Environmental sustainability

Environmental sustainability is a great ideal. The environment tickling along, nicely balanced to provide habitat and all the goods and services humans need. And to do it indefinitely with every value supported.

The environmental cake magically renews itself each time you eat a slice.

This is the common perception of sustainability — renewal of something that we readily take from.

The famous definition of sustainable development from the Brundtland Report ‘Our Common Future’ from the United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development in 1987 sums it up...

"development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."

Take but only so much. Leave enough capacity behind for the environment to renew all the goods, services and values we require.

A handy notion except it is not how the environment works.

Hidden assumption

Environmental sustainability might be ideal, but it comes with a big assumption.

We assume that the environment renews the things we take from it.

A reasonable assumption you would think. At first glance recovery and renewal is what happens in nature.

After a wildfire that scorches trees and grasses sending animals scurrying for cover, the land appears desolate. Yet within days new shoots spring up from seeds in the ground. Grass returns green and lush and some trees even sprout new branches from their charred bark.

After a long drought when soil is baked hard like concrete and every plant has withered, rain first refreshes and then supports transformation. Even deserts bloom after rain.

All of this is about the most basic driver in nature — ‘more-making’.

The reason for existence is to make more.

This does not mean that the environment is all about environmental sustainability even if we assume that it might be.

So when conditions permit, growth and reproduction always happens. Only nature does not require the same organisms return. Renewal is of the process of ‘more-making’ not a specific plant or animal.

Nor does the same ‘more-making’ have to return. If the fire killed trees, then grasses and shrubs may return at their expense, altering the habitat.

What do humans do?

Humans modify habitats more than any other species. We cut trees for timber, clear vegetation for arable agriculture, and replace wildlife with livestock. At the same time we build cities, roads and dig deep into the ground for minerals that we convert into indelible goods. And we use fossil fuel for the energy to make it happen.

All to comfortably make more people.

For the most part the environment sustains this. It maintains the ‘more-making’ from crops, plantations and fish farms just as it would do natural vegetation habitats that were there before us.

Only if left to its own devices the systems of production would collapse. They all require inputs from outside.

Humans must move energy, nutrients and seed stock into these arable fields to help the environment support crop growth. And then provide protection from the undesirable more makers — pests and disease.

Rice paddiies in Indonesia

Let's be more specific

Click through on these links to more details on environmental sustainability...

  • What is sustainability is actually a critical question. It is far more important than we realize because how we answer it will shape our future... read more
  • Natural capital is the economic description for the natural resources and ecosystem services that sustain human populations everywhere — the capital keeps us all alive...  read more
  • The definition of sustainability amounts to maintaining resource use. How to keep gaining benefit from resources without depleting them.  It’s a tricky conundrum when it comes to the environment...  read more
  • Eco-efficiency is about creating more from less without making a mess. Designed for business, it should also make business sense... read more
  • Environmental stewardship takes personal and collective responsibility to take care of the environment because this is the right thing to do. Except that we really don’t know why... read more
  • Business accountability might be changing for the better and some think that only business has the capacity to scale fast enough to resolve many social and environmental issues... read more

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Arable field crowd next to ephemeral rivers in southern Botswana — the pattern running left to right in the image are made by the interaction between water and termite mounds as the water drains towards the river

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