Why I am Committed to Sustainability

My recent column on the supposed energy bonanza supplied by extreme extraction methods such as fracking and tar sands mining provoked a few negative responses. Rather than argue point by point with columnist Peter Behr, my severest critic, I want to explain why I personally find a sustainability point of view compelling.

This attitude begins with a profound respect for the complexity of nature. All living beings, including humans, depend upon an interconnected web of biological, chemical, geographic and atmospheric systems. Even with our extensive knowledge, we do not fully grasp the myriad of interactions and influences that support life. We do not always, or soon enough, realize how our actions tamper with this web in dangerous ways.

For example, wanting to kill pests, we sprayed DDT into the environment until Rachel Carson documented its unintended, far-reaching effects throughout the ecosystem. Wanting to heat our homes and travel conveniently in our cars, we hardly considered that burning coal and petroleum on a massive scale transfers carbon from the ground to the air, where it produces a “greenhouse effect”—until climate scientists and journalist Bill McKibben connected the dots.

Sure, we can pump toxic substances into the ground to force natural gas out, but do we know where these toxins will spread or how they will affect ecosystems or our health? Monsanto’s scientists are getting very clever at redesigning the genetic code to suit their purposes, but does anyone really know what consuming food containing GMOs (genetically modified organisms) will ultimately do to our own biology?

A sustainability perspective, then, advises humility and caution. As the wise farmer/author Wendell Berry has argued, we need to acknowledge our ignorance about the subtle workings of the natural world whenever we propose to manipulate it for what we believe to be our benefit.

Yet even when we do figure out nature’s constraints, economic and political priorities often prevent us from acting accordingly. The worldview of modern industrial society values progress, growth, profit, comfort, and convenience, and it vigorously promotes mastery over nature to serve these aims. For a couple hundred years, this worldview made sense; it alleviated disease and pain, fed many millions of people very well, and created wonders from airplanes to smart phones. Our impact on natural systems was not, for the most part, severe enough to worry about.

However, in the last several decades, with a huge spike in population, dramatically increasing use of fuels and forests and oceans and groundwater and minerals and topsoil, and ever more complex chemicals and byproducts spewed into the environment, our impact has indeed become severe. We do not know that the planet’s life support systems can hold out indefinitely under this stress, and it is a very risky experiment to try to find out.

In addition, the fossil fuels that make economic growth possible are inevitably going to dwindle one day because there is a finite, not renewable, supply. While we won’t soon just run out, many analysts warn that supply cannot keep pace with increasing demand, and desperate measures to wring more out of the earth cause environmental damage and climate change while only postponing the inevitable.

If we value our long-term survival over the fantasy of endless growth, we will transition from a worldview that encourages exploitation of nature to one that teaches sustainable partnership with nature. This does not mean returning to medieval times or the Stone Age; it means choosing more efficient and modest technologies (like renewable energy sources) and eliminating wasteful and excessive consumption.

Nor is this a political clash between “liberal” and “conservative” views. Liberals are more willing to address environmental issues with the powers of  government, but most of them promote endless growth as unreservedly as the most devoted free market capitalist. Self-restraint, preservation of resources, skepticism toward radical innovations and respect for life are actually quintessential conservative values.

I find sustainability compelling because I believe that the intricate workings and inherent limits of nature ultimately trump all our current political and economic agendas.

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