Sustainable living
David MacClement's posts to the Deep Ecology list, 3-4 Oct.'99

*Dealing with Eric's questions about these statements of mine: 
>>   I currently believe that if everyone on earth was living 
>> like me, we 6 billion humans would be using/wasting almost 
>> nothing, and our impact would be so small that all other 
>> species still living would be able to flourish. ... 
>> sustainable, measured by: 
>> (1) virtually no reductions in biodiversity, (2) no net
>> anthropogenic global warming (allowing some cooling), and  
>> (3) most of the livable land area on earth being 
>> unaffected by the existence of homo sapiens. 
>> (Obviously, humans would then be living within bounded 
>> spaces, similar in some ways to modern zoos.)
my understanding of "sustainable":
  Note that I won't be specifying anything; Betsy's right about that.
** Now and in the future we should be able to measure "sustainable" by numbers like the three I describe above, though I suspect those are more stringent than is actually required, and something may have to be added to them.
** I would expect that at least one of the examples below would fulfil my more general criterion:
"humans having no greater impact on other species than is the typical effect of one species on those around it".
(I use 'typical' to exclude humans and the eucalyptus tree species.)

** Back on March 18-19 1999 I wrote (lightly edited):

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... my lifestyle is specifically chosen to find what is the minimum impact a human can have, while buying all their needs. I regard my life-style as unsatisfying but clearly sustainable (I live on less than US$900 per year).

** My two uses-of/meanings-for the word 'sustainable' require scale to be specified. Time, and numbers of individuals. Also, as with (nearly) all real life cases, there is a natural error, uncertainty, fluctuation-range involved - not precision.

** The large-scale meaning is the most reliable. 'Sustainable' here can mean continuing into the indefinite future, and refers to an ecosystem (which can include humans). There will be change involved - an ecosystem is dynamic, with numbers and location of individuals changing day by day for animals, and season by season for plants. I include the rare possibility of a species going extinct, and a roughly equal probability of a new one arising. Thus sustainable includes: having no recognisable trend, over a time-scale of thousands (or at least hundreds) of years.

** The small-scale meaning, used by most people, refers to humans in their environment, and most times means the answer to: "what life-style can I adopt for the rest of my life, that (if all in the world adopted it) would enable the world we know (i.e. including within living memory) to continue with only slow change (tolerable by our environment) if any?" A common component is to have only local impacts, so that you yourself have some chance of keeping track of them.

I apply the word 'sustainable' to all these examples:


  1. the hundreds of millions of years when the saurians (and even the dinosaurs) were the family that had the major effect on the earth's living things;
  2. the several hundred thousand years when the homo group were hunter-gatherers;
  3. the several thousand years, about 36,000 to 40,000 years ago, just after the Australian Aborigines arrived in what is now Australia, when they hadn't yet over-used fire. After that was a non-sustainable transition period, followed by perhaps 10-20,000 years of sustainable living controlled by cultural taboos, climate etc., that meant that the remaining species fluctuated in size (no. of individuals) but stayed nearly constant in number (of species);
  4. the thousand years or more at about 4-5000 BP when agriculture-based "civilization" was centred on the Nile, Tigris-Euphrates, Indus and Yangtse rivers (but the human population there hadn't yet increased to an unsustainable level), and most other humans were practising slash-burn-plant-harvest-move-on agriculture and/or fishing;
      and (knowing the last two to be debatable):
  5. the several hundred years between 800 and 1400 AD when plagues (& other common illnesses), wars in China, the Arab world and the Americas, and lack of food, meant the death rate nearly balanced the birth rate and the human population hardly changed, so its impact on other living things was again about constant; and lastly (though I'm having doubts about this most recent one:)
  6. a period spanning my birth-date (1936), from when my father was born to about 1950, where people had the Great Depression to focus the mind on what is essential in life, and the range of consumption was (I think) tolerable, so if the human population and its consumption had been kept stable no further inroads into the living-space of the rest of the world's species need have occurred.
** As you can see at the end of \3./, I regard the occasional loss of a species as normal for world ecology, so long as, over nearly a million years, the number of new species about balances the lost species. Yes, the world is a little different at the end of those million years, but that is part of sustainable life on earth, IMO.
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Part 2 (Eric's specific points)

