Sustainability is a word that has been so abused it has almost lost all meaning.
Like “green,” “organic,” “natural” or “eco-,” sustainable is appended to many terms – “sustainable growth,” “sustainable development,” “sustainable design,” “sustainable travel” or even “sustainable style.”
This is unfortunate, as this word is desperately needed if we hope to have a viable future.
Sustainability is the state in which a process or system is able to continue indefinitely without depleting the resources on which the system or process depends.
Many problems related to sustainability stem from assumptions about who we are as human beings and how we relate to the nonhuman world.
Most of us have been enculturated into powerful, pervasive myths that prevent us from understanding sustainability and conspire to maintain the course toward ecological disaster.
From the creation stories in Genesis to myths repeated in popular culture, we like to think of ourselves as having somehow graduated from nature because of our large brains and good posture.
The truth is it is impossible to extract ourselves from our dependence on the Earth. Our technology, food and all that civilization entails ultimately come from the Earth. We are unique among creatures, but creatures nonetheless.
Homo sapiens are distinct in our ability to destroy the environment upon which we depend.
We believe we are able to control nature because agriculture and other technologies appear to free us from the limits placed on other creatures. However, we will eventually run into the natural constraints of our environment that we have no control over.
The discovery of abundant hydrocarbons made possible inventions that powered automobiles and factories. Today, the fingerprints of oil are everywhere.
The process to create petroleum takes millions of years, yet our consumption continues at a rate beyond any possibility for renewal. The use of fossil fuels is the very definition of unsustainable. It is a finite resource that will run out eventually.
Much energy and many resources are spent promoting solutions such as recycling. Instead of leading to sustainability, this often assuages our guilt and allows us to ignore our own complicity in larger systems that degrade our environment.
This doesn’t mean we should stop recycling, but we should recognize what it accomplishes and what it doesn’t.
Renewable sources of energy may be able to provide a level of energy indefinitely, but we should not expect to continue current energy consumption rates.
Scarcity is a foundational assumption in modern economics, assuming that human wants and needs are unlimited and the resources available to satisfy those needs are scarce.
Capitalism claims to solve this problem by allocating resources using the tools of the market.
Unfortunately, the current economic arrangement does not account for things such as the value of common goods, including natural resources like air and water quality, topsoil and biodiversity.
The truth is, the earth naturally provides an abundance of resources. Mahatma Gandhi said, “The Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s need but not for every man’s greed.” Scarcity only exists if human wants and needs are, in fact, unlimited.
If we hope to achieve sustainability, we must recognize that our basic economic assumptions must be overturned and alternatives to an infinite growth, consumer economy sought. The situation is dire and it does no good to pretend everything will work out somehow.
We must stare into the darkness of the road we are on and ask ourselves difficult questions about the choices we have made. We must ruthlessly work out the slow, inevitable calculus of the ecological systems we have ruined pursuing selfish ends.
The biggest, deadliest myth is that this is just the way things are and there is nothing we can do about it. The selfishness tempting us to make the most of our time left on a sinking ship is the very heart of what the Christian tradition calls sin.
Collaborative consumption, social entrepreneurship, the sharing economy and Sabbath economics are some of the alternative economic possibilities that depend less on an extractive, growth economy.
One way to begin is to shift from thinking of ourselves primarily as consumers to producers. Here are some examples.
Social entrepreneurs are building companies that include the well being of the environment and workers into their business models.
My own company, Edible Lawns, partners with local nonprofits to educate consumers about sustainability, increase participation in the local food economy, create sustainable landscapes that conserve water, and train low-income individuals with the skills to start their own socially and environmentally responsible businesses.
There are also businesses and communities dedicated to reducing our consumption through sharing, such as Zipcar and Airbnb. In my community, people share cars, tools, meals and other resources.
Individuals can practice sharing economics by creating networks of interdependence. Instead of purchasing new appliances like a “good” consumer, consider seeking out others with whom you can share resources.
We can also learn how to repair and maintain old equipment while sharing this knowledge with others.
As Christians, our tradition contains invaluable resources for practicing alternative economics.
The Sabbath practices of the Hebrew Bible culminate in the year of Jubilee. This is a visceral and practical embodiment of the right-relatedness embraced by the Hebrew word shalom. This theme is picked up by the prophet Isaiah and, later, by Jesus when he delivers his “Lucan Manifesto” in the synagogue.
None of these ideas offers a silver bullet that can solve all our problems, but together they point us to better ways of organizing our lives and offer possible solutions for sustainable living.
There are faith communities trying to embody these values in their life together. There are many more engaged in a variety of ways in trying to solve the greatest problem our species has ever faced.
The question, as always, is whether we will be part of the solution or part of the problem.
Lucas Land is an urban farmer and owner of Edible Lawns with his radical homemaker, Sarah, and three children in Waco, Texas. He is a member of Hope Fellowship, an intentional Christian community, and blogs occasionally at What Would Jesus Eat?