The following is a rough draft of the introduction to my third book.
Welcome to Understanding Sustainability! On the following pages, you will find reviews of books that explore many facets of ecological sustainability, an extremely important subject that remains largely unknown in our society. You will meet authors with gifts for thinking outside the box, writers who can give us keys to treasure chests of vital knowledge. It’s sad to wreck the ecosystem for no good reason — or any reason at all. It’s especially sad that the masterminds of the great demolition are among the world’s “best-educated” people, and they have countless “well-educated” collaborators.
In its original meaning, a sustainable way of life is one that can continue for millennia without causing permanent degradation to the ecosystem. All animals have succeeded at living in this manner, and they have done so for millions of years. They can satisfy their essential needs (food and shelter) without damaging the community of life, a precious skill.
But one species has spawned several billion smarty-pants renegades who have stumbled far from the path of balance. This outlaw society is zooming into deep trouble, and it barely understands why. If we understood why, there is a fair chance that we would behave in a manner that was less destructive. There is a fair chance that we would abandon myths that hobble our ability to think clearly and live responsibly.
Outlaw society is heavily addicted to extracting nonrenewable resources, like coal, oil, gas, metals, phosphates, potash, and on and on. The reserves of these resources are diminishing every day, while the cost of extracting them increases. Obviously, this approach can only operate temporarily. It has an expiration date, a point at which the goodies are depleted, the bubble bursts, and the machine melts down. No other animals suffer from addiction to nonrenewable resources, because they continue to live in their traditional manner. They did not get lost.
Outlaw society is also heavily addicted to depleting renewable resources at rates faster than nature can replenish them. We’re exterminating forests, mass murdering fish, destroying topsoil, draining aquifers, and pumping rivers dry. This is also a dead end. Other animals don’t mutilate the ecosystem.
Outlaw society generates many wastes and emissions at levels far beyond the ecosystem’s ability to harmlessly absorb them, and this is causing serious irreparable damage — melting icecaps, acidic seawater, coastal dead zones. No wild animal has basic needs that require high-impact amusements like automobiles, computers, or electricity — these are “wants” not “needs,” and we don’t need wants. Needs are basic and simple, wants include everything money can buy.
Most of humankind is in overshoot, because our population and way of life far exceeds the long-term carrying capacity of Earth’s ecosystem. Every day, the planet’s carrying capacity shrinks, as the ongoing ecological wreckage accumulates, and this worsens the overshoot. Nature has a low tolerance for overshoot, and outlaw society is too lost to comprehend why it’s swirling the drain. Luckily, there are effective cures for ignorance, and they are most often found outside the walls of the outlaw culture.
In the following pages, you will not find The Solution. Only problems have solutions — sleepiness is a problem that can be solved by taking a nap. Predicaments, on the other hand, cannot be effectively eliminated by solutions. There are no rituals, medicines, or gizmos for undoing climate change, or inspiring educators to abandon their diabolical obsession with perpetual growth. We are way over our heads in predicaments.
Every civilization collapses, and ours will too, one way or another, suddenly or gradually. This is perfectly normal. Industrial civilization was designed to grow like crazy, flame out, and collapse. And we were thoroughly trained to devote our lives to it, so don’t be embarrassed, be annoyed. The consumer way of life was a grand adventure in soul-killing foolishness. The squirrels in the tree outside my window are so much healthier and happier. They live in the here and now, satisfying their needs, playing with great enthusiasm, celebrating the perfection of creation.
Now, if these yucky ideas make you twitch and squirm, there is an effective distraction — magical thinking! The well-educated wizards of outlaw society have a thrilling answer for everything — sustainable growth, sustainable fish mining, sustainable soil mining, sustainable forest mining, and on and on. I call this ersatz sustainability, a murky elixir of snake oil loaded with mind-numbing intoxicants. We see and hear the word sustainable many times each day, and this is what it usually refers to. Sustainability can be anything we want it to be! If we call something “sustainable” enough times, then it is! Whee!
The devious wizards are giddy with joy, because humankind has finally completed the long and difficult journey to Utopia. This is it! We are the luckiest generation of all! Wild predators no longer devour our friends and relatives. Pandemic disease and world wars are ancient history. More and more babies survive to maturity and reproduce. Natural selection no longer weeds out the weaklings and mutants, because science has rendered evolution obsolete. We’re working hard on a cure for death.
A growing population is wonderful, because it allows more and more to enjoy the Utopian delights. Feeding ten billion will be no problem, thanks to science and technology. Eliminating climate change will be a piece of cake. The transition from fossil energy to renewable energy will be smooth and painless. Ingenious innovation will make all the bad stuff go away, and we’ll all be able to continue enjoying a wondrous high tech lifestyle without any major sacrifices. Electric cars, green energy, and all the latest gadgets can now be made from sustainable fairy dust and good vibes. Utopia is awesome.
The Sustainable Development cult has billions of converts. Its holy mission is to keep industrial civilization on life support for as long as possible, at any cost, and leave the bills for the kids. It’s about enduring jobs you don’t like, to buy stuff you don’t need, to impress people you don’t respect. It’s about living as if we are the last generation, without a thought for those who come after us. It’s a sustainable suicide cult.
Nobody reading these pages in 2015 will experience humankind’s return to genuine sustainability. Healing will take centuries, and success is not guaranteed. Luck is fickle. Our closest living relatives, chimps and bonobos, share about 99 percent of our genes. Their ancestors have lived in the same place for two million years without trashing it. They did not get lost.
Humans strayed onto a very different path, and the way that most of us now live is the opposite of sustainable. Yet every day we are bombarded by grand proclamations of ersatz sustainability, thundering geysers of bull excrement. My mission here is to provide intelligent pilgrims with tools that increase their ability to recognize the difference between ecological sustainability and ersatz sustainability. Where we belong is so far from where we are.
It is deeply troubling to contemplate the staggering implications of ecological sustainability, because they blow the fundamental illusions of our culture to smithereens. We are indeed animals, and we are indeed living in an unbelievably harmful manner. Should we think about this? Should we talk about this? What should we do? Well-fed minds and clear thinking are vital.
The reviews in Understanding Sustainability will introduce you to dozens of books that might be of interest. Reviews only provide hints of the contents. They are never a substitute for reading the full work. Authors that intrigue you may have written other books or essays. They may be the stars of online videos. Critical thinking is essential for any adventure in learning. I do not agree with every idea in every book reviewed here.
Understanding Sustainability is a companion to my previous book, Sustainable or Bust, another collection of book reviews. Both supplement my first book, What is Sustainable, an introduction to environmental history and good old fashioned fundamentalist sustainability. If you like one, you’ll like them all.