[David: ]
>> **   I was looking for some sort of dynamic balance, with 
>> the number of new species roughly balancing the number of 
>> extinctions, averaged over a long enough time ...
[Eric: ]
>I assume that, grossly simplified, the number of species is 
>actually increasing over time, though perhaps slowly. 
> Otherwise how is it that we have more species now than at 
>the beginning of life on Earth?  Does anyone have number on 
>the total (guess) numbers of species at different times 
>throughout the eons?  That would be interesting.
** We need to pay some attention to time scales here. A billion years, comparable to life on Earth, is hardly relevant to questions involving homo sapiens sapiens ( 1/10,000 of the time). Because we're Johnnies-come-lately, there's no point in talking about more than a low multiple of 50,000 years. On a somewhat longer scale, tens of millions of years, an extinction event or the explosion of the number of flowering-plant species after the Cretaceous period, are still far larger 'signals' than any long-term trend. So the "baseline" is flat.
** I do have some numbers-of-species figures since I've just received the Worldwatch Paper 148:
"Nature's Cornucopia"
{Press Release}. The first complete paragraph on pg.11 is:
  "Although biological fluctuations are part of the ebb and flow of evolution, the loss of species and other large swaths of the ecological web are normally rare events. The natural or "background" rate of extinction as calculated from the fossil record of life on earth appears to be on the order of 1 to 10 species a year. By contrast, scientists estimate that extinction rates have accelerated this century to at least 1000 species per year. These numbers indicate that we now live in a time of mass extinction -- a global evolutionary upheaval in the diversity and composition of life on earth."
[and there's a footnote saying where these numbers come from and the assumptions used; ask if you want it. D.]
[Eric: ]
>-What you are doing may work well for you in your place and 
>time, but is it something people should work toward, as a 
>solution for sustainable living?
** Eric is (and many others are) looking for a specification, models/examples of sustainable living, i.e. ways in which lots of people could live.
  As I've said before, I am trying to find such a low level of subsistence that it is obviously sustainable (while living in a city since most will be, in less than 10 years), so that you know you can at least stay alive while you add this or that, aiming at pleasant sustainable living in your particular circumstances. People are remarkably inventive, and if Amory and Hunter Lovins can live through the winter in the Colorado Rockies without central heating (sunny-day heating plus wood, I believe), then equally good answers should be available in a great many places (though probably some locations may have to be permanently evacuated).

** So "is it something people should work toward?"; No. It's much too far; tully's tipi is even too far.   My guess is:
Someone living in an old community (small town or part of an urban area) who's sharing an old well-insulated house with quite a number of others, having a yard in which vegetables, flowers and fruit and nut trees can grow (and a chicken or rabbit pen), able to buy other necessities within walking distance, and having 4 hours work a day within cycling distance (for all those who want work), would be not far from sustainable. To leave more than half of liveable land area untouched, the human density should be high, but no more than in older parts of European cities (where they have no more than 4 floors, i.e. stairs not elevators). There are obviously other ways to live sustainably, but what I describe is very recognisable, and I believe relatively common in other, better parts of the world than the USA. I see nothing difficult in living sustainably for most people in the world, so long as the rich get onto it really soon. And population levels off; the sustainable level goes down as the population goes up. What I've described is almost certainly sustainable with 4 billion (when my first son was born, at the time of Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring"); there's more doubt now there's 50% more people and far higher waste and pollution by the rich.

** Since my grandfathers' time (late 19th century), there has been far too much paving done; humans should pull out of all areas where wildlife is still vigorous and bio-diverse. That's a longer-term goal; moving in the next year or two to using-a-reasonable-minimum is essential.

