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What Does Sustainable Mean?

The fate of the earth in our hands. The fate of the earth in our hands.

When we talk about saving the earth, environmentalism, going green, sustainability and similar issues, we automatically look for solutions that fit into industrial capitalist society. As fossil fuel byproducts harmfully accumulate in our air, land and water, we talk about electric cars, solar power and recycling. We never hear government officials, policymakers or mass groups of citizens challenging industrial capitalism itself. Nor do we hear people ask what does sustainable mean.


Norwegian philosopher, ecologist and mountaineer Arne Naess described our current approach as “shallow ecology.” Naess, who died in 2009, defined shallow ecology as environmental thinking that fails to address the root causes of environmental problems. He pointed out the inherent psychological denial, defensiveness and refusal to change or sacrifice that characterizes the ongoing talk about what it means to build a sustainable society.

Shallow ecology dominates discussions about what does sustainable mean, and it’s easy to see that shallow ecology is built on the premise that humans should always be able to access the wonders of technoindustrial capitalism. Another shallow ecology premise is that human population and consumption growth can continue to climb relentlessly and forever, and that the earth will somehow be able to supply “resources” to provide all humans with the standard of living we enjoy in affluent countries. The other fundamental shallow ecology premise is that the earth was put here only for humans, and that we have a right to do whatever we want to it. Many people believe that an invisible deity gave us the earth so we could use it up.

Deep ecology starts by asking people to be open-minded, to consider that they’ve been programmed their entire lives to believe in technoindustrial capitalism and human supremacy. In 1972, Naess first articulated his “deep ecology” principals, as follows:

1) The well-being and flourishing of human and nonhuman life on Earth have value in themselves, independent of the usefulness of the nonhuman world for human purposes.

2) Richness and diversity of life forms contribute to the realization of these values and are also values in themselves.

3) Humans have no right to reduce this richness and diversity except to satisfy vital needs.

4) Human interference with the nonhuman world is excessive, and the situation is rapidly worsening.

5) The flourishing of human life and cultures is compatible with a substantial decrease in human population; the flourishing of nonhuman life requires such a decrease.

6) Policies affecting the most basic economic, technological, and ideological structures must change.

7) This ideological change is mainly about appreciating the value of a living earth, rather than seeking ever-increasing technological toys and comforts.

8) Those who subscribe to the foregoing points have an obligation directly or indirectly to participate in the attempt to implement the necessary changes.

Deep ecology asks what does sustainable mean.


In academia and environmentalist arenas, deep ecology received a lot of attention because it made a lot of sense, was in accord with what science tells us about the biosphere and because it dared to challenge humanity’s prideful notion that “might makes right”…that humans can do whatever they want to the earth, including extincting many of the other species who were here before we were.

Even as recently as 2001, the book “Deep Ecology: Living as if Nature Mattered” was published and received good reviews. The “radical environmental organization” Earth First was formed in response to deep ecology, and is one of a handful of environmental orgs that has the courage to call out humans for what they do to the earth and other species.

But let’s face it, not many humans are willing or able to make the ideological, practical and lifestyle changes that go with a deep ecology lifestyle. Most of us are so dependent on the luxuries of petroleum, and so disconnected from the land, that we could not physically survive if the destructive grid was downsized.

Nor can we answer the question what does sustainable mean by offering the current definition of sustainable, which is that humans can continue to reproduce, consume the earth, alter climate systems and exceed carrying capacity as long as we have hybrid cars, solar panels and other technoutopian fixes that never seem to fix anything. Until deep ecology is seriously added to our list of strategies, the chitchat about what does sustainable mean is hollow rhetoric, similar to rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

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Last modified on Monday, 17 September 2012 17:48

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