Sustainability 101

By David J. Hawke Draft v3: 14 October 2021

Sustainable development: development which meets the needs of current generations without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (WCED, 1987).

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There are so many ‘buzzwords’ flying around these days in regards to environmental concerns, social ideologies and/or economic recovery plans that the mind tends to either shut them out or assume that all is well. When the word ‘sustainable’ is prefixed to development, growth, planning or other green (and not so green) adjectives, the phrase somehow gives comfort that everything will work out just fine in the end. Wrong!

Our Common Future

Back in 1987 the United Nation’s Brundtland Commission Report (a.k.a. Our Common Future) was looking at the global concerns of over-population, fast disappearing natural resources, and unequal distribution of humans and wealth on the planet. Their report proposed that all future planning must give equal consideration to three ‘pillars’: environmental, social and economic. Yes, how about that? Equal consideration; every time. The opening quote is from that document. Made sense then, makes sense now.

However, in the interim since this impressive report was released, degradation of natural resources has continued, populations of humans have continued to grow (especially so within the so-called under-developed countries), and the almighty dollar has continued to drive most decision-making processes. So where are we now?


Time for a review of just what the heck this ‘sustainability’ is supposed to be saving us from, other than the widespread demise of humanity as we envision it to be.

By definition, sustain is to keep something going. So what is it that we so desperately want to sustain? Life on Earth? Or our comfortable life style? There is a world of difference between these goals, a world filled with billions of people all wanting the same prize from life… health and wealth.


Let’s take a quick flash back to the late 1960s when I was a Boy Scout wanting to earn my Conservationist badge; and, concurrently at the time, I was also a Junior Resource Ranger. Both of these organizations provided me the same base lesson: conservation is the wise use of our natural resources. Indeed, we people were to be concerned about the preservation of forests, fish, wildlife, soil, air and water. Because we could use them, barter with them, and supposedly control them. Okay, that last part wasn’t written in the guide books, but it was subtly implied.

Lesson two was to learn the difference between a renewable resource and a non-renewable resource ; the former we could reproduce, the latter had a finite end of supply. Coal, oil, and mineral deposits were vast yet had a “use before date” on them. And the idea was, and is, that if we don’t use them, somebody else will, so it might as well be us. And get rich in the process.

And so the concept of the ‘wise use of our natural resources’ laid the foundation for caring for our natural environment, not because it sustained our very being on this planet, but because without abundant lumber, a vibrant fishery, wildlife to hunt and trap, nickel, copper, oil and coal to mine… well, economic collapse would ruin us. We’d be poor. How sad and unfortunate for us.

As air pollution began killing trees, as water pollution began poisoning not only the fish but us humans as well, we collectively sat up and took notice of the negative actions of our ways. “Hey guys, without a healthy environment we can’t grow renewable resources so maybe we better get on this problem.”


At this point the concept of habitat needs to be addressed. While teaching outdoor education (another warm and fuzzy term) I based many a presentation on defining habitat. Wildlife and wild plants each need their habitat, just as we mammalian humans need ours. Habitat is “the combination of food, water, shelter and space in the proper amounts to sustain the life of that species for succeeding generations.”

Whether the species in question is a flying squirrel, a peregrine falcon or a Homo sapiens, those four basic elements of habitat must be there or the species dies out. We are no different than any other living thing out there; we are a part of the whole web of life thing! We are within the realm of Nature, not apart from it. Heady stuff that, realizing there is no “us versus them”; it’s just a great big collective “us”.

Carrying Capacity

As habitat requires the ‘proper amounts of food, water, shelter and space’, the next step is to understand carrying capacity. This looks at the concept that if there is ‘X’ amount of land, and ‘A’ amount of fresh water, ‘B’ amount of adequate food, ‘C’ amount of shelter, then what level of population can that area support for that particular species? At what amount of population can the land in question no longer carry out that long-term notion of ‘sustaining life for future generations’?

