Sustainable Living and the future of Human Civilisation
A series of articles to address the issues of sustainability and sustainable development
An analysis of the meaning of sustainable development and a critic thereof
The term sustainable development was coined in 1987 and since then has seen many definitions, so much so that nearly everybody has his/her own understanding of the term. This plethora of definitions can make any meaningful debate about sustainable development very difficult indeed. Nevertheless, at the very least, it is clear that proponents of sustainable development want development to continue in the long term or in the foreseeable future. Thus any discussion about sustainable development must start with an analysis of the term “development”.
Etymologically, the word development comes from the old French “desveloper” which means to “unroll” or “unfold”. The root “des” means to undo and “veloper” means to wrap up. The latter is a word of uncertain origin, perhaps Germanic or Celtic. Thus the meaning of the word “develop” is to unwrap, unroll, and unfold something. In the context of the semantics of the word, it is clear that when developing there is a definite beginning, middle and an end to the process, after all it stands to reason that one cannot unwrap or unfold something forever. Thus “development” by definition is a process that must end at one point in time. Yet, this end stage is never discussed by proponents of development, a point that bears to be remembered. Furthermore by adding the adjective “sustainable”, we now have a process, development, which ought to be sustained into the future for an unspecified period of time. Nevertheless sustainable development also implies a process that has a beginning, middle and an end.
It follows from the above that the onus is on proponents of sustainable development to make clear at what point in time the process of development shall begin and at what point it shall end. At the very least proponents must state under what conditions this development shall end and why. Alas, we have yet to come across any proponents of sustainable development that is even aware of the fact that development implies an end to the process itself in due time. Given their utter lack of awareness, they are even less capable of telling us under what conditions development should cease. The systematic failure of sustainable developers to state openly when and how the process shall end shows that they probably do not really understand the inherent properties of the development process and that little, if any thought has been given to the matter. We are thus forced to conclude that proponents of development are in reality using the words sustainable development unknowingly, in a doctrinal manner, very much like an article of faith.
However our analysis of development, sustainable or not, cannot stop at this point. We need to lift the veils of development and examine what lurks behind. We see that what hold in place the whole ideological architecture of development are the ideas of modernity and progress. They are at the very core of the belief system of our age. They are the founding myths of our time. It might occur to some that the use of the word myth here is misplaced because in normal usage it refers to ancient lore or stories of remote and obscure origins, quite inappropriate for our time of science and reason. Yet, myths also mean stories that are taken to be true and factual by a given society from which certain values and meanings can be extracted.
Indeed, the word “myth” comes from the Greek “mythos” which means story or word. Myths are stories of great importance to cultures and often are related to the origins of that culture and have religious significance. In our age, the words modernity and progress are our myths for they are taken as a narrative that truly depict how our civilisation took shape out of the old and ancient worlds. Furthermore, modernity and progress have also taken on the mantle of values because what is modern and what represents progress is good and worthy.
To a large extent, it is understandable that such myths arose. After all, the application of science and technology has enabled humans to travel to the far reaches of the Earth, transform the land and master the flow of mighty rivers. Furthermore, we forget, all too easily that within lifetimes, people witnessed tremendous changes to their environments and saw the dissemination of extraordinary feats of engineering such as trains, steamships, airplanes and spaceships. Humans could go faster, further and in greater safety than any time before. Many diseases were vanquished and hunger reduced. Human populations swelled, better fed and educated than ever before.
In short, for many, but not all, material conditions steadily and substantially increased throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. Furthermore, the extraordinary prowess of applied science and technology has slowly but surely instilled in the minds of people that Man (but not women!) can dominate nature and dictate His Will.
Faced with the above evidence, a belief in a progressive betterment of material conditions thanks to the application of science and technology was all but inevitable. Thus the establishment of a myth suited to modern times was born. It depicts how modernity and progress arose, made life better and easier and so are sources of goodness in the world.
