Institute for Environmental Studies

In a previous article we argued that modern economic systems require large quantities of raw materials and energy to run and generate equally large quantities of wastes and pollution. Technical efficiencies allow better use of resources per dollar of GDP but economic growth means that on aggregate more resources are required than before. 

Sustainable development together with the circular economy and renewable energies are presented as a way out of this conundrum in order to allow the business as usual scenario to prevail. This arrangement is destined to fail as it is very difficult to put in place a circular economy and renewable energies cannot replace oil fully as transport energy. Sustainable development is a dead end that will lead many astray.

Instead, we should focus onto issues of sustainability. Etymologically, the word sustainable comes from the Latin word: sustinere which means to “hold and maintain things from below”. Indeed, what we want to sustain and maintain over the long term is human civilisation.

In our understanding, civilisation ought to be humane, cultured and sustainable. Let us see what we mean by those terms. A humane civilisation is one in which society acts so that individuals are able to meet their basic needs for food, water, energy, shelter and are granted a minimum of basic rights. A cultured civilisation is one that gives reasonable opportunities to its members to access the cultural resources available to it and that means its knowledge and skill bases, whether written or oral, formal or informal. A sustainable civilisation is one which does not undermine its own resource base via inconsiderate actions and short term thinking so characteristic of modern times.

Most readers will more or less agree with our definitions of a humane and cultured civilisation. Hence we shall focus on our understanding of what a sustainable civilisation is. For us this means a society which acts to ensure that (1) its food comes from agricultural and husbandry systems that do not deplete soil and do not depend on artificial fertilisers and that fisheries are not depleted, (2) its water resources stay clean and untainted by industrial systems, (3) its energy system depends on renewable energies, (4) all wastes, liquid or solid, commercial, industrial or domestic are recycled (5) its human population stays more or less constant and above all, (6) its population is not obsessed by the accumulation of wealth and power. Our incessant greed and desire for more wealth is at the core of our predicament. Accumulation of material wealth is incompatible with sustainability. This needs to be understood. As long as we do not address our greed and excessive wants, we are in a self defeating cycle of delusions based on wishful thinking fuelled by fantasies of sustainable development.

Conversely, sustainability does not mean to live as paupers in want and destitution, nor does it mean to live in austerity and self inflicted poverty. It means to strive for a balance between our legitimate needs and our desire for material comforts. It means to honestly re-assess our desire for more material goods.

Do we really need this latest electronic gadget with so much “apps” we shall never use? Do we really need this latest, trendy dress that we shall wear only a few times? Do we really want to travel by air to this far away place for a few days of stressful holidays? We really need to have a long hard look at our own personal consumption habits and see where we are satisfying reasonable needs or, in fact, just feeding the global machine of infinite economic growth. In so doing we might actually save some money and ease our financial burdens.

It bears saying that the path to sustainability is not only for Government or businesses to tread, citizens also are invited to travel down that road. Indeed, the commitment of citizens in changing their modes of consumption is an extremely potent force. Together, concerned citizens can overturn governmental and business practices by (1) buying goods and services that were generated in a more sustainable manner, (2) boycotting goods and services from businesses who fail to change, and (3) by ousting elected officials who promise a lot but deliver little. We should not underestimate the force of non violent collective action. On its own, collective action can change civilisations.

Indeed, civilisations which fail to respond adequately to existential challenges in due time inevitably decline and collapse. In the past, civilisations came and went for a number of reasons. For instance, it is highly probable that both the Roman Western Empire and the Central American Mayan Empire declined and collapsed in part due to environmental reasons, having depleted their agricultural bases and failed to respond adequately. In due time, ours will probably overshoot its main resource bases in terms of fossil energy and agriculture lands. If it fails to respond to the changing circumstances, it will enter decline and face collapse.

However, there are examples of civilisations which just about managed to avoid complete collapse and re-emerge sooner or later. The Egyptian and Chinese civilisations are prime examples. Both of them managed to avoid destroying completely their main resource base which was agriculture, thereby enabling another round of civilisation later on.

We need to do the same: maintain our agricultural base more or less functional so that we can rebound in due time (although re-mergence of a civilisation after collapse may take decades or a few centuries!). Alas, this is exactly what we are not doing. Due to technological prowess, our civilisation behaves as if it could grow indefinitely; perpetually find cheap substitutes for all its material and energy needs and use nature as dumping grounds for ever. Our modern industrial civilisation is hell bent on growth for ever with scant regard for the environment and resources. This type of thinking is leading us straight into the swamps of decline. Humanity will nevertheless emerge on the other side of these swamps but at high costs to people and the environment. We have indeed entered an age of consequences.