This formula can be upset by the sudden demise of food and/or water (caused by drought, famine, fire, pollution), or alternatively by the sudden upswing in population on the same geographic area (immigration or political/military displacement). So if the area allotted per individual is diminished, the existing population now faces the hardship of adjusting to smaller allotments of that space and the needed supplies required to carry on in a healthy manner .

A well-known fact about animal populations and related health is the correlation between population level and available resources. If crowding (lack of space) is introduced, there will be the immediate yet unfulfilled demand for suitable amounts of food and water. Without these basics, the general personal health of the individuals within the species declines rapidly , opening up real possibilities for diseases to overcome previously healthy immune systems.

Within Nature a sick population means a declining population, which means a feast for predators and an easing of pressure on the land. However, within ‘us’ there is a tendency to fight off the sick label and stagger forward with a population of weakened individuals propped up by an army of medical soldiers. When a death dealing virus comes along, we cry out, “Ha! Merely a flesh wound!”

Which brings us back to trying to define just what it is that we are trying to sustain? And why?


A human is not much different than a gorilla, a porpoise or an octopus when it comes to basic needs. We all think, reason, and can adapt to a certain degree to survive . As humans, one might think that we could claim to be collectively “speaking for the animals” in wanting a cleaner environment. Bull.

What we really, really want is to survive and carry on living within the lifestyle to which we are accustomed to, at least here within the Caucasian populated portions of North America.

Which means that a higher population plunked down within our allotted community space will lead to food shortages, shelter shortages, water shortages and our combined waste (sewage, garbage) will no longer be hidden within the surrounding natural environment. So we are scared. Scared of losing our lifestyle.

But the growing number of living human souls on this planet is still rising, daily, even hourly. Making babies seems to be a global pastime. Where will everyone go? How will everyone be gainfully employed to buy the food and pay the water bills? How in the world am I supposed to adapt to a lesser affluent life style?

The recent examples of boorish behaviours by people regarding their support of former USA president Donald Trump, and our current challenge of getting everyone to take a COVID-19 vaccination needle are but two examples of the near hopelessness of getting an entire country to change for the better.

Make do with less? Don’t think so buddy . Allow immigrants to infiltrate my community? No way, Jose ! Share my land that I bought and own? It’s mine to do with as I please, I paid for it ! Listen to government politicians tell me what to do and not do? They’re all a bunch of liars spending my tax money ! Oh yes, the challenges of changing the norms of society are daunting indeed.

There are oodles of reports and research that show that we humans are in a very tight spot, socially, financially and environmentally. Americans have these reports. Canadians have these reports. Asians have these reports. Argentinians have these reports. Indeed, every country on our shared planet has these reports, all saying the same thing: too many people; not enough natural resources; a tipping point has been reached; the carrying capacity is maxed out; the habitat cannot provide.

So now what?

One option is to run and hide, ignore the whole mess and hope I die before the world as I knew it disappears. Many people are doing just that.

Another option is to join the fray and take whatever and as much of it as possible before everything collapses. Developers and realtors are cashing in on this land grab madness with great financial success (albeit a projected short-lived success).

And there’s always that third, hard option. Adapt . Learn to share. Learn to change. Learn to do with less. And learn to speak up with innovative solutions and be heard by the decision makers of each of our counties. The decision makers are not some greater-than-thou deity who waves a hand and makes things happen in a pre-ordained manner.

Decision Makers

Mayors, Premiers, Prime Ministers, land use planners, developers, realtors and financial icons are all… human. Just like you and me… yeah, pants go on one leg a time, daily bowel movements happen. And they get frustrated, pissed off and angry just like you and I do at times. They are human and are our equals. And at times, as our elected representatives, they just need some guidance, education and support for new way of looking at our common challenges.

With the implementation of this lofty goal of “sustainability”, there needs to be a common understanding of just what the goal actually is and how we are all, collectively, going to achieve it. Until that moment of clarity is shared and felt literally around the globe, we are still just a pack of jabbering primates fighting over the watering hole. We can do better than this.

As cartoonist Walt Kelly foretold with his character Pogo, “We have seen the enemy… and it is us.”

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