How do we know when we're sustainable?

The best available measure of sustainability is the ecological footprint. After all, there's only so much planet to go around. And, the first thing we learn when calculating our footprint is how many planets it would take if everyone lived as we do.

So, if sustainability is defined as "one planet living", then we can use the footprint method to determine how much we need to cutback in order to achieve it.

Americans who haven't looked into this, be forewarned. Our footprint is flat out ugly! Would you believe 4 to 6 planets, depending on your income and household members? (Some footprint calculators may vary.)

The best tool I've found for looking into our footprint is called "CoolClimate" calculator from the Berkeley Institute for the Environment. It'll let you drill down to details for someone with your expenditure patterns and household choices.

Then, it will show you how how your footprint compares with similar households, with the American average, and with the world average.

I've used this tool to derive the priority ranking for elements of the typical American footpring as follows:
  • Energy: 30%
  • Transport: 25%
  • Food: 20%
  • Buildings: 15%
  • Goods/Services: 10%
Putting our footprint in rank order helps us focus on where the biggest cuts need to be made.

This certainly puts the whole "green consumer" thing in perspective: all the organic cotton in the world doesn't come close to the carbon we're spewing to keep the car running and the lights on.

Oh, and, when you're looking at how you stack up versus the global average, bear in mind that we're already in overshoot. In round numbers, we're using up 1.25 planets at the moment. So, even if you get your footprint down to the global average, you've still got more reducing to do.

Try this tool to see how you might get close to "one planet" living. It's like way hard, I'll tell you. Even for me, living/working in a 500sf treehouse and using my ebike for local transport, it's hard to get below 3 planets. Yikes!

Of course, if my electric utility ever gets to 100% renewable sources and I join a "community supported ag" group, I could at least get down under 2 planets.

...Then I would have to really get serious. And this is what sustainability requires.


what's ethics got to do with sustainability?

We know there's a moral and ethical dimension to climate change and resource shortages, yet we seldom think or talk about it.

After all, a sustainable human support system economically smart, ecologically safe, and fair to all our communities (via kauaianinstitute).

So, the sustainability ‘prism’ incorporates ‘fairness’, and this includes equity between nations, peoples, generations, and species (via friendsoftheearth).

Future humans and other species have rights, too. It is unjust to foul the atmosphere for those who come after or appropriate all of the planet's bio-productivity for humans, and the burdens and benefits of development should be equitably shared.

Right off the top, we need to consider whether it is moral to continue spewing carbon long after we know it does irreparable damage to the planet.

Let's face it, 'business-as-usual' is flat out unethical.

Any increase in the risk of significant harm becomes a moral question.

NASA's James Hansen recently told Congress:
"CEOs of fossil energy companies know what they are doing and are aware of long-term consequences of continued business as usual. In my opinion, these CEOs should be tried for high crimes against humanity and nature."
Why are we so blind to the 'wrongness' of unsustainability? Why has inertia ruled for so long?

We have moral obligation to change our behavior.

Will it take some kind of major emotional shock to really understand the day-to-day corrosiveness of our unsustainable practices?

And, when we change our ways, it's not just about money or the environment, but also about fairness, as Van Jones stresses in his presentations on eco-equity.


Why switch fuels when we can switch engines?

The ill-fated search for oil replacements takes us down 'ooops' boulevard. Corn ethanol jacks up the price of food. Palm oil devastates the Indonesian bogs. You saw that movie.

Still, we can't imagine doing without our cars. So, we're gonna need a different engine to drive us to sustainability.

In this case, electric vehicles (EV) offer a 'win-win-win' as we transition to sustainability.

First, EVs are a highly evolved technology. We can pull off the shelf electric motors of all sizes. Skateboards to buses.

Second, EVs are vastly more efficient than ICE. In many applications, electric motors deliver to your wheels 90% or more of the energy that comes in.

Third, EVs can use 'spare' electric generating capacity, and even provide backup electricity when plugged-in to a 'smart' grid.

Oh, and did I mention electric motors are cheaper? And they last far longer.

Want more? You can convert your existing car to electric, like, right now!

Now, all we need to do is to 'green' our electric supply.

BTW, we need not make an apples-to-apples switch. I've cut out half of my former car miles with an ebike.


Why do we want some sustainability?

Like breathing, sustainability should be unremarkable.

So why is our daily discourse filled with fears of unsustainability in our human support system?

Face it, we couldn't have done a better job at creating unsustainability if we had planned it.

Here comes:
Sheesh! Now, we gotta figure our way out of this mess.

We need a new way of thinking that makes unsustainable practices unthinkable.

We shouldn't have to feel guilty just because spewing more carbon is the only way to:
We want options that don't force these choices.

We want to learn how to live on ONE planet (not TEN, as Americans do, according to Alex Steffen).

We want to live like there IS a tomorrow.

Never mind that we're not quite sure what sustainability is...we're pretty sure we want some.