Sustainable Timescales

Image by günter from Pixabay

The word “sustainable” is overused to the point of becoming almost meaningless in our culture. In principle, though, it’s an easy enough concept. Unsustainable things fail: unable to continue indefinitely. By this logic, sustainable implies the opposite of failure: success.

Note that “sustainable” does not mean some mythical equilibrium, which has never existed for life on this planet. The key condition is that major changes are gradual enough to allow ecological adaptation. When they aren’t, we get mass extinctions—even when it takes tens or hundreds of thousands of years for the precipitating changes to fully develop.

So, step one in assessing sustainability is to ask: what can continue without failing? But the question needs an associated timescale to be meaningful. This post explores timescales on which it makes sense to assess sustainable practices.

First, we review the temporal landscape, in approximate terms.

Event Time
Big Bang 13.8 Gyr
Sun/Earth Formation 4.6 Gyr
First Biology 3.7–4.2 Gyr
Cambrian Explosion 540 Myr
Last Mass Extinction 65 Myr
First Apes 20 Myr
Homo Genus (Humans) