For tens of thousands of years, people lived in a balance with natural systems. The economy and ecology were interwoven. We lived within our means- we ate what food was available, found or built shelter from materials at hand, banded together in clans and tribes for comfort, help and protection. We might trash a field or forest, or hunt out the local game, but we’d move on and the earth would regenerate itself. Our numbers were small and so was our impact. We didn’t have much choice or awareness about this. You might say we were “unconsciously sustainable”
Well, over time we grew smarter- or at least cleverer. We made and used tools to improve our hunting and building, we began to cultivate the plants we liked to eat and became farmers, developed machines, and improved the way we did things. Still our numbers were relatively small, and while we dramatically changed the places we lived, it didn’t impact things outside of our cities and towns. We grew slowly from a few million to around 500 million souls. Still “unconsciously sustainable”
Then about 200 years ago, something dramatic happened. We began to develop our technology rapidly, using coal instead of wood to fire steam engines, and eventually using petroleum in stead of whale oil for lamps, lubrication and fuel. Driven by this new access to high energy fossil fuels we grew the modern world, with medical breakthroughs like widespread sanitation and antibiotics and agricultural changes like tractors and chemical fertilizers. Our population began to live a lot longer and have a lot more babies. Life was good and progress seen as inevitable. But unknown to us, we were living beyond our means, generating more and new kids of wastes, and outstripping our resources. We became “unconsciously UNsustainable”
This leads us to where we are today. Nearly 7 billion strong, headed for 8. Lots of cool stuff. At least for those of us in the “developed world”. Living longer than ever. We know we need to conserve resources, curb pollution, develop renewable energy sources and stop turning our resources into waste. Enlightened politicians and leaders have set aside lands, passed laws, and developed new technologies to move us in that direction. But it’s not enough yet. We have become in the past few generations, “consciously unsustainable”. Now we need to figure out how to become “consciously sustainable”…….
How do we move forward from where we are? How do we take the steps needed to become “consciously sustainable”? Like Captain Kirk in the Kobayashi Maru story in part one of this series, we need to change the rules of the game. To shake off the machine thinking that has engulfed us and take a look outside the window. To think like an ant, be as smart as dirt, as clever as a tree. There are more tons of ants on the earth than people. They build complex societies like we do, some even use tools. But ants, on the whole, don’t mess up their environment; they make it better, more fertile, more productive. Trees use solar power to make food and build structures. Dirt, (with the microbes that live in it) takes waste and makes rich soils to nourish the next generation.
We can learn a lot by mimicking natural systems, as my friend, Biomimicry author Janine Benyus says. 3.5 billion years of Beta testing can’t be wrong.
Nature loves diversity- there are millions of species and no two individuals is exactly alike. All waste in nature is food for something else. Nature lives on free energy; mostly from the sun or biomass (which is from the sun- see “trees” above). The next generation is always protected and provided for. And so on. So where do we start to "get ourselves back to the garden"? Stay tuned for Part 3...