Tuesday, August 12, 2008


Recently I found a wonderful group of bloggers, the APLS:

My first reaction was to think that, while I loved peeking into all the blogs listed in the membership roles, I could not call myself an Affluent Person Living Sustainably.

Green Bean had already thought of the issues I had:

1. The label of "affluent" is sometimes an awkward or embarrassing one, sort of like "smart" was when I was a young nerd. Am I really affluent? Well---certainly not compared with some of our friends with a lot more money to burn than we have. But, well, at the same time: yes. We own a house with a safe mortgage and low payments, we save without struggle for our son's college and our retirement, we live both comfortably and beneath our means. But even for folks who feel like they may just be squeaking by, check out this calculator to put things in global perspective. If you are reading this post, I'll bet you will easily fall into this category of affluence as defined by the global scale.

2. Can I really say I am living sustainably? Absolutely not. On the other hand, do I work towards it, complete with all the missteps and mistakes, on a daily basis? While I certainly can't claim that I am doing nearly as much as I need to do, one of the things that is most powerful about the group is that it allows other people who are interested in making changes and trying to do better to find each other, to inspire each other, to challenge each other, to feel like a community.

As Green Bean writes, "There is something special about those of us who want to live with less in a society that urges us to live with more." No matter whether we have the cash for it or not, this society tells us that hope comes in a bottle and happiness comes in a jar, that we can buy a better life.

Instead, APLS are learning that we must, for the sake of our families and communities and planet, make choices that can help us build a better world instead of individually living large. Some of those choices may feel like hardships. Some choices require thinking in order to make the change but don't require any feeling of sacrifice. Other choices may feel like pure joy once we can make that first step forward.

It is not the doing but the trying that defines us as APLS.

* * *

As I recognized that I do qualify for the APLS label, I started playing out what sustainability means. Of course, many other participants started thinking about the same question.

Most of us in the basket of APLS are probably thinking about living sustainably as individuals and as families. As I chatted with David as we hiked through the Blue Ridge mountains picking wild blueberries, we started chatting about the fact that we could never be truly sustainable without the entire interactive globe working together towards a just future. Whatever steps we might be making towards a better life, it requires systematic change to produce true sustainability.

As I was mulling over these questions, I was reading Richard Heinberg's Peak Everything: Waking Up to the Century of Declines. One of his chapters outlines the meaning of "sustainable" fairly rigorously:

1. A society can avoid collapse by finding replacement resources. But in a finite world, the number of possible replacements is also finite.
2. Population growth and/or growth in the rates of consumption of resources cannot be sustained.
3. To be sustainable, the use of renewable resources must proceed at a rate that is less than or equal to the rate of natural replenishment.
4. To be sustainable, the use of non-renewable resources must proceed at a rate that is declining, and the rate of decline must be greater than or equal to the rate of depletion.
5. Sustainability requires that substances introduced into the environment from human activities be minimized and rendered harmless to biosphere functions. In cases where pollution from the extraction and consumption of non-renewable resources that have proceeded at expanding rates for some time threatens the viability of ecosystems, reduction in the rates of extraction and consumption of those resources may need to occur at a rate greater than the rate of depletion.

Although Heinberg's axioms might sound abstract, playing them out when we are thinking about our own choices (for personal action as well as political action) leads to some guidance--some of which is a bit more complex than the "just-change-your-lightbulb" kind of advice:

Choosing to reduce our use of resources--those that are not renewable but also even those that are--seems essential. Replacing our old perfectly usable plastic cabinets with brand new beautiful renewable bamboo might NOT be the most sustainable choice, as axiom three points out. Learning to make do with less is almost always the better choice, even if it doesn't satisfy our craving to buy buy buy.

Heinberg's first axiom also really resonates with me. So often we assume some new technology to save us from ourselves. I always swallow hard--in the difficult recognition of truth--when James Kunstler mocks the Google employees who answer his disturbing vision with "Dude, you're so, like, wrong! We've got, like, technology!" Our hopes for easy answers may be met this time with plug-in cars and LED lights--but these are fundamentally only short-time band-aids.

True sustainability requires changing what we see as our prime directive. It cannot be acquisition any longer.

* * *

Heinberg acknowledges that his axioms do not address issues of social equality at all, since he is not trying to "describe conditions that would lead to a good or just society, but to a society that can be maintained over time." I understand his point--but I'm not sure I agree with him that justice (and its corollary peace) is not absolutely required for society to be genuinely sustainable. Likewise, without a strong sense of community, can human society be truly sustainable?

* * *

In the abstract, the meaning of the word sustainable has no relation to everyday challenges. Sustainability is not defined in opposition to some instance of lack of sustainability.

But when it comes down to specifics of our actions, what we define as sustainable is what we do in the face of a known threat. If we know climate chaos as a result of carbon and methane emissions is a threat, we try to address it (as axiom five would have us do). If we're worried about Peak Oil and the depletion of fossil fuels generally, we're going to be responding to axiom four. And so on.

We absolutely need to address these problems in our efforts to live a sustainable life. But I wonder: could we think more creatively if we sometimes stepped aside from our current problems? What if, instead of trying to tinker with what is broken, we tried to imagine a truly equitable and sustainable community? What actions would that require us to make?

Perhaps this will be my question for my atheist version of teshuvah.


Anonymous said...

>>I'm not sure I agree with him that justice (and its corollary peace) is not absolutely required for society to be genuinely sustainable.<<

Great post. I'm not sure I agree with him on that point either. True sustainability (as I wrote today) comes from the inside out. I think.

Carrie K said...

I hope justice and peace are not required because that seems impossible to achieve, particularly on a global basis. (OTOH, the 'I love humanity, it's people I can't stand' could use distance).

Interesting thoughts! I'd question the term special because it sounds more obnoxious than affluent/smart does but very important points.

Green Bean said...

So true. Acquistion must not be the focus. If we change the directive, if we really can do that, I believe that we can live a sustainable life. Nice post.

greeen sheeep said...

I love the last paragraph of your post. If we stepped back and stopped focusing all our energy on the immediate problems what would we envision? What do we want the world to be for future generations? That would bring about tremendous change!


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