For the first post, it’s logical to start at the beginning; before the industrial revolution clanked and whistled its way through time to bring us to where we are now: 6.8 billion people, one exhausted earth and so many ambiguous plastic objects appearing daily that we have to buy them just to give them a purpose. Before Ricardo and Adam Smith, before televangelism, before colonisation and coffee for the workers and the Dutch East India Company, before the advertising industry, before neoliberalism, before Ford’s production line, before WalMart, before the Olympic stadium became the ‘Telstra’ stadium, before the western industrial world began it’s systematic crawl across the globe, gobbling up the worlds resources and leaving behind a trail of plastic bags and cigarette butts. This is the dawn of modern market capitalism, an era wherein the solution to all that ails us can be purchased for three credit card payments of 19.99. In this society, nature has no value because it has no market value.
We sometimes tend to think of this point in history as the beginning of our unsustainable approach to resource use, but in doing so we are at risk of missing something fundamental that leaves us looking backwards with regret, rather than forwards with hope. In fact, some of our ancestors have more in common with us than we think.
Our understanding of the relationship between humans and their environment through history has deepended considerably over the last hundred years. Using such techniques as studying middens, radiocarbon dating and analysing pollen trapped in sediment, we now know that many societies inadvertently damaged their natural environment to disastrous ends. For some such as the Greenland Norse, the result was the complete collapse of their society. In the Americas, megafauna disappeared as humans arrived in Alaska from Siberia, then spread all the way to the southern tip of South America. The same happened in New Zealand and Madagascar. Across the Pacific, as the Polynesians colonized every habitable island the number of plant and animal species on many islands was reduced, some drastically. Some such as Easter Island were damaged beyond repair, left treeless and haunted by ruins to remind the ragged survivors of a prosperous age past and all its lost chances.
We still engage in the same power plays behind the tribal competitive statue building that contributed to the complete deforestation of Easter Island. We persist in the same denials that the Mayans whispered to themselves as their population outstripped their capacity to feed themselves. This is not to deny that our current version of western developed capitalism rewards unsustainable behaviour with profit, greatly accentuates our separation from nature, and has dramatically increased our level of impact on it. I am not understating the disastrous effects of western colonization on native ecosystems. Nowhere is the environmental damage caused by colonization more pronounced than in my home country, Australia. Introduced species, unsuitable farming practises, salination, overfishing, mining and deforestation have all had a tragic impact on our beautiful natural environment. However the critical point we need to acknowledge is that human destruction of our nurturing environment has a long history. Just like the life bearing dust that rides the winds of Central Asia it crosses oceans, systems, cultures and time. Failure to understand our historically tumultuous relationship with our home the Earth will lead to shallow solutions that skirt around the underlying issue at hand- our failure to recognise that by destroying our home, we end up destroying ourselves.
If we can take these lessons of caution from our ancestors, we can also take their lessons of hope. As much as we may take natures capacity to provide for granted in the same way as some of our more ancient counterparts, we also have their capacity to adapt. Like the indigenous Australians, we can move beyond our initial effects on the landscape and modify our culture to live in harmony with our biosphere for thousands of years. Unlike these ancient societies, we face global environmental problems that threaten to be irreversible. But unlike the Easter Islanders, we have the technology to monitor our effects on the world and to mitigate them in new and ingenious ways. We have the vast knowledge and resources we need to understand the intricacies of our ecosystems, our social systems, our psychology and our economics so that we may develop a society that is truly ethical and resilient. We have the capacity to share information across cultures and communities without prejudice, learning from those who have always lived sustainably. We have an opportunity to take the best lessons from our ancestors, to meld them with our hard won freedoms, and reshape them into a future we want using the most incredible resources and minds the human race has ever seen.
This is why sustainability is the future. It isn’t about recreating a past where we may have lived without harming nature on a global scale but struggled through short, harsh lives with only an afterlife to look forward to. It’s not about reverting back to ecologically sustainable societies that were characterised by division and opression, where women were subhuman and slavery normal. It is fundamentally about moving forward beyond the ignorance that has led us towards social and environmental degradation in the past. It’s about being more thoughtful, more conscious. Sustainability is admitting that we haven’t reached our pinnacle, and that materialism cannot fulfil us. It’s acknowledging what we already know: that economic domination of nature has painfully separated us from a beautiful part of ourselves that we long to return to. It’s taking responsibility for where we are now so that we can find a better way. A new path.