Mother Earth News Blogs > Homesteading and Livestock

Homesteading and Livestock

Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.

What Is True Sustainability?

By Matthew Stein 

Tags: sustainability, Natural Step, Matthew Stein,

"We have the capacity and ability to create a remarkably different economy, one that can restore ecosystems and protect the environment while bringing forth innovation, prosperity, meaningful work, and true security. The restorative economy unites ecology and commerce into one sustainable act of production and distribution that mimics and enhances natural processes."

— Paul Hawken, The Ecology of Commerce 

Every day we hear about topics like sustainable growth and sustainable building, but what does it really mean to be “sustainable?” In broad terms, sustainability quite clearly means that each new year finds the earth in at least as good of a condition as the last one. No increasing degree of deforestation, no fewer fish in the ocean, no higher levels of toxic pollution, and the concentration of atmospheric pollutants the same or better the next year as it was the prior one. Classically, many native American tribes had a high respect for the sustainability of the world, making collective decisions about whether or not to continue a particular course of action based upon if it would have a negative effect seven generations into the future.

Two modern day thinkers,  the economist Herman Daly and Swedish Dr. Karl-Henrik Robèrt, have given sustainability much thought, offering us clear definitions to help us along our journey towards this goal. After all, if we are to develop an effective plan and roadmap for creating a sustainable world, we must first have a clear idea of what it truly means to be “sustainable”!

Herman Daly has suggested three simple rules to help define sustainability:

Another way of looking at sustainability comes from Swedish Dr. Karl-Henrik Robèrt. Robèrt’s passion for sustainability developed in the late 1980s when he was working as a medical doctor and cancer treatment researcher. He felt a deep sorrow and fear in his heart concerning the destruction of the Earth’s environment. Working with his microscope, he saw that there were environmental limits that must be maintained within and around each cell and that when these limits are breached, the cell’s death is absolutely certain. The parallels to our Earth’s perilous condition of continuous environmental degradation became obvious, and Robèrt’s passion for the issue of sustainability turned into an obsession.

As Robèrt’s ideas began to crystallize into a formula for sustainability, he wrote a scientific paper on this subject, and shared it with numerous Swedish colleagues and scientists. After something like 22 drafts, this paper was published, and their consensus for a sustainability definition and guidelines became known as, “The Natural Step.” Robèrt recognized that our world is essentially a closed system, meaning that outside of the sun’s energy streaming to Earth, there are no new materials and resources to be found on this planet other than what was here to begin with. If we are to stand a chance of modifying humankind’s practices and industry in sustainable ways, then we must first understand what it means to be “sustainable.”

In two simple sentences, The Natural Step (TNS) defines four minimum environmental conditions as necessary elements for maintaining life sustainably in a closed-system world such as planet Earth:

In the sustainable society, nature is not subject to systematically increasing:

These four conditions provide us with a definition to help us determine whether a society is sustainable or not. TNS also provides a collection of strategic methods and resources for helping organizations, whether they are governmental or industrial, to make genuine progress on the road to sustainability. Robèrt’s sustainability conversations expanded beyond his circle of friends and the scientific community to public television, Swedish media stars, leading politicians, and even to the King of Sweden. Robèrt’s  ideas have had a profound effect on many businesses, including IKEA, McDonald's, Electrolux, and many others.

Let’s take a closer look at the four TNS conditions for sustainability:

(Source: Adapted from The Natural Step for Business, by Brian Nattrass and Mary Altomare, 2001)

From looking at both Robèrt’s and Daly’s definition of sustainability, we see that few things in our modern world are actually built, processed, or manufactured sustainably, including what is generally referred to as “sustainable building”, and that we have a long ways to go towards actually making our modern word sustainable.

Building a sustainable world will not be easy, but it is doable! 

Green tip for the day: Fix it instead of throwing “it” away! When an item is manufactured, far greater inputs in the form of energy and raw materials go into making most items than meets the eye, and far more waste is generated in manufacturing and refining these raw materials than the item that sits in front of you. For example, according to a UN University study, 1.8 tons of raw materials are used to manufacture the average PC, and most of these materials are dumped somewhere as waste. So, when you repair an item rather than throwing it “away,” you are reducing your consumption and ecological footprint on the planet. It often seems hardly worth your time to sew a split seam on an item of clothing, upgrade a computer, or repair an appliance, but fixing something yourself, or spending a few bucks for someone else to fix it, is one more way of Doing the Right Thing. The exception to this rule is when the item is an old energy hog, such as a refrigerator that is more than ten years old, or a gas guzzling car. In these cases, the energy wasted by the old appliance over its lifetime is far more energy than what goes into making a new efficient one.