My great-grandfather, Richard E. Rees, was born in 1843 in the hamlet of Cwmbelan in the parish of Llangurig, Wales. It had a stream with a waterfall. Beside the waterfall was the flannel factory, built in the 1830s. The factory was powered by a waterwheel, which had an iron frame. Cwmbelan was in sheep country, and the flannel was made from wool.
In the wake of the last ice age, much of Britain was a lush rainforest. It was home to animals like the beaver, boar, elk, reindeer, wisent (bison), antelope, lynx, wolf, bear, wolverine, lion, spotted hyena, elephant, black rhino, and hippopotamus. They are all gone now, laments George Monbiot. The rainforest was on the path to extinction by 2,100 years ago. By and by, the land was infested with domesticated herbivores, the white plague, and they continue to prevent the forest from healing. Monbiot calls this a sheepwreck.
Richard E. Rees worked in the factory as a boy. Before Richard’s first birthday, his father died from “decline” at the age of 23. Around 1853, his mother Sarah, and her three sons moved to Dowlais, in the hills of southern Wales, where there were booming coal and iron industries. Richard mined coal for 10 years in Dowlais, 2 years in Pennsylvania, and 53 years in Ohio — 65 years!
The production of coal and iron enabled the rise of the Industrial Revolution. It also enabled the rise of coal-powered mills in northern England, which led to the demise of the flannel factory in Cwmbelan. In England, a coal-powered mill could spin as much yarn as 200,000 folks. Many lost their livelihoods, as did Sarah Rees, who was a handloom weaver. In Dowlais, she managed the Green Dragon pub.
So, was the waterwheel in Cwmbelan a sustainable source of energy? Yes indeed, according to the trendy new definition of sustainable. But the factory was part of an ongoing web of disruptive processes. It was built in a former rainforest, the former home of many now-extinct species. Domesticated sheep were such helpless dimwits that all wolves had to be exterminated. The iron used to make the wheel was mined, smelted, and fabricated by intensely unsustainable industries. Before the factory, flannel had been made by hand, in a low-impact manner.
Jeanette Armstrong is an Okanagan elder in British Columbia, and she is not at all fond of this new homocentric concept of sustainability — “sustaining the human abuse to a certain level, and keeping it at a level that it doesn’t quite destroy everything.” Armstrong prefers traditional ecocentric sustainability, which cares for the wellbeing of the entire family of life. This would be similar to the way the wild Welsh tribes lived long ago, in a healthy paradise — clean water, clean air, and abundant salmon and wild game. Instead of controlling and exploiting their ecosystem, they adapted to it.
“Industrial societies are unsustainable,” concluded sustainability experts Michael and Joyce Huesemann in their book Techno-Fix. “Long term sustainability can be achieved only if the use of limited non-renewable metals and minerals is discontinued or severely curtailed.” This is obvious to those who understand ecological history, and to those raised in traditional societies.
Our 10,000-year experiment in homocentric domination has been a spectacular failure. Seven-point-something billion people are now approaching the brink of disaster. It’s time to learn the original meaning of sustainability, as out-of-control climate change and peak energy push us into a slower, simpler muscle-powered future.