What is Sustainability?

Defining Sustainability

Sustainability is not a goal in life, it is the form of life itself

It is the final judge of every agenda, that to which all goals must eventually yield. Beyond its compass life is not possible, and mankind has no future there.

Sustainability, like its sister discipline morality, is the necessary understructure of freedom and abundance. Like morality its substance can also be deduced through insight and inspection, and like morality it too needs to be released from the institutions that would otherwise contain and mold it to their own purposes. What follows derives from the first three sessions of our 5-day course on sustainability. Further analysis and more detailed insights are reserved for the course.

We introduce sustainability by first considering what it is not. Plainly, the opposite of being sustained is to die out. The fossil record shows how likely extinction becomes once adaptation falls behind. Mankind has indeed fallen behind, its deepening failure to adapt further fueled by an unresolved and mounting climate crisis. Its capacity to cope with that one predicament has been amazingly inadequate, indicative of a looming collapse. High on the list of explanations for this collective misguidedness is the dogma of market forces; i.e. no pay – no way.

To that effect sustainability is one of modern civilisation’s three great ignorances, the other two being the commons and the monetary system. These three are deeply bound together and to truly grasp the one means to grasp the others, and thus to understand them as a whole. These ignorances need to be penetrated, and their consequences reversed.



Why Sustainability, and not Sustainable Development

When seeking a description of sustainability and how it might best be explained one finds, especially on the internet, only modifications of the input-output logic of economistic thinking. Valorising a variety of business-as-usual (but-smarter) guidelines, they are typically offered as semi-structured generalisations about interactions between society, environment and the economy.

The world champion of these pseudo-structured definitions is the United Nations. Why? The UN has its origins in the Bretton Woods Agreement (1944). The aim of this Agreement was to clean up that global mess caused by the banking industry known as World War II. The outcome effectively was to hand the reins of international banking to America. Next came the United Nations Charter (1945) to replace the collapsed League of Nations. So arose the United Nations, headquartered (1952) in New York, right in the heart of US finance, its situation there aided by US banker beneficence. Like the World Bank the UN has powerful private interests in its background. Real sustainability for them has the potential for being quite disruptive.

In 2000 came the UN’s Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Officially applauded but widely ineffective these were upgraded in 2015 to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)[ 1 ]. At the same time the UN’s Agenda 21, a global vision-plan for developed economies, re-emerged as Agenda 2030.

Both of these UN agendas favour growth-friendly objectives. Some importance is given to biodiversity, but other key issues regarding sustainability such as food sovereignty or income equality have little weight. Instead, we find ‘eradicating poverty’ as their top priority, an idea elsewhere pursued as ‘banking-the-unbanked’[ 2 ]. It essentially aims to capture the world’s self-reliant (and unprofitable) poor into state-organised, debt-managed poverty, while also releasing any traditional commons (lands, forests, etc.) into the mill of privatisation and exploitation.

While $2/day would cause an uprising here, many of those targeted for such poverty eradication campaigns are already happier, more free and more secure in their circumstance than those of us needing $400/week just for the rent/ mortgage. Long story short: the bottom line of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals is growth.

U.N. video (2017) on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development – ( source )

The Emperor’s New Clothes

To what extent is ‘sustainable development’ the disease claiming to be the cure? What distinguishes sustainable development from unsustainable development? And, why is the arrow of development always directed at the Third World, never at the First? And, how much wisdom has been absorbed from the experience of truly sustainable traditional cultures? It is time to ask what is this so-called development all about – how should it be evaluated, and by whom?

Unquestionably the UN has achieved much under the banner of development[ 3 ], although such claims are ultimately questionable. However re-cloaking its development goals as sustainable makes it a target for serious critique. Economic growth and sustainability may overlap occasionally at certain scales, but broadly speaking they remain otherwise incompatible. Under scrutiny the story being used to link them is scientifically thin and compromised.

As a resource-based economic system, Sustainable Development intends to take control of all resources, all production and all consumption on planet Earth, leaving all of its inhabitants to be micro-managed by a Scientific Dictatorship. Technocracy: The Hard Road to World Order ~Wood, P. (2018)

Universal Sustainability

Sustainability has characteristics that must be examined through a systems-based approach. Our first observation is that sustainable, self-organising systems have two parts; an external energy source to sustain it, and a structured internal form, its functional workings.

To illustrate the basics of this view consider the Earth‘s biota as a system. It persists as a self-organising whole, sustained by the Sun. Within that system there are multiple systems each with its own energy source. At every level down to the simplest cell we find the same structural form: an external energy source with internally repeated patterns of self-organisation. This is the signature of sustainability, the form of life itself.

Sustainability is the work of your Left, morality is the work of your Right. Work them both, each and together, for the betterment of your Whole.

