Moving beyond sustainability – living within ecosystems

Sustainability as it is commonly understood is based on flawed assumptions.  It assumes that by making small changes in our lifestyles, we can continue to live as we have always done.

Do we even want to continue to live in a way that makes us stressed, ill, and isolated?

It’s a façade, an illusion, out to convince us that if it looks good on the outside, we don’t need to think about what’s underneath.

It assumes that technology will solve all our problems, although the problems are in their underlying nature cultural, psychological, and ecological, not technological.

Sustainability advocates tell us we need to change our behaviour.  If we can only reduce and minimise our actions enough, we can continue consuming and wasting, but in a reduced and minimised way.

Consuming the earth’s resources and creating waste and pollution can never be truly sustainable, no matter how much we reduce and minimise these activities.

The current sustainability paradigm makes us feel guilty about our activities that have a negative impact, so sells us products and services with the label “sustainable” attached, to allay our guilt.  Now that we have these sustainable products, we can continue consuming, and feel good about it.  Now we can say that we have achieved sustainability.  Mission accomplished.

Sustainability concepts create a belief that there is scarcity, that we need to be frugal, to deprive ourselves for the greater good.  Actions taken with this motivation have little if any effect.  Is that one minute less in the shower really going to help anyone?  These attempts at frugality often lead to anxiety, disillusionment, and strained relationships.

Installing a solar panel, buying new lightbulbs, energy-efficient appliances and compostable cutlery might make you feel good, but when you think about the resources that went into making, transporting and selling these things, you start to see that they are the opposite of sustainable.  Consider a solar panel:  it contains metals extracted from an energy intensive mine, on land which has been taken by force from the original inhabitants, assembled by underpaid labour, transported across the world, and sold for high profit by a corporation.  Do you really support these activities in the name of sustainability?  The amount of energy that goes in to making the panels is barely less than the amount that they produce in their short lifetime.  And what are you doing with this energy?  Running refrigerators, televisions and plenty more unnecessary and resource-intensive appliances.  But hey, they’re energy-efficient, so they’ve got to be good, right?

This belief about sustainability reinforces the dominant paradigm of consumerism.  It encourages us to buy more, waste more.  It is nothing more than a marketing tool to sell us more crap.  The beneficiaries of this scam are the corporations, not the environment.  Environmentalists have bought in to the scam, free labour to promote their products.

None of the technologies or behaviour changes that we use in the pursuit of sustainability can ever achieve this goal, as they exist within the belief that economic growth is the only way forward, and growth can continue indefinitely if we make ourselves believe that it is sustainable.

And even if it was possible, do we really want to make it sustainable to live in a world where inequality, obesity, isolation, bureaucracy, wage slavery, debt and oppression are the norm?

Convincing the masses that growth can be sustainable, if only we make a few small changes, allows the system to continue to oppress and destroy, because we feel comfortable and trust what they say.

Current technological and policy approaches require that things continue on the way they always have, that the global economy grows, the electricity grid stays connected, oil keeps being pumped, water supplies from massive infrastructure remains available.  These services can’t exist without massive input of resources. Without these unsustainable foundations, all the solar panels, water-saving devices, carbon taxes, and other products and policies, are completely useless.

Everything we do is assigned a footprint, and if we’re told that if we just make our footprint small enough, we will be sustainable.  We’re instructed to reduce and minimise ourselves down to nothing, act like we don’t exist.  Shrink ourselves down so much that nothing we do has any impact on anything around us.

So what’s the alternative?  Do exactly the opposite.  Change our assumptions and our worldview completely.  Instead of aiming for minimum impact, aspire to maximise the impact of everything you do.  Rather than reducing the amount we consume and waste, let’s maximise our potential, and expand the possibilities of what we can create. Stop consuming altogether.  Instead of basing our actions on the assumption that everything we do has a negative impact, and aiming to reduce these actions, we can eliminate these activities entirely, and replace them with positive actions.


The only way to effectively address the issue of humanity’s continued existence is to identify ourselves as living within nature, not separate to it.  If we view our earth as nothing but natural resources to be exploited, we will never sustain ourselves.  To instead change this view to becoming part of the ecological communities on the land where we live, and nurture and enhance these ecosystems, is the only possible way forward.  Meeting the needs of humans, and those of other beings, can be a symbiosis rather than a conflict.  We need to learn from the world around us, and place our lives in the patterns and cycles of nature.

We can regenerate, rather than destroy, the ecosystems and natural processes that make it possible for humans to exist.

Instead of small, ineffective technological responses to isolated problems, we need an integrated understanding of our place in nature, to see the issues we face in context of the culture that has created them.

We need to stop being motivated by the rarely-defined entity we call “the environment” which seems to be something that exists far away from where we live, in the oceans and rainforests, that we don’t engage with and doesn’t provide anything for us.  Start being motivated to create for ourselves everything that we need to sustain ourselves.  We need to feel a deep connection with the land that is our home, and dedicate ourselves to making it as healthy and robust as possible, for our own sake.  We must conserve and enhance the webs of life that are immediately around us, within our homes and bodies, and the land that provides our food, fuel and shelter.  Only by meeting all our needs in our immediate vicinity, while regenerating the land, can we anticipate human existence surviving and sustaining itself more than a few generations.

