The other day I became involved in a conversation which concerned the unlikely, and unpredictable, rise of human intelligence. Given the fact of this capacity, my interlocutor and I considered whether this quirky gift came with strings attached? Does intelligence have concomitant obligations? In particular, we asked about obligations which relate to the environment.

It turns out that opinions on this question fall on two sides of a natural divide; one of these arguments is that because human intelligence is unique, we, as the preeminently thoughtful organisms on Earth, are the only ones capable of managing the Earth and its resources, and that is the sole justification needed for doing so. We should make selfish use of the Earth in support of our better ends. Those on the other side of the divide argue that because human intelligence is unique, we, as the preeminently thoughtful organisms on Earth, are the only ones capable of managing the Earth and its resources, and that is the sole justification needed for doing so. We should exercise these powers for acts of stewardship – we should use our quirky, unpredicted, intelligence to care for the Earth.

This lofty conversation then  turned to a consideration of the term sustainability. I argued that the term was misused in the vernacular and had often been conflated to represent positive acts on behalf of the Earth, acts which would make the Earth a better place than it had been before. We have come to believe that eating lower on the food chain, wearing hemp sandals, and driving a hybrid vehicle are somehow ways in which we go about healing the Earth of the environmental damages we have wrought. Think of the definition of the word; sustainable practices utilize natural  resources such that they are not depleted or damaged. And that’s just it. Sustainable practice, by definition, maintains the status quo, it doesn’t make the Earth any better. Sure, you could argue, that sustainable practice makes the Earth better by not making it any worse (that is, it does so in a relative sense) … but the realization that we’re not making the Earth any better in an absolute sense is a sobering point – and an important one. It should provide strong motivation to do all that we can to maintain this delicate status quo.

And why is there no talk of reversing environmental damage? Why are we resigned to only acting sustainably? Because we cannot reverse the damage done … not in one or in many human lifetimes. The most we can hope for is that we don’t make the situation a whole lot worse. What we can work toward and hope for is to slow the rate of environmental decline, and to do what we can to loosen the relentless grip of entropy. We need to somehow get the calculus which relates our needs and the pool of sustainable resources to break even. If we slow the rate of environmental decline to near zero we will have reached the ecological Nirvana of a truly sustainable system.

If we act intelligently, as a species, we might very well be around when Gaia finally arrives at the equilibrium state she will most assuredly regain, in time (lots and lots of time). The premise of my argument is that it will be the Earth herself which will drive the restoration. Our contribution must be to act responsibly by not making matters worse, and to simply stay out of the way. At the moment, it is my belief that the majority of us act individually, selfishly, and this strategy will guarantee that equilibrium will finally be reached only long after we are gone. Let it be our mission then, as a species, to hope fervently for and work tirelessly toward this lofty and laudable goal of sustainable, global, equilibrium. [The beautiful image above appears, along with its original content, at the website of NASA’s Visible Earth program, here is the link to that site.]


5 thoughts on “Sustainability

  1. Great post! I also feel that our various efforts to “live sustainably” are geared at taking steps to SLOW the human impact on Earth, not erase or even reverse it. We know that the Juggernaut of human consumption, selfishness, and disregard for the planet’s health will continue, but we make individual efforts to make the Earth “a little bit less worse.” The hope of most like-minded folks is to have many people acting similarly, so that collectively we can change the overall human impact on Earth to be “significantly less worse.” If we do not actively try to harm the Earth less, then we are by default agreeing to harming it more, and just because a problem is (by human scope) insurmountable, we environmentally conscious (moral?) people know that that is a poor excuse to stop trying.

    • Exactly! Perfect. You have distilled this to its essence …”If we do not actively try to harm the Earth less, then we are by default agreeing to harming it more.” I wondered about posting these sorts of thoughts … wasn’t sure that it was appropriate somehow. I’m glad you appreciated it.

      • Thanks, Dave 🙂 I think it is great to post these sorts of thoughts, because they are thoughts many of us have, but that don’t get brought up in conversation very often in day-to-day life. I like that you are presenting many sides of farm life (and non-farm life) and encouraging readers to think about what they believe. I spent about 45 minutes at 4:40 am this morning thinking about this post and composing my previous comment, instead of browsing non-news on, and that is definitely time well spent. Good night!

  2. What a beautiful post, beautiful thoughts. Sometimes I think the best we can do in terms of reconciling the resource use versus stewardship conundrum is to simply try our best to engineer social and economic incentives such that our own selfish actions, which are inevitable, at least do not harm the environment and are aligned with some degree of status quo rather than gradual destruction. But then I wonder if that’s a too human-centric outlook, and that you are right … history shows that the Earth can jolly well take care of herself, and whether or not we are able to adapt as a species is our problem! As such intelligent beings it is amazing how we distance ourselves from that process and believe, most of the time, that we are separate from nature unless we happen to be staring at a sunset or watching the rain.

    • Thanks for the thoughtful (and lengthy) reply. I especially appreciated the very last sentance. Your observation concerning the way in which our separation from nature seems to be a separation of convenience is right on. When we’re picnicing, nature is great. When we’re at the seashore or hiking, nature is wonderous. But when we’re fueling up … screw it. Thanks again. The opinion of a life-in-the-fast-lane science-type-editor-person is highly valued.

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