The Unsustainable Paradox

Part I: The Apparent Impossibility of Sustainable Living

Even if you grow all your own food (organically), make all your own clothes, use only renewable energy resources, and live in a hand-built shelter, you are probably just about as far from living a sustainable lifestyle as someone living a life of luxury in one of the world’s mega cities. This is because the human being is not the sort of creature that was designed to live on their own. Human beings have always relied upon their group to give them the upper hand in the struggle for survival, and the group is always stronger than the individual.  Almost everyone has now been caught up to a greater or lesser extent in a single group that spans the world tying countries and continents together in a mind-boggling inter-connected web of finance, trade and global politics.

On any day, and at any time, the lone green pioneer living quietly in some secluded corner of the globe could have their haven shattered by any number of possible activities initiated by the global population. This could include anything from a mining project to a tourist development; but it need not even be something specific to a certain location, it could be global warming, nuclear fall-out, or some form of widespread pollution. It could be a war, it could be tourism, or someone might simply be jealous and decide to come and rob them of what they have got. Furthermore, it is hard to think of any group of people, anywhere in the world, that has been able to protect its sustainable lifestyle when faced by an assault from the global community and its commitment to unsustainable living.


As far as one can tell, there was a time when an individual’s chances of survival depended mainly on them being able to work constructively with the other members of their family or tribe, and this process seems to have worked fairly automatically. In larger societies, however, there has always been a need for a system of government that can resolve disputes and allocate resources without causing an outbreak of civil unrest. An effective government also has to be able to protect society from outside aggression. When a society has a government that is able to fulfil these functions, it will generally prosper. However, governments also are subject to a law of sustainability: if the cost of providing these services is too high, the society will eventually collapse.

We are living at a remarkable point in human history, because the world population is for once not divided into a myriad of discrete populations, each under the rule of a separate government -and each capable of carrying on if another fell. Almost everyone on the planet is now bound together by a single financial and commercial system, and if it fell apart, everyone would be affected, and non more so than people living in developed countries.

Ten or twenty years ago, it was not part of mainstream thinking that our technological world could be heading towards some form of imminent disaster. Since then, something has changed, and everyone is now worried about climate change, lack of economic growth, political extremism, and rampant greed and corruption amongst the elite. Few people now care to argue that we live in a sustainable economy, or that our economy could be made sustainable with a few tweaks and a few minor advances on knowledge already gained. The majority believe that we are caught up in an irreversible and accelerating descent into excessive resource consumption, environmental destruction, and society breakdown, which sooner or later will lead to a total meltdown of the global economy, and the sweeping away of everything that we associate with modern civilisation.

And there lies the paradox facing everyone who, for no fault of their own, finds themselves living in the modern world: you cannot divorce yourself from the society around you, but if you join it, you will find yourself in the embrace of a system that is rushing towards its own destruction

Next: The Sustainable Imperative

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Gareth Lewis

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