology cannot remedy. Acceptance of this worldview makes you appear to be sane and normal. To question it is heresy, lunacy, or stupidity. In The Myth of Human Supremacy Derrick Jensen vigorously questions it.

Too Smart For Our Own Good by Craig Dilworth introduced the Vicious Circle Principle. “Humankind’s development consists in an accelerating movement from situations of scarcity, to technological innovation, to increased resource availability, to increased consumption, to population growth, to resource depletion, to scarcity once again, and so on.” It was a merry-go-round that kept spinning faster and faster.

A Short History of Progress by Ronald Wright was a best-selling critique of the myth of progress. We have fallen into a “progress trap.” The benefits of innovation often encourage society to live in a new way, while burning the bridges behind them as they advance. Society can find itself trapped in an unsustainable way of living, and it’s no longer possible to just turn around and painlessly return to a simpler mode.

The Earth Has a Soul by Carl Jung examined how modern urbanization packs humans together in stressful density — insectification. “The most dangerous things in the world are immense accumulations of human beings who are manipulated by only a few heads.” Growing crowds multiply the stupidity level, and create psychic epidemics. “We have plunged down a cataract of progress which sweeps us on into the future with even wilder violence the farther it takes us from our roots.”

What would you say to those who believe that happiness is a recent phenomenon?

Many observers who have spent time in uncivilized cultures were often surprised by the happiness of wild people.

In The Continuum Concept, Jean Liedloff described the natives she met in South America. The Tauripan people of Venezuela were the happiest people she had ever met. All of their children were relaxed, joyful, cooperative, and rarely cried — they were never bored, lonely, or argumentative. The Yequana people seemed unreal to Liedloff, because of their lack of unhappiness. As an expedition was moving up a challenging jungle stream, she noticed that the Italians would get completely enraged at the slightest mishap, while the Yequana just laughed the struggles away. Their daily life had a party mood to it.

Peter Freuchen spent a lot of time with the Eskimos, and married into their culture. In Book of the Eskimos, he wrote that “they always enjoy life with an enviable intensity, and they believe themselves to be the happiest people on earth living in the most beautiful country there is.”

In his book, In Search of the Primitive, Lewis Cotlow visited Eskimos in arctic Canada. One night, he spent several hours talking to local officers of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. They kept repeating one idea in different ways: “The Eskimos are the happiest people in the world.”

Colin Turnbull spent years with the Mbuti Pygmies, and described them in The Forest People. He was amazed by their joyful way of living — he said that Pygmies laugh until they can no longer stand, then they sit down and laugh.

In The Human Cycle, Turnbull compared how Pygmies and Westerners move through the phases of life. Pygmies do it beautifully, but Western culture damaged its occupants. We tend to regard our childhood as a golden age of innocence and joy — before we’re shipped off to dreary schools, jobs, and nursing homes. The Pygmies did not idolize childhood, “because, for them, the world has remained a place of wonder, and the older they get the greater the wonder.”

In Original Wisdom, Robert Wolff described the Sng’oi people of Malaysia. They knew each other’s unspoken thoughts, communicating telepathically. “They had an immense inner dignity, were happy, and content, and did not want anything.” They loved to laugh and joke. They were often singing and smiling. Angry voices were never heard.

Daniel L. Everett was sent to the Amazon to translate the Bible into the language of the illiterate Pirahã hunter-gatherers. He described his efforts in Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes. He eventually realized that it was pointless “to convince happy, satisfied people that they are lost and need Jesus as their personal savior.” He became an atheist. “I would go so far as to suggest that the Pirahãs are happier, fitter, and better adjusted to their environment than any Christian or other religious person I have ever known.”

IMPORTANT: In the above, I am asserting that happiness is not new. I am not suggesting that wild people were angelic beings, flawlessly wise, and always lived in perfect harmony.

What would you say to those who think that human beings in the distant past led sad and painful lives?

Misfortune is a normal part of every life. Wild people got sick. They got injured. They starved. They had conflicts. In The Falcon, John Tanner described the 30 years he lived with the Ottawa and Ojibwa Indians, from about 1790 to 1820. He was kidnapped at nine years old, fully integrated into their culture, became an excellent hunter, and forgot his first language. Whites resented his Indian aspects, and Indians resented his white heritage. His life was a harsh one.

The philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) believed that without the beneficial protection of government, primitive folks lived in “continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Hobbes was not a hungry, dirty peasant, but most people in his society were, and their quality of life really sucked, despite the presence of government. Twentieth century anthropologists, who actually spent time in wild societies, reject Hobbes’ belief.

A New Green History of the World by Clive Ponting is an amazing 400-page summary of environmental history. He concluded that life in civilization was often nasty, brutish, and short. He wrote, “Since the rise of settled societies some ten thousand years ago the overwhelming majority of the world’s population has lived in conditions of grinding poverty. They have had few possessions, suffered from appalling living conditions, and have been forced to spend most of their very limited resources on finding enough food to stay alive.”

We’re living in a bizarre era, soaring on a joyride of extreme waste, a temporary onetime-only explosion of mindless consumption, made possible by a reckless binge of energy guzzling. We’re hammering the planet in ways never before possible. When the fuel gauge approaches empty, the floor will drop out from under seven-point-something billion people. Life will get exciting.

What would you say to those who believe that human existence has recently become cooler, and indeed has become bearable thanks to the washing machine, the refrigerator, the car and industrial medicine?

My path to becoming a wordsmith began with fat black pencils, followed by ballpoint pens, huge manual typewriters, the highly unstable word processing software of the late 1980s, and my current laptop, which has miraculous, incredibly amazing functionality. Now we have the internet. My writing is available to several billion, a quarter million have viewed my blog, and I have friends in dozens of nations. In one sense, this is very cool; in another sense, a costly mistake.

Five days ago, I had surgery on my right eye, which removed a cataract-clouded lens. Today, the world is strikingly clear. I can see like an eagle. I’m astounded by the improvement.

When I was born in 1952, there were no personal computers, color TVs, nuclear power plants, satellites, cell phones, shopping malls, or birth control pills.

When my father was born in 1913, there were no antibiotics, plastics, air conditioners, chainsaws, televisions, radios, missiles, or jet planes. Almost all agriculture was organic.

When my grandfather was born in 1885, there were no airplanes, automobiles, refrigerators, or aluminum products.

When my great-grandfather was born in 1843, there were no oil wells, metal boats, tractors, telephones, electric lights, sewing machines, repeating rifles, or dynamite.

When my great-great grandfather was born in 1818, there were no railroads, cameras, bicycles, wooden matches, or telegraph systems. Detroit and Chicago were trading posts in the wilderness.

When my great-great-great grandfather was born in 1798, there were 900 million people on Earth, and Los Angeles had 300 residents.

Note that none of the benefits cited above were sustainable. All had enormous ecological costs and numerous unintended consequences. Humans lived sustainably for tens of thousands of years without any of these amazing things. In my 64 years, I have sent a mountain of trash to landfills, and I am not proud of this.

Carl Jung summed it up nicely: “Unfortunately, there is in this world no good thing that does not have to be paid for by an evil at least equally great.” The Earth Crisis is a planet-wrecking disaster created by the unintended consequences of countless clever innovations. There is no “free lunch,” everything has a cost.

Civilization would be impossible without the clever discovery of how to kindle and control fire, a technology that all other species have avoided. Fire: A Brief History by Stephen J. Pyne is fascinating. He wrote, “Without fire humanity sinks to a status of near helplessness, a plump chimp with a scraping stone and digging stick, hiding from the night’s terrors, crowding into minor biotic niches.”

Techno-Fixby Michael and Joyce Huesemann does a good job of analyzing our toxic obsession with technology. Huesemann’s Law of Techno-Optimism states, “Optimism is inversely proportional to knowledge.”

Health & the Rise of Civilization by Mark Nathan Cohen describes how domestication and civilization ushered in the era of deadly infectious diseases. Bird Flu by Michael Greger reveals how current methods for raising livestock and poultry encourage the emergence of deadly new strains of influenza viruses that could zoom around the planet in days, killing hundreds of millions. The Antibiotic Paradox by Stuart Levy tells readers why we’re moving into the post-antibiotic era, when our wonder drugs will quit working. Once again, bubonic plague will be incurable, and infections caused by tiny paper cuts could be fatal.