We need to dispose of the work ethic, which tells us we need to be busy for the sake of it, and replace it with an ethic of caring for nature and people.  We need to replace our busy-work with time spent observing, thinking and designing ways for nature to do the work for us.

What does this way of life look like?  We can learn a lot from the world’s indigenous peoples, and base our vision on traditional worldviews.

In a truly sustainable human settlement, everyone is attuned to cycles of nature, because we know that our lives depend on it.  We know our water catchments, our food sources, the seasons, plants and animals, and we can forecast the weather.  We identify ourselves as part of an ecological community.

Water is taken only from the catchment where we live, and returned to the earth.  Water doesn’t need to be piped in from far away, and disposed of via sewers and stormwater drains.  There is enough water falling on our settled areas to sustain our homes, food gardens and ecosystems.

Learning happens by observing nature and culture, and practicing skills and crafts.  There are no experts or authorities on learning.

Everything is shared with neighbours, as there is nothing to be gained by having more than anyone else.  Value is given to relationships, not possessions and money.

Nothing is waste. Everything is useful and part of the cycles of nature.

Connections between everything in the ecosystem are recognised and nurtured, and used to design our own connections within the system.

Everyone takes responsibility for providing for the community and regenerating the land, and everyone has a niche where they can express their creativity and passion, and use their skills.  We do not hand over this responsibility to governments, or expect that someone else will do it for us.

Food grows not in intensively managed gardens, but forests modelled on native ecosystems.  After the initial designing and planting of the food forest, there is very little human work required to grow food, as the forest is largely self-perpetuating.

Building materials are sourced from the house site and nearby, and buildings are designed to integrate into the land that they have been built from.  Designs are inspired by the architecture of plants, and the structures built by animals, villagers and nomads.

Humans are embedded in nature, so everything that humans do is a process of nature, not imposed on it.

Local cultures evolve around the landscapes and natural processes of the region.

Seasons and natural cycles are celebrated.

Technologies adapt according to locally available materials, to meet specific needs.

Communities are organised in many different ways, and structures evolve.  There is no one best way to organise ourselves that will work for everyone.

We don’t need to discard what western civilization has created.  It’s all useful, and can be adapted and re-made into items that are valuable in ecosystem-based communities.  The technologies, knowledge and cultural practices that have developed in the industrial era are an abundant resource, to be valued and used wisely.

To make a truly sustainable life possible, we need to have a vision of what the transformed world will look like, and work towards turning it into reality.  This will be a gradual process, and the vision will change as we learn more.  Without a vision to move towards, we will continue to perpetuate the illusion that our small acts are all that’s possible, which only hastens us toward extinction.

What can we do?  Join the transition movement.  Learn permaculture design.  Stop shopping.  Live local.





Living within ecosystems

Minimise negative impact Maximise positive impact
Imposing from above Creating from within
Isolated, disconnected strategies Connected, integrated solutions
Linear Cyclical, closed loop
Motivated by fear and guilt Motivated by love and hope
Focussed on problems Focussed on opportunities
Technological innovations Cultural adaptations
Individual behaviour change, within existing systems that don’t support the change Create new systems and structures
Complexities are simplified, not explained or understood Complexities explained as patterns, can be easily understood
Concepts not easily understood Concepts make natural sense
Act without thinking, place faith in the system and experts Thoughtful, place faith in ourselves and nature
Benefits the current system Benefits people, nature and culture
Degenerative, wasteful Regenerative
Limiting Expansive, creative
Visioning a future the same as it is now Visioning a transformed world
Small ineffective changes Total transformation
Large, industrial-scale Small, human-scale
Scarcity Abundance
Deprivation, frugality Infinite natural wealth
Reinforces existing power structures Disregards or dismantles existing power structures
Boring Exciting, engaging
Reductionist Holistic
Homogenised Diverse
Static Dynamic, evolving
Reactive Proactive
Common response is apathy Common response is action
Illusory Real
Limited possibilities Infinite possibilities
Colonial Vernacular
Rigid Flexible, adaptive
Impossible Inevitable
Civilized Primitive
Forecasting Backcasting
No feedback mechanisms Constant immediate feedback
Humans exist outside of nature Humans embedded in nature
feelings of anxiety, depression and apathy Convivial, joyous and painful
Competitive Co-operative and collaborative
Delivered Interactive
Requires print-literacy Requires eco-literacy
Knowledge held by power structures and experts Knowledge held by human and ecological communities
Demands compliance Invites participation
Requires a large investment of energy for a small result Requires low or no energy investment, for a maximal result
Artificial Biological and ecological
Vulnerable Resilient


5 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Meeka on July 30, 2011 at 1:56 pm

    Awesomely said and it hits home to what i’ve been thinkin about lately.


  2. Best post I’ve read in a while on this topic!


  3. […] is the first half of a 2-part blog post I am writing in response to this blog post. This first half of my post shall analyze his argument and conclusion. The second post will explain […]


  4. […] is the second half of a two-part blog post I am writing in response to this blog post. You can read the first post […]


  5. Reblogged this on bluegrayeyes and commented:


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