** Eric had questions about whether the details of what I do are sustainable. It's worth asking about them, but my goal is "finding the minimum price of staying alive", and that dollar value is only a little affected by changes in the details.

[Eric: ]
>-Are the few things you do buy (I think I remember you 
>saying that part of your "experiment" is to see how little 
>money someone can live on while still buying everything they 
>need.) sustainably produced and transported?
>Do you buy your peanut butter, etc. in bulk or 
>mass produced in jars?
** Currently in jars, from the main peanut-butter maker in Auckland (Sanitarium, within walking distance), but the bigger question is: is the supply and process sustainable? I believe the technology's pretty basic and not energy-intensive (anyway, NZ has 70% of its electricity from hydro), while the peanuts come either from the Pacific Islands or eastern Australia, and are carried by ship (which could be sailing ship, if it was necessary to go the whole hog). And if I became convinced that I should move away from peanut butter, I would be sure of cheese (the major alternative), since I'd be walking past dairy herds if I went in the opposite direction. I could even do without, since I drink quite a lot of milk (from organic farms). I've drunk milk all my life, so I have no trouble digesting it - I presume my gut flora are constantly secreting the enzymes needed; I drink it because it tastes very good, but keeping my system working well is an extra reason.
[Eric: ]
>mass transportation (bus?). Again, this may be easily avoided, 
>but using it and therefore the infrastructure it requires is 
>not sustainable, the way I use the word. 
** Answering the general point, since when I'm living in one place (either here or the Coromandel) I would have no use for carbon-fuelled transport. I think you're either over-simplifying ("no mass transport with its infrastructure") or are drawing a different balance than I would, i.e. saying that the materials, energy and land area required for a minimal public transport system would be more valuable for some other aspect of living sustainably. I can't think what, though the thought comes that you may hope to retain quite a lot more of the current US way-of-life than I see as valuable, "paying for it" by cutting mass transit to zero. In NZ our long-distance busses carry goods in the normal way, partly since the biggest carrier was originally the road extension of our national railway system.
[Eric: ]
>-Humans living in dense populations seems inherently 
>unsustainable, or at best very difficult to accomplish and 
>probably not worth the effort.Doesn't impact increase as the 
>population get more dense?
** Once again, too much of a generalization, and this time from cities in relatively recent times. I refer to the industrialised agriculture system with huge monocultural farms a long way from their markets, in contrast to small to medium towns fed from their hinterlands, but having far more people in them than is typical in the New World (including most of New Zealand). Other aspects of "impact" include solid waste and a water-borne sewerage system, and there are clear answers to both of these, though a major change in the latter may not be necessary (just the non-inclusion of hazardous material), in parts of the world that aren't water-stressed.

[Eric: ]
>- Are you considering that some (though perhaps unnecessary 
>for you) of what you use comes from others (wife, roommates, 
>community,etc.) who are not living sustainably? Using others'
> wastes and leftovers is fine, but if the lifestyle requires 
>an unsustainable society then it may not be sustainable.  
> You touch on this in your post on diversity in small groups, 
>but where does sustainable fit in?  
>I don't know if one can truly consider one's own lifestyle 
>sustainable if it relies on the unsustainability of others.
** I thought I had dealt with this, in my "diversity in small groups" post. Also, you imply that "not living sustainably" means that they should stop, or at least that such ways will have no place in a future sustainable world.
** I don't believe sustainable living can be judged on the scale of the individual, with some exceptions (including most Americans over 14 and similar over-consumers) where the individual consumption is clearly too high to be balanced by someone else living at below "the sustainable level". The furthest you can go below is just above zero, so the highest level someone can live at is something less than double that level. That's on a one-for-one basis. A person may be able to live higher still, with some kind of agreement with more than one other person. As in our family, and the other examples I gave.
** This is actually how the American-and-other-over-consumers way of life is being supported now: there are at least dozens of people living at below subsistence level (and some dying) to make up for the over-consumption of the rich. Those dozens can't go any lower, so the rich have to come down to a modest, reasonable level of consumption, if there's to be any approach to sustainability.


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