Symptoms in their Energy inputs

Although the key to analysing the sustainability of a system is in its internal patterns, an inspection of a system’s energy source can also reveal serious vulnerabilities.

Our monetary system is not sustainable. The energy source which drives it is debt-money, originating as bank loans. Parasitic upon that input is the bank’s interest, usury, an extractive load on the system which is deliberately designed to take more than it gives. What has validated this money as energy is a faith in ‘growth’, in other words the expectation of further extraction to correct for the extractive load already suffered. Which raises the question: from where? It is a vicious cycle that at some point must enfeeble the host. After three centuries of converting the world’s abundance into that kind of money, ‘peak pillage’ has taken its toll and so-called growth is now dwindling globally.

The modern city is not sustainable. Cities use various energy inputs to keep their innards working. Some of these systems may be reconstructable as sustainable,  but not their food supplies: that tide of mass-produced ‘food from nowhere’ sold everywhere in supermarkets and food outlets. Their packaging and presentation may disguise the ecologically-damaging scale and methods being used, but an industrialised food system will always be driven to externalise its costs, to profit from consumer trustfulness wherever it can. More accountability across the food system (consumer and environmental health), will only come with its de-intensification, that is to say more localised food production.

People need food and space, but producing food needs a lot more space than the people themselves. In terms of a land-to-people ratio, the economic optimum leans towards crammed housing. But the ecological optimum, which implies localised food production, leans more towards 1-2 hectares per family. Beyond just food and lifestyle a population’s density affects a huge range of tipping points, their ecological footprint[ 4 ] being the most obvious in terms of environmental sustainability. Social and democratic factors also spring to mind.

Charles Eisenstein: Sacred Economics (2012) as a [ PDF ]

Getting Around to the Future

To explain evolution Darwin[ 5 ] chose the term ‘natural selection’ for what he proposed as the agent of change, comparing the slowly effected course of events in nature, over long periods of time, to a method that was already familiar to farmers and fanciers: selective breeding. Overall, his model came to be acknowledged as more accurate than Spencer’s[ 6 ] ‘survival of the fittest’ idea. An equation of Altruism (Hamilton[ 7 ]) now explains how genetic adaptation is also influenced by nurturing and cooperation in a species, not merely by dominance as Spencer had suggested.

Natural selection and extinction are two expressions of sustainability, but are there others? Is there an underlying form to sustainability, perhaps not hidden yet not fully revealed either? Could that same structure be applicable outside of natural processes? It was not until Mandlebrot[ 7 ] discovered ‘fractal dimensions’ that we had any tools to begin to investigate that possibility.

Through recent insights from DNA the long dim tunnel of our evolutionary past is now well illuminated. Not only did nature evolve more or less as Darwin suggested but we have also discovered how nature has also evolved systems for its own evolution. With that in mind the gaze of science is now turning from the once dim past towards the still dim future and asking, is evolution predictable? Certain evidence suggests that it might be so. That possibility will need be explored through systems analysis, and will incorporate the same workings of sustainability as we have indicated here.

Fractals – the hidden dimension (2012). The repetitive logic which underlies the fabric of nature and biology. (Benoit Mandlebrot [ 7 ] )


When a self-organising system achieves sustainability it falls into a recognisable form. The parts and patterns that comprise it will vary, but from beehives to belief systems the underlying form is always similar. Basically, that form comprises three components; an external energy source; a series of internal patterns, and some simple rules. Once identified these can be assessed with regard to resilience and vulnerabilities, and measures taken to fortify their expressions as part of the underlying form of life.

The aim here is to spread an understanding about sustainability, as a discipline that can be developed into a science and into the practicalities of sustainable living. The understanding required for doing that already exists in a basic form, through the analysis of patterns. Our starting point is not a hypothesis, it is simply a set of practical observations about self-organising systems. Just as the study of geology started from the proposition that the rocks above must be younger than those below, so one day sustainability will become a science based upon simple observations.

The practical extensions of this, once better developed, will extend beyond ecology and agriculture into other enduring self-organising systems, for example analytical tools for critiquing our social tools and political institutions.


Also read

Rural Training Centre ⇒⇒ Landbase Project (outline)

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  1. Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/post2015/transformingourworld
  2. Unbanked (pdf): https://www.worldbank.org/content/dam/Worldbank/Research/GlobalFindex/PDF/N2Unbanked.pdf
  3. Koehrsen, W. (2019). The Disappearing Poor: Towards Data Science
  4. Global Footprint Network: City and Regional Work
  5. Darwin, C. (1859). On the Origin of Species.
  6. Spencer, H. (1864). Principles of Biology. (vol. 1, p. 444)
  7. Hamilton, W.D, (1964) The Genetical Evolution of Social Behavior
  8. Mandelbrot B.B. (1982). The Fractal Geometry of Nature