The history and harms of soil mining are discussed in Topsoil and Civilization by Tom Dale and Vernon Gill Carter, Against the Grain by Richard Manning, and Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations by David Montgomery. A Forest Journey by John Perlin is a great book on the history of forest mining. Water mining is the subject of Pillar of Sand by Sandra Postel, and Cadillac Desert by Marc Reisner.

Fish mining is the subject of The End of the Line by Charles Clover, The Mortal Sea by Jeffrey Bolster, and Sea of Slaughter by Farley Mowat. Swimming in Circles by Paul Molyneaux reveals the dark side of fish farming (aquaculture).

A number of factors indicate that we are not too far from Peak Food. There are enormous obstacles to producing enough food to feed the expected mob of 11 billion. Today, feeding a mere 7.4 billion is intensely unsustainable and destructive. Three books on the subject include The End of Plenty by Joel Bourne, The Coming Famine by Julian Cribb, and Who Will Feed China? by Lester Brown.

What would you say to those who imagine that freedom and democracy are recent inventions?

My focus has been on sustainability, not philosophy or politics. I would think that freedom is not an invention, but the normal state for wild organisms. Abstractions drive me crazy. Are the chimps who are subordinate to the alpha male not free? I don’t know.

Hunter-gatherer clans require teamwork, so it’s important for them to avoid conflicts, and to be good at conflict resolution. Some tribes made decisions by consensus, all agreed. Was this democracy? Other tribes allowed dissent — lads who didn’t want to join a war party were not forced to. John Tanner mentioned this in The Falcon.

I was taught that democracy was invented in Greece. The democracy of Athens in the fifth century B.C. allowed 30,000 to 40,000 people to participate, but excluded 80,000 to 100,000 slaves.

What would you say to those who have difficulty imagining a world where life couldn’t be enjoyable living generation after generation within a society, culture, which doesn’t feel the need to innovate frantically just for the sake of innovation?

This is complicated. In Cradle of Humankind, I discussed our ancestors’ shaky beginnings as bipedal apes on the savannah. We were slow, weak, and highly vulnerable to large predators. Innovations like spears and fire increased our odds for survival, and this was a shift away from the traditional lifestyles of all other primates.

In Great LeapsI discussed how moving out of tropical Africa, into colder climates, presented us with new challenges — preserving and storing food, and surviving cold winters. Hunters living in tropical savannahs needed no tools for killing fish, seals, or seabirds, but the pioneers did, and innovation provided them.

The Food Crisis in Prehistory by Mark Nathan Cohen described how growing population and diminishing wildlife eventually led to the domestication of plants and animals. Growing crowds also led to growing conflicts between groups. Innovation provided ongoing technological improvements for both offense and defense. This led to a nonstop, continuously accelerating arms race, brilliantly described in Throwing Fire by Alfred W. Crosby — our journey from throwing stones to throwing nuclear weapons.

Today, in a consumer economy, innovation boosts survival in a different way. The objective is no longer getting meat, but a maniacal pursuit of wealth and status, via inventing, manufacturing, and selling stuff like smart phones, self-driving cars, big screen TVs, and a million other varieties of silly nonsense.

What would you say to those who believe that, throughout time, all human cultures have destroyed their environments?

Stanford professor Paul Ehrlich described a trip to Hudson Bay, Canada, where he spent time with Inuit hunter-gatherers. He was astonished to realize that every person in the group knew the tribe’s cultural information in its entirety. They all knew how to tan hides, clean fish, weave baskets, and so on. Yet, in our advanced civilization, nobody knows even a millionth of our cultural information.

Few in modern America receive a competent education in environmental history and ecological sustainability. I’ve taken two online sustainability courses from reputable universities, and both were very low quality. Universities train the teachers who will educate the school kids, so grand myths of magical thinking cascade from one generation to the next. Thus, almost the whole population is largely ignorant, handicapped by dodgy beliefs. The belief that humans are inherently stupid and destructive is false, but many use the belief as an excuse for our current consumer savagery. “Hey, we can’t help it, we’re humans!”

