The following is an excerpt (and rough draft) of a chapter I’m working on about sustainability. I have a limit of 2000-4000 words. As usual I’m trying to cram as much as possible into that limit. Much of this rehashes (and in some cases pillages) other writing I’ve done on the blog, but hopefully the synthesis brings out something new. I will be posting excerpts here for feedback and your reading pleasure as they are finished. My working title is “Why Recycling Doesn’t Matter”.
Sustainability is one of those words in our culture that have been so thoroughly abused as to almost lose all meaning. Like the words “green”, “organic”, “natural” or “eco-”, sustainable is often appended to a wide variety of terms such as “sustainable growth”, “sustainable development”, “sustainable design”, “sustainable travel”, “sustainable style” or even “sustainable websites”. This is particularly unfortunate as it is one of the words we most desperately need to understand, if we hope to have a viable future for the continuation of our species. Sustainability, most simply, is the state in which a process or system is able to continue indefinitely without depleting the resources on which the system or process depends.
Many of our problems related to sustainability stem from some basic assumptions about who we are as human beings and how we relate to the non-human world. Most of us in the Western world have been enculturated into some powerful myths that continue to prevent us from understanding sustainability and our place in the world. The myth of human difference, the myth of control, the myth of technological salvation and the myth of scarcity all conspire to keep us committed to a framework that has set us on a trajectory toward ecological disaster. In this chapter we will explore these myths and their impact on how we think about sustainability, who we are as human beings and how we relate to the non-human world.
The Myth of Human Difference
From the creation stories in Genesis to the myths told over and over again in modern popular culture, we as a species, homo sapiens, think of ourselves as having somehow graduated from nature because of our large brains and good posture. We often tend to have very short memories when it comes to who we are as human beings. So, let’s first take a look at the history of homo sapiens with a much longer lens.
Most of us have difficulty thinking back centuries, but the history of our species covers millenia. The evolution of our species began about 500,000 years ago. Modern homo sapiens that we would recognize as our relatives appeared around 200,000 years ago. Agriculture, which makes civilization and cities possible, appeared only 10,000 years ago. 10,000 years normally sounds like an incredibly long period of time. However, in light of the full history of our species it is a relatively new development and comprises only 2-5% of the existence of our species.
When we look back on the history of our species, we talk about everything that happened before agriculture as “pre-history” and the people that lived prior to agriculture and civilization as “primitive” people. There are perhaps some good reasons for this involving the development of language and writing, but it has relegated everything prior to agriculture and civilization to a lesser status. We continue to think of the evolution of our species as a linear march of progress in which we have very little to learn from “primitive” peoples. This is explicit in the way that we treat those very few hunter-gatherer societies that have survived. During the centuries of colonial expansion in which Europeans conquered much of the world, one of the justifications for the oppression, enslavement and genocide of indigenous people across the globe was that they were somehow less than human. Stephen Jay Gould explains the way we relate to our “primitive” past and our relationship to nature thusly,
What we criticize in ourselves, we attribute to our animal past…What we prize and strive for, we consider as a unique overlay, conceived by our rationality and imposed upon an unwilling body…Little more than ancient prejudice supports this common belief…It has roots in…our desire to view the history of life as progressive and to place ourselves on top of the heap (with all the prerogatives of domination). We seek a criterion for our uniqueness, settle (naturally) upon our minds, and define the noble results of human consciousness as something intrinsically apart from biology.
In the more recent past (in terms of millenia) homo sapiens have gone from manipulating nature through simple agriculture to the technological innovations of everything from automobiles to smartphones. This ability to manipulate natural resources into devices and infrastructure which insulate us from nature allows us to experience much of life, particularly in urban areas, as separate from nature which exists primarily in parks and preserves. The truth is that all of the devices and infrastructure that insulate us from nature depend on the extraction of various mineral and hydrocarbon resources from the earth for their existence. In addition, fewer and fewer people in “developed” nations participate in agriculture (less than 1% in the United States). We are not aware of our own connectedness to the earth through what we eat and the things we use and depend on everyday. The truth is that there is nothing that does not come from the earth.
So, for all our technology and advancements, we continue to be connected and dependent on the earth for our existence, civilization and all that entails. No matter our perception or myths about being separate, above or different from other creatures, we continue to be subject to the same limitations and laws that govern them. Gould says that it is ,”our unwillingness to accept continuity between ourselves and nature, our ardent search for a criterion to assert our uniqueness” which prevents us from reconciling ourselves to nature and perpetuates the myth of human difference.