July 9, 2021

What I'm Learning About Sustainability

Not long ago, I signed up for Bill Mollison's online Permaculture Design Course. It is turning out to be not only useful, but extremely interesting. It is just what I've needed to help me put together all these bits and pieces of information I've collected over the years. As a foundation, I'm starting to understand that permaculture isn't simply a technique, it's a design system. 

One of the things that's got me thinking is Bill Mollison's definition of "sustainable." Considering how trendy this word has become, I think it's important to know what it means. We hear of sustainable energy, sustainable living, sustainable economics, sustainable  development, and sustainable design, for example. But is sustainable energy the same as sustainable economics? Is sustainable agriculture the same as sustainable development? Or does "sustainable" have different meanings in different contexts or for different purposes?

My own understanding of sustainability has evolved over the years, as seen in my writing.


"Sustainability requires that we not use up what we have to the point where there is no more. "
“Defining Our Goals,” 5 Acres & A Dream The Book (p. 21)


"Sustainability refers to a system that maintains its viability by using techniques that allow for continual reuse, such as sustainable agriculture."
"Reassessing Our Goals," 5 Acres & A Dream The Sequel (p. 14)

From my recent lecture notes:

Sustainability - a system that produces enough energy over its lifetime to maintain and replace itself.
Bill Mollison, Permaculture Design Course

This probably isn't very profound to anyone but me, but even so, I wanted to document and share it. How do I make it a reality on my own homestead? That's what I hope the course will teach me.


wyomingheart said...

I agree with you, Leigh. That word in, in early 2000, would make my eye twitch, because working for government, it became the buzz word. They wanted sustainable turf, sustainable cleaners, even down to sustainable toilet paper in the restrooms. I actually grew to abhor the word, until we moved up here on the ridge. Every single thing on this farm is connected, and relies on the processes of all around it, to sustain its life. Let’s take the grass...it needs water, nutrients, insects, oxygen, and a happy person to mow it, and if any of those things break down....we would end up with tall weeds. This is a great subject to ponder over my coffee this morning! You never fail to get my noggin working...lol ! Good morning!

Leigh said...

Well, thanks, Wyomingheart! I love that we are learning to see things from this perspective.

I think "sustainable" as a word has become like "green." It's supposed to have a useful definition, but once it becomes a trendy marketing term, the definitions become too pliable to be reliable. I think for me, it was "sustainable economy." I finally figured out that what they were trying to sustain is economic growth. Simply making a sensible profit to live comfortably, isn't enough. It has to be ever-increasing profit. Sounds great until the market is saturated, then what? Cut quality, cut quantity, raise prices, cut jobs; all to sustain growth. Makes no sense to me.

Debby Riddle said...

I was browsing through my Foxfire books for instructions on weaving a chair seat...what an example of Self sufficiency. It is definitely a goal.

Sherry said...

Sustainable, to us on the farm, is raising our cattle off our own land, using our own hay. It means taxes, insurance and bills that come with the land are paid by the land. It takes work.

Leigh said...

Debby, the Foxfire books are excellent resources for self-sufficiency, aren't they? So much wisdom that is almost lost.

Toirdhealbheach Beucail said...

Leigh, what an interesting thought. Yes, "sustainable" is thrown around liberally these days without any real sense or definition as to what "sustainable" really means. Almost any company you purchase from now has "sustainability" as value and goal. What they mean by that is almost never defined.

To be more precise, if a product you make or a service you offer is not - by the listed definition "a system that produces enough energy over its lifetime to maintain and replace itself" - then it is not sustainable, no matter how hard you wish it was so.

In a way, this reflects the same complaint I have about a lot of products and services - to be truly "sustainable", they should not be produced or used in the first place.

Leigh said...

Sherry, I agree with you. But I figure it takes work either way. Either I do the work myself, or I keep a job to make money to buy everything. I'd rather work for myself and my goats!

Leigh said...

TB, excellent points! I think you're describing some of the primary problems with industrialization and why it will ultimately fail.

Rain said...

Hi Leigh :) I do hope you learn a lot from that course. You're well on your way, you have so much knowledge and experience. I do learn a lot from you! :)

Leigh said...

Thank you, Rain! The permaculture course is exactly what I needed! Extremely interesting and really helping me understand the concept of design and how to approach it. Highly recommended!

Nancy In Boise said...

Love Mollison, read his some of his stuff years ago. I got a freebie course from Permies, but still have to go thru it. There's so much to learn about Permaculture. I'm in the Retrosuburbia FB group, tons there.

Hill Top Post said...

"Sustainability" certainly does seem to be the word of the decade, or perhaps of the century. We all need to give it a lot of thought and do our part.

Leigh said...

Nancy, I've been able to see how you've applied some of what you know in your own yard. I aree, there's always more to learn! This course is really helping me see permaculture as a system, rather than a random collection of ideas.

Leigh said...

Mary, I agree. What makes it challenging, is that we can't really see our consumer goods from start to finish; we buy them somewhere in the middle of their life and hopefully they can be recycled. But there is so much we don't see, from harvesting raw materials to the various steps of manufacture, plus all the transporting at various stages. Plus packaging. Paul Wheaton (Permies.com) proposed a rating of products based on their total carbon footprint, from beginning to sale. I think we'd all be surprised at that.