I’ve communicated with a number of professors, and the impression I get is that most pursue a “don’t scare the students” approach. If we tell them the truth, they will be overwhelmed with despair, and give up (as if they are currently trying). Most people don’t smoke because we’ve taught them the truth about smoking and cancer — fear inspires intelligent life decisions. Why wouldn’t teaching the truth about the Earth Crisis have similar benefits? Unfortunately, the global economy and perpetual economic growth are more important than a living planet, or the generations that come after us. So, the truth would be inconvenient, therefore we sweep it under the bed. Let’s go shopping!

What would you say to those fatalistic people who believe that humanity is vowed to this path of destruction no matter what?

What is the alternative? Is humankind likely to suddenly wake up and unite in revolutionary change? Are we eager to see coercive birth prevention programs? Are we ready to stop soil mining, forest mining, and fish mining? Will we voluntarily cease burning sequestered carbon? What will happen when the cooling ponds evaporate, and many tons of nuclear fuel are exposed to the air, and begin burning? Guy McPherson wrote, “Civilization is responsible for life-destroying, abrupt climate change. Turning off civilization kills us all faster.”

Our present way of life is extremely unsustainable, and therefore temporary. A sustainable future is inevitable, because only the sustainable can endure. We are zooming toward a solid wall of resource limits and other surprises. Many agriculture-based civilizations collapsed, regrouped, and resumed, in several cycles, until their land base was reduced to a wasteland.

Like every civilization, our industrial civilization will also collapse, but depleted resources (energy, minerals, groundwater, topsoil, etc.) ensure that our super-intensive way of life will be a onetime catastrophe. We’ll try like crazy to keep it on life support, but it will never again be so complex, because the planet has been pounded so hard. Muscle power will eventually become humankind’s primary energy source once again.

So, we’re on the path to a bottleneck, in which the carrying capacity for humankind will be lowered to levels suitable for the new, much simpler, way of life. Humans are both clever and remarkably adaptable to a wide variety of living conditions. But, in addition to resource depletion and ecological devastation, another enormous predicament is emerging at the same time, climate change.

There is compelling evidence that humans are able to survive without smart phones, automobiles, and nuclear reactors. Food, on the other hand, is an absolute necessity. All food-producing plants and trees can only survive within a range of conditions — temperature, moisture, soil nutrients. One source suggested the threshold temperatures for the three primary grains: wheat 26°C (78.8°F), corn (maize) 38°C (100.4°F), and rice 34°C (93.2°F). Too much heat or aridity affects plant growth, pollination, and reproductive processes. When crop yields decline, famines increase, and the herd downsizes.

Near Term Extinction is, by far, the most visited post on my blog. This community is also known as Near Term Human Extinction (NTHE). They are certain that the final generation of our species is alive today. A prominent NTHE spokesperson is Dr. Guy McPherson. They have a support group on Facebook. I have no doubt that this will be a tumultuous century, but I have not been convinced that some humans won’t make it through the post-industrial bottleneck.

And finally, what do all of the sustainable cultures you have studied have in common?

They don’t utilize nonrenewable resources, like metallic minerals or sequestered carbon (coal, oil). They don’t overuse renewables, like wood, freshwater, or wildlife. They comprehend the carrying capacity of their ecosystem, and they mindfully strive to limit their numbers, when needed. Most are nomadic, which discourages the accumulation of belongings, competition for status, and the bloody conflicts it generates.

The safest approach is adapting to your ecosystem, rather than attempting to control it. Growing annual or perennial food crops, in dense concentrations or monocultures, creates ideal conditions for pests and plant diseases (like Ireland before the blight). Agriculture based on tilling is a destructive process — soil mining. Agroforestry seems to work in Tikopia, but the island is extremely isolated, and less likely to be visited by exotic pests and diseases. It is vulnerable to rising seas, super storms, and an unstable climate.

