Ignorance of ‘sustainability’ is not an option

by Stephen Hesse

Judging from the last month’s headlines, it’s clear we are collectively still not getting it — despite how much we know about the environment. In fact, it seems the more we know, the less we learn.

Here are some examples:

— In an effort to stimulate the economy, Japan cuts the price of highway tolls on weekends and holidays, encouraging millions of citizens to forsake trains and local destinations to drive long distances, burn gasoline, spew air pollutants and crawl along in traffic jams.

— The U.S. government continues to spend hundreds of millions of dollars each year in California to subsidize farmers who grow water-guzzling crops such as rice and cotton in the desert, in a region facing chronic drought conditions.

— The WWF, a leading nongovernmental environmental organization, reports that Atlantic bluefin tuna in the Mediterranean could be extinct within three years due to overfishing. Yet last autumn, nations approved catch quotas nearly 50 percent higher than scientists suggested. Meanwhile, 40 percent of commercial fishing hauls worldwide are by-catch, including seabirds, turtles and noncommercial fish species that are often thrown back into the sea, dead or dying.

Clearly business as usual is unsustainable, but as a relative said to me recently, “What’s all this talk about sustainability? Everyone is using the word and I still don’t get it.”

The confusion is not surprising. Even as the term “sustainability” has come into widespread use since the 1980s, it remains an abstract concept for most people.

Still, as the recent U.S. presidential election proved, when the time and place are right, a message resonates.

One person who could help time and place to converge for sustainability is Fritjof Capra, the best-selling Austrian-born U.S. author of (among many others) “The Tao of Physics” (1975) and “The Web of Life” (1996). Capra is a physicist known for his work in “systems thinking,” and as a cofounder of the Center for Ecoliteracy in Berkeley, California, in 1995.

In a recent essay, “The New Facts of Life: Connecting the Dots on Food, Health, and the Environment,” Capra talks about sustainability and how ecological literacy and systems thinking are essential if we are going to understand, and deal with, today’s global environmental challenges.

“In the coming decades, the survival of humanity will depend on our ecological literacy — our ability to understand the basic principles of ecology and to live accordingly. This means that ecoliteracy must become a critical skill for politicians, business leaders and professionals in all spheres, and should be the most important part of education at all levels — from primary and secondary schools to colleges, universities and the continuing education and training of professionals,” he writes.

“We need to teach our children, our students, and our corporate and political leaders the fundamental facts of life — that one species’ waste is another species’ food; that matter cycles continually through the web of life; that the energy driving the ecological cycles flows from the sun; that diversity assures resilience; that life, from its beginning more than three billion years ago, did not take over the planet by combat but by networking,” he explains.

Hence, in order to preserve ourselves, and human society, we will need to preserve our planet’s complex natural networks and the environment that sustains our economy and society.

“Sustainability, then, is not an individual property but a property of an entire web of relationships. It always involves a whole community,” Capra observes. “This is the profound lesson we need to learn from nature. The way to sustain life is to build and nurture community. A sustainable human community interacts with other communities — human and nonhuman — in ways that enable them to live and develop according to their nature. Sustainability does not mean that things do not change. It is a dynamic process of co-evolution rather than a static state.”

Clearly it is no longer enough simply to understand science. It is now essential that we understand the myriad intertwined and interdependent systems and material flows that support human life and society — in short, the web of life.

As early systems thinkers recognized, “The whole is more than the sum of its parts,” points out Capra.

Today we obsess over things; how many fish there are, how many cars, how much money. But if we are going to sustain human societies, we will need to think more about the marine systems the fish inhabit, the atmospheric systems our cars are polluting, and the impacts on these systems that our economies are creating.

“In what sense is the whole more than the sum of its parts? The answer is: relationships. All the essential properties of a living system depend on the relationships among the system’s components. Systems thinking means thinking in terms of relationships. Understanding life requires a shift of focus from objects to relationships,” explains Capra.

“For example, each species in an ecosystem helps to sustain the entire food web. If one species is decimated by some natural catastrophe, the ecosystem will still be resilient if there are other species that can fulfill similar functions. In other words, the stability of an ecosystem depends on its biodiversity, on the complexity of its network of relationships. This is how we can understand stability and resilience by understanding the relationships within the ecosystem,” he writes.

This will require us to change not just what we think, but how we think.

“In science, we have been told, things need to be measured and weighed. But relationships cannot be measured and weighed; relationships need to be mapped. So there is another shift: from measuring to mapping,” Capra explains.

“All these shifts of emphasis are really just different ways of saying the same thing. Systems thinking means a shift of perception from material objects and structures to the nonmaterial processes and patterns of organization that represent the very essence of life,” he adds.

The key question is whether humans can make these shifts in perception and approach in time. As a species, through much of our history we have insisted on bending and breaking nature to serve our needs. It is time for us to see the forest through the trees; the marine systems beyond the fish.

Each of the Earth’s ecosystems is a strand in our web of life. We may dominate the planet, but like a spider, as our web collapses, strand by strand, so does our means of survival.

As Capra urges, a profound transformation is needed globally if humanity is going to survive. That’s not fear-mongering; it’s simply the way the system works.

“The New Facts of Life” by Fritjof Capra is published by the Center for Ecoliteracy. © 2008 Center for Ecoliteracy. Extracts are reprinted with permission. All rights reserved. For more information, visit www.ecoliteracy.org Stephen Hesse can be reached at stevehesse@hotmail.com