True Sustainability

This brief essay is based on the last chapter of Fritjof Capra’s ‘The Turning Point.’ The chapter can be read almost as a prospectus for Schumacher College, one of the new educational establishments where people come from all over the world to both learn about, and contribute to, the development of a more sustainable society, where spirituality sits comfortably alongside ecology and economics.

Our current environmental and social problems are deeply embedded in our economic systems, which view natural resources simply as economic assets to be exploited, using production systems which create far more waste than useful products. What we can do is make our economic system more like those of nature, whereby there are no waste products. In nature, what is waste for one system becomes nutrients for another. Hence we can begin to move towards true sustainability, whereby the actions of one generation no longer diminish the environment or chances of future generations.

We do not have to start from scratch in developing new sustainable communities, if we choose to be inspired by nature, since nature has already shown us how it is able to maintain stability across systems spanning many millions of years. Capra outlines a number of steps that we can take in achieving this transition to sustainability, the first of which are understanding the six principles of ecology that are critical for maintaining life. These are networks, cycles, solar energy, partnership, diversity and dynamic balance.

At all scales of nature, we find living systems nesting within other living systems – networks within networks. Their boundaries are not boundaries of separation but boundaries of identity. All living systems communicate with one another and share resources across their boundaries.

All living organisms must feed on continual flows of matter and energy from their environment to stay alive, and all living organisms continually produce waste. However, an ecosystem generates no net waste, one species’ waste being another species food. Thus, matter cycles continually through the web of life.

Solar Energy
Solar energy, transformed into chemical energy by the photosynthesis of green plants, drives ecological cycles.

The exchanges of energy and resources in an ecosystem are sustained by pervasive co-operation. Life did not take over the planet by combat but by co-operation, partnership and networking.

Ecosystems achieve stability and resilience through the richness and complexity of their ecological webs. The greater their biodiversity, the more resilient they will be.

Dynamic Balance
An ecosystem is a flexible, ever-fluctuating network. Its flexibility is a consequence of multiple feedback loops that keep the system in a state of dynamic balance. No single variable is maximized; all variables fluctuate around their optimal values.

If we are to help our future generations to survive, we have to understand these principles of ecology and then to live accordingly. Hence we have to become ‘ecoliterate,’ and understand the principles of organization common to all living systems. This way of educating key decision makers and leaders is being taught at institutions such as Schumacher College in the UK, the Center for Ecoliteracy at Berkley and organisations such as Second Nature.

Much of why this blog is called Transition Consciousness is because have to make this move from the linear dynamics of our current capitalist and consumerist society, where natural resources are inefficiently transformed into products for consumers, businesses and governments, which then use up energy in an incredible wasteful and inefficient manner, and which then are discarded and dumped back into the earth to become toxic and non-degradable waste.

The next step from ecoliteracy is therefore ecodesign, which is not just about the product, but in ensuring that our human purposes are carefully meshed with the larger patterns and flows of the natural world. This will happen when we begin to reconnect with nature, and as science writer Janine Benyus describes, will happen when we shift our consciousness or thinking away from what we can extract from nature to what we can learn from nature.

An example of this type of zero-waste thinking is provided by the Zero Emissions Research and Initiatives organization (ZERI). ZERI helps industries to organize themselves into ecological clusters, so that the waste of one can be sold as a resource to another, for the benefit of both. In shifting the emphasis from labour productivity to resource productivity, ecological clustering dramatically increases productivity while at the same time creating jobs and reducing pollution.

The founder of ZERI, Gunter Pauli, used three forms of advanced networking to develop the organization. As well as ecological clusters of industries, he worked on developing the human network of the local community where the industries are based, and also developed an international network of scientists who provide the detailed knowledge necessary to design the industries compatible with local ecosystems.

While ZERI clusters involve organic material and waste, we also have to consider the redesign of industries that utilize non-organic materials. A radical idea would be to move away from an economy based on the ownership of goods, to an economy of what Capra calls “service and flow.” In this economy, when a consumer comes to upgrade a product, they return the old one to the manufacturer who is then responsible for its dismantling and recycling. This is not just academic wishful thinking. There are now many examples of large global corporations such as FIAT’s Auto Recycling programe, which has as its aim the goal of recycling 95% of materials.

With so many positive ideas, initiatives and solutions being proposed, the transition to a sustainable future is no longer a technical or conceptual problem, it one of values and political will. Hence it down to our own personal consciousness, and a question of how willing we are to make this journey of transition into what can be a much more positive, fair and healthy society.

More Information

Gunter Pauli – The Power of System Design

Suggested Reading

Fritjof Capra (2002) The Hidden Connections HarperCollins
Fritjof Capra (1996) The Web of Life Anchor/Doubleday

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