I don’t recall reading about sustainable cultures that possessed domesticated livestock. Tribal Ireland might have been ideal for mindful low impact herding (once they eliminated the wolves). Topography of Ireland by Giraldus Cambrensis (1146 – 1223) was written when the island was still mostly rainforest, and the tribes raised cattle. Wildlife was still abundant. Fish, flesh, and milk were all they ate, and they wore nothing but animal skins.

The Irish climate was mild, rainfall was gentle and abundant, and the grass was green all year. Snows were rare, and soon melted away. It was a paradise for herbivores and herders. Herders needed no structures to protect the livestock from the cold, and they had no need for cutting, drying, and storing hay. When Cambrensis wrote, population pressure was growing, and tribes had mutated into warrior cultures. A few centuries earlier, it might have been a happier story.

Germania by Tacitus described tribal Germany in A.D. 98. They were also herders, and very warlike. They kept the Roman Empire from spreading to their side of the Rhine. In general, around the world, nobody owned wild grazers, but domesticated livestock were someone’s private property. The more animals you owned, the richer you were, and the higher your social status.

Richard Manning once noted that telling a Samburu herder he is overgrazing is telling him he has too many cattle, which in his terms is like saying he’s too rich. Telling him to protect wildlife is telling him to harbor the enemy.

There was no benefit in capturing and slaughtering 100 wild cattle at once, because most of the meat would be wasted. But the lad that owned and confined 100 domesticated cattle or horses could exploit his livestock more efficiently. He was wealthy, respected, and envied, but grazing enslaved animals was likely to degrade the grassland over time. A Plague of Sheep by Elinor Melville discusses overgrazing in Mexico. The Roots of Dependency by Richard White talks about Navaho country. Grassland by Richard Manning examines the damages caused by the grazing industry in the American west.

Paul Shepard had a lot to say about our relationship with wild animals. In his brilliant book, The Others, he described the importance of having daily exposure to wild animals, and how their presence is essential for our normal psychological development. Shepard was not at all fond of domesticated animals. In Where We Belong, he raged against the “total potato-heads,” the “hoofed locusts” (sheep, goats, asses, horses, cows, mules, yaks, camels) that scalped the slopes. “Their dexterous tooth work and footwork buried cities” (with eroded soils).

“The magnificent forests of the Mediterranean rim and islands were progressively demolished and their seedlings and root-shoots chewed and trampled by livestock.” The Minoan city of Jerash, a village of 3,000, was once home to 250,000, before the soil was trashed. “Like the dinosaurs, which are known mainly for their vanishing, the ancestors we know best, and from whom we take our style, are those who seem to have lived mainly to call down calamity upon themselves.”

The Epic of Gilgamesh is the oldest written story ever discovered. King Gilgamesh was the madman who built the city of Uruk in the Fertile Crescent. He destroyed the ancient forest, which led to catastrophic erosion and flooding. Today, Uruk is a crude pile of brown rubble sitting amidst a desolate barren moonscape.

Man and Nature, by George Perkins Marsh, was published in 1864. It was an early masterpiece of environmental history. He visited the sites of many ancient civilizations, and was shocked to realize that they were all victims of self-destruction. Marsh saw ancient seaports that were now 30 miles (48 km) from the sea. He saw ancient places where the old streets were buried beneath 30 feet (9 m) of eroded soil. He stood in mainland fields, 15 miles (24 km) from the sea, which used to be islands. He tried to warn America that they were following the same doomed path. America ignored him.

Finally, what (almost) all sustainable cultures have in common is that they have gone extinct — absorbed or destroyed by the unsustainable cultures that overwhelmed them. Throughout history, civilization has trumped wild cultures. Folks with jets and missiles will not be massacred by folks with spears and bows. One exception is the Sentineli who fiercely resist colonization (and are extremely lucky to inhabit a place worthless for colonization and resource mining). I will offer no magical solutions today.

All the best!


Richard Reese lives in Eugene, Oregon. He is the author of What Is Sustainable, Sustainable or Bust, and Understanding Sustainability. His primary interest is ecological sustainability, and helping others learn about it. His blog wildancestors.blogspot.com includes free access to reviews of more than 160 sustainability-related books, plus a few dozen rants.

Reprinted with permission from the author.


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