What is sustainability?

I define sustainability.

If you kill this crow you undermine an energy renewal process in the ecosystem.

If you kill this crow you undermine an energy renewal process in the ecosystem.

I think people over-complicate the definition on sustainability, which confuses and drives people away from adopting sustainable practices in their life, business and community.  I shall use the example of the human body to present three rules that define sustainability.

The human body is a machine that requires energy to work.  The human body is an energy system, and sustainability focuses upon providing the body with enough energy to work such as being able to breath and pump blood around the body.

Sustainability follows three basic rules:

1. Availability: there is sufficient available energy to achieve a purpose, design or function.

There is a basic level of energy the body requires each day for life, if this energy is unavailable the result is sickness and death.  The human body needs energy at all times to power the heart muscles to pump blood around the body.  Inadequate available energy means the body will go into crisis energy management: burning off muscle; collapsing the metabolic rate; redirecting all available resources to core life support processes.

2. Flow: energy must have unobstructed flow throughout the system.

If you block the flow of oxygen or blood from any part of the human body, that part will sicken and die.  The body is in constant motion, for instance the heart is pumping blood every minute of life, disruption of this motion will have dire consequences for health.

3. Renewal: the energy system needs constant renewal of energy.

The human body uses up energy as it works, losing this energy as heat.  The human body needs a constant source of food, and be able to process this food into a viable source of energy for work. Lock a human in a room with no food, over time they will sicken and die.


Sustainability is easy to understand, follow the three basic rules and you are being sustainable. The three rules are applicable to any energy system from the human body, to ecosystem, to community, to business.  Sustainability leads to prosperity which is health, happiness and abundance.  The reverse of sustainability is a wasteland of sickness, despair and poverty.

Nature consists of a network of energy systems, which require energy to function.  Sustainability might include offensive energy strategies which obtain energy, or defensive strategies that include energy conservation, efficiency and energy recycling.

The current human worldview, its paradigm, includes: consuming more energy than what is available in an energy system; blocking the flow of energy through obsession with control; undermining or paralysing energy renewal systems; and suicidally, even wiping out the pools of available energy, for instance poisoning water aquifers through fracking.  Predictability, as in the human body example, there is only one outcome from unsustainable treatment of energy systems, sickness then death.


24 responses to “What is sustainability?

  1. Alex, while all that you write offers great clarity, one might argue that sustainability for humans on this planet is impossible without a massive reduction of our global population. Possibly of the order of 3 billion. Presumably, a reduction the planet will impose anytime soon!

    • In nature, animal populations rise and fall based upon energy availability, for instance ladybirds swarm one year, and this year I have seen none. Humanity may be subject to a similar pattern at some point, mass-starvation and swift population decline. It only requires a virus to discover what a huge viable food source humanity is then jump with terrible consequences for humanity. I see no viable voluntary reductions of human population, this will have to be forced upon humanity by natural events.

      With regards to the rules for sustainability, humanity is increasing the likelihood of mass starvation by breaking the rules.

      • Would you say that the use of tools and technology has meant, depending if/how optimized, supply could meet demand and then some? Giving priority to doing so? We always want a vaccine, a remedy, a more resilient next crop, a prosperous model for economies of varied scale. In assessing natural events, haven’t humans often taken an edge over other animals?

      • Tools and technology ideally should contribute to a sustainable situation, but the tool is as only as good as the user, who is using the tool in a way that leads to the reverse of sustainability.

        Humanity is an apex predator, always at the top, but cannot live without nature.

    • can’t agree there, there’s a sea to be desalinated for water and the sun for abundant energy. The resources are there, it just takes innovation to harness them.

      • Saudi Arabia uses desalination plants for its water supply, but uses vast amounts of oil to run the machinery. The excess salt is dumped back into the ocean making the areas it is dumped in toxic to life. The sun is a useful source of energy only when it shines, and then only a small fraction is obtained from sunlight.

      • Just a perspective — some see the world as needing three billion deaths, some see it as a problem waiting for a solution.

        The dream proceeds the action…

      • Indeed, reach for the stars, send the excess population to Mars.

      • I would go in a heartbeat ( but I am old and weak now) … but imagine being able to say “I helped tame a world” …

        The technical issue will be radiation shielding for the journey, maybe build a space vessel out of a hollowed asteroid ?

        How does one define excess population ? That is a sticky question.

      • Excess population might be in sustainability terms the population beyond which an energy system can sustain for life such as planet Earth.

      • but are you excess, or am I ? Or maybe it’s that other tribe….

      • If an energy system can only sustain 1000 people and there are 1456 people, then excess applies to everyone, they will need to find a solution or all suffer.

  2. Alex — the human body can be easily sustained but the soul takes us toward consumption.

  3. Love your including the photo of a crow. One of the practices i abhor where I live is the practice by homeowners to shoot all the crows and woodchucks, for no reason but they don’t like them on their property. As for ladybugs, I finally spotted my first one this year, most years they are everywhere, surprising you found the same thing. I hope they will be back next year.

    As for your three rules, while they make sense to me I can see many who would be overwhelmed and wonder how to fit these 3 rules into a lifestyle of caring for the planet as they don’t even get out in nature to understand what it needs.

    • The “pest” or “weed” often are important parts of the renewal systems of nature. Many seem to have a dislike of corvids like the crow, though they are intelligent animals. I hope to see at least one ladybird before year end, they are being elusive this year.

      I noticed from the feedback that many people might find these three rules challenging or fail to understand them, I will have to approach this subject from another angle at some point in the future.

      • I enjoyed how you tied the three rules to something we should be able to understand, but yes, I can see many not understanding it.

        I do hope you get to see a ladybug this year. I have been concerned that something is happening to them like so many other animals and insects and to hear you haven’t seen one makes me wonder.

      • I think the ladybugs/ladybirds have been hit badly in the UK with a false start of the spring causing them to come out of hibernation followed by a harsh return to winter when they starved to death.

      • We really didn’t have an early start and had a late frost, but it’s been a rather cold summer overall with much rain. I hope that’s all it is and they return next year.

      • I hope so, I think a repeat of 2013 in 2014 would send the ladybirds into extinction in the UK.

  4. Interesting post, sustainability is important, agreed. The curious thing is the planet up to this point has done this. So sustainability works. The definition of sustainability moves depending on who’s talking about it. Politicians use it as a tool for their own purposes, scientists use in another way based on their own particular thoughts and motivations. If you are an American this word means something totally different then someone from Africa. My point being this. Even though you and I agree doesn’t mean everyone else will. Do we force our version of sustainability on everyone without considering the end result? My choice would be renewable energy sources, thus moving this same train of thought into every aspect including building processes, clean water, mineral extraction, the list goes on. Hopefully you get my point. Locally and globally we need to be thinking differently or events could occur that may force us to take action in ways that would be difficult without creating harm to others.

    • Truth is relative, and you are right, we all bring a different perspective to the table about what sustainability means.

      In my opinion, just as there are thousands of species of ant there are common factors that make an ant an ant, so if we can find common rules that define the essence of what sustainability is, then the world has a common ground on which to work together regardless of what form they express sustainability as.

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