The basic creed of modernity and progress could well be that tomorrow shall be better than today which is better than yesterday. It is the hallmark of our myth of progress and modernity. Thus modernity came to be defined by the dissemination of technological and scientific progress throughout the world via the process of development that leads to a betterment of the material conditions of humankind.
Science, technology, progress, modernity, development, wealth creation and accumulation have now all been interwoven into a dense fabric of myths that underlie much of the psyche of the modern man and woman, the consequences of which are far from being trivial.
Now the processes of scientific and technological discoveries are potentially open ended. This is because it is not really possible to affirm, in any given field, whether all has been discovered and understood. Hence, potentially human knowledge can only increase, thus progress with time. The reliance of modernity and progress on science and technology which have an open ended nature has given rise to a belief in the open ended nature of modernity and progress (After all, in French, don’t people say: “On n’arrête pas le progrès” which can be translated as “progress cannot be stopped”). Hence development, modernity, progress have also become open ended and never ending processes.
We now have an iron ring of scientific and technological prowess and increased material wellbeing that binds believers in a never ending quest for development. Furthermore, the faith in modernity, progress and development makes it inevitable that faced with any given signs of dysfunction of our civilisation people come up with techno scientific solutions that are believed to enable progress to continue unabated for ever. As long as the myths of our civilisation are not faced squarely, it is unlikely that people will understand and accept the severity of the predicaments that our civilisation is facing today.
Those readers well versed in the lore of the Lords of the Ring trilogy by JRR Tolkien, might recall the following verses about the Ring of Sauron:
Alas, our never ending thirst for material wealth, progress, modernity and development binds us in the land of environmental destruction and resource depletion where the shadows of our civilization will lie.
Once the realisation that we need to transcend the limitations of the concepts of development, progress, modernity has set in, then the real questions about the fate of human civilisation can be addressed and meaningful responses sought. We will address those issues in the article that follows.
The Modern Economic Triad and Sustainability
In most human societies, there nearly always is some form of economic specialisation whereby some individuals will specialise in certain types of activities and exchange the goods or services provided by these activities with others. So, an economic system can be characterised by the sort of goods and services exchanged within its confines and the manner with which these goods and services were created. Our modern economic system is no different. But it has a number of fundamental characteristics that are very peculiar and can only lead us into crisis.
The first of these characteristics is a quasi religious obsession with economic growth and development that leads to the never-ending accumulation of material wealth. Growth is perceived as being absolutely essential to the modern world.
Any system that requires never ending growth requires ever increasing volumes of resources and of energy and generates a corresponding volume of wastes and pollution. Faced with the finite nature of planet Earth, this constant expansion can only but breach the physical limits of our planet.
The second fundamental characteristic is an economic system heavily dependant upon fossil fuels which are non-renewable. Currently, 80% of energy consumed worldwide comes from fossil fuels such oil, gas and coal. Severe supply constraints are now occurring because of Peak Oil.
The third characteristic is the linearity of our economic system as it extracts natural resources such as metallic ores and wood in ever increasing quantities, transforms them into consumer goods destined to be thrown away as quickly as possible into landfills or incinerated. The linear and wasteful nature of our economic system is obvious.
Adding it all up, it can clearly be seen that we have an economic system in constant expansion, that devours huge quantities of fossil fuels whose resource base can only shrink with time, wasting natural resources to satisfy consumer societies whose citizens have been conditioned to believe that this state of affairs is not only normal but above all desirable because synonymous with progress.
Faced with such an appalling state of affairs, why be surprised when environmental degradation continues unabated, and why be astonished when our civilisation itself creates crises that are serious, violent, insoluble and potentially catastrophic for that same civilisation?
It follows that we should give much thought to the following
(1) begin a transition out of infinitely expansionist economic system
(2) radically change our expectations concerning wealth accumulation
(3) reduce considerably our own consumption for a simpler lifestyle
By reducing one’s own consumption, we reduce considerably our own ecological footprint, allowing ecological ecosystem to regenerate that much. A simpler lifestyle will enable the poor to satisfy a little bit better their own legitimate and unmet needs, thus to benefit from a little bit more of social justice.
In parallel, we ought to refocus our energies on the truly important which we can describe as follows:
(1) live in harmony with others
(2) live in harmony with nature
(3) live with a quest for meaning
If we can travel down a road which leads to the above, then we would slowly but surely reach a state of sustainability. This term is often encountered in public discourse, but few really spend any time actually explaining what it sands for. Let us be clear, sustainability is not synonymous with sustainable development, although many people use them interchangeably.
We have shown how sustainable development really is a concept rooted into our ideas of progress and modernity. We shall now attempt to show that sustainability goes beyond the ideas and limitations of progress and modernity to contemplate the fate of humane civilization over the long term.
To begin with, it pays well to consider the etymology of the word “sustainability”. It is derived from the Old French sustenir which means to “hold up, endure” derived from Latin, “sustinere”, to “hold up, support, endure” from the root word “sus” which means “up from below” and “tenere” to hold. Thus “sustainability” means “to hold up from below”. It is the ability to continue an action without the risk of failure or collapse.
Now that we know what sustainability means, we can proceed and define what a sustainable civilization would mean. After all, we can assume that we all wish for human civilizations to continue into the indefinite future. A sustainable civilization is one that can support itself or to hold up together without the risk of failure or collapse over time and into the indefinite future.
The question that arises now immediately is: what is it that we want to make sustainable over the long term? Peace, justice, harmony and the quest for meaning are indubitably high on the agenda of sustainability, and rightly so. After all we do not wish to make gender inequality or social injustices sustainable! Thus the first question is very much value laden as it goes to the very core of our own humanity. Each one of us needs to think what he or she wants to become sustainable. It’s part of a quest.
The next question that requires tackling is how to make civilizations sustainable? It’s the nitty-gritty of sustainability which requires, by definition, a very much practical approach. We cannot give an exhaustive list of what must or must not be done to reach for sustainability, this would be ridiculous. However we can make a list of characteristics we believe sustainable civilizations must strive for or possess in order to travel down the road of sustainability. This list can be thought of as the necessary or minimum characteristics required for sustainability.
We have arranged those characteristics under a number of headings such as the physical, the financial, the socio-cultural and the mythical.
The Physical Characteristics
(1) Biological agriculture – The growing of food that does not require fossil fuels inputs
(2) The recycling of ALL wastes
(3) The use of renewable and recyclable resources
(4) The use of renewable energies – The finite nature of fossil fuels makes their use problematic
The Financial Characteristics
Financial systems will no longer be based on interest rates as is the case today in western financial systems. This is because interest based financial systems have the tendency of making monetary systems become larger and larger with no end in sight. They diverge to infinity given time. We will have to think along the lines of Islamic Banking where profit accrued is shared among all parties involved.
The Socio-cultural Characteristics
(1) A controlled demography
(2) A democratic, transparent, inclusive and accountable system of Governance
(3) A social structure that reduces social injustices and reinforces equity
The Mythical Characteristics
Every society is dominated
by a central myth which is the fundamental belief system or narrative that is
taken to be true and obvious by all, and as such rarely discussed. As
discussed in the previous article, the central myth of our civilization is
that of progress and modernity. This myth has enabled the emergence of a mostly
utilitarian vision of nature. Nature is simply seen as a place from which resources
are extracted and waste dumped into. This vision of nature will have to
change and we will have to cease seeing her as simply a door mat to the
Another myth and another vision of nature will have to prevail. Which myth and which vision will come to pass? We do not know as yet. But we can imagine that our new myth shall incorporate a narrative that perceives Nature as being a powerful ally essential to our survival and well being. Nature is to be respected but not feared, bountiful or mean at times, placid or a fury at others. But above all, we’ll have to accept that we are part of nature and nor apart from her. Nevertheless, the new myth of a sustainable civilization will be the most difficult aspect to address.
We are quite certain that many people will strongly object to our critic of sustainable development and our definitions of sustainability. It is expected and welcomed because we need to discuss openly the future of our civilisation.
Le développement durable : Voie du futur ou voie de garage ?
Durable ou pas le but du développement est la continuation et la consolidation de notre système économique moderne. Donc: Quel est le but de notre système économique moderne ?
Au fil des années, le but de notre système économique est devenu l’enrichissement financier et l’accumulation de biens matériels sans fin via une croissance économique sans fin. Le bien être humain est devenu secondaire au système économique actuel. Pire, le bien être humain est devenu un prétexte pour développer toujours et encore plus.
Face à la finitude de la Planète Terre et de ses ressources, la seule que nous ayons d’ailleurs, voila qu’on nous propose le développement durable. Ainsi, apparemment, on pourra continuer à développer pour toujours, sans risque de tout détruire pour toujours.
Alors, le développement durable serait – il eternel ? Affirmer que le développement durable serait eternel serait synonyme de folie. Affirmer que le développement durable n’est pas eternel implique qu’à un moment dans le temps le développement durable devrait s’arrêter. Alors la question serait : quand devrait-il s’arrêter et surtout pourquoi ?
Mais il y a bien plus grave. A l’heure actuelle plusieurs limites dans la disponibilité des ressources planétaires ont été franchies par le système économique mondial et les conséquences de certaines de ces limites vont rendre le développement durable inopérant. Voyons pourquoi.
Pour ce faire, nous allons nous concentrer sur une des ressources maitresse de l’économie moderne dont justement les limites ont été franchies. Il s’agit du pétrole. Ressource essentielle pour dans notre système économique car tout dépend des transports modernes. Il est impossible de faire tourner l’économie actuelle sans transports modernes.
A l’heure actuelle, 95% des systèmes de transports modernes dépendent exclusivement sur le pétrole pour fonctionner. D’ailleurs, 60% du pétrole extrait est utilisé pour faire tourner les systèmes de transports.
Hélas, il existe très peu d’alternatives crédibles à l’utilisation du pétrole dans les transports car il est impossible de faire fonctionner 800 millions de véhicules terrestres, 20,000 avions civils et des milliers de navires marchands avec de l’éthanol ou du biodiesel au vue des volumes qui serait requis : 86 millions de barils chaque jour, soit 14 milliards de litres.
Or nous savons qu’actuellement la production mondiale de pétrole atteint gentiment un plafond. Ce plafonnement de la production pétrolière va se maintenir pendant quelques années pour ensuite décliner année après année. Ce phénomène s’appelle en anglais « Peak Oil » et en français « Pic Pétrolier » Ainsi avec chaque année qui passe, nous risquons de nous retrouver à devoir faire fonctionner l’économie mondiale avec de moins en moins de pétrole qu’aujourd’hui. Impossible. Nous allons vivre de ce fait une contraction économique grave. Par conséquent, notre sécurité énergétique et alimentaire seront et sont gravement menacées. L’urgence, ne sera plus de développer durablement mais bien et bel d’essayer de maintenir en place un système économique quelconque, de nourrir la population tout en essayant de s’extirper de notre totale dépendance sur le pétrole.
Alors, il ne sera plus question de développer quoi que ce soit, il sera plutôt question de vivre plus sobrement, faire avec moins et consommer moins.
Nous entrerons dans l’ère de la survivance. Vu l’importance du pétrole dans notre système économique ce ne sera pas facile de faire la transition hors des systèmes pétroliers. Cela sera dur, lent et difficile. Il s’en suit que le concept du développement durable n’est qu’un obstacle mental à une bonne compréhension des contraintes physiques actuelles et donc à la mise en place d’une nouvelle civilisation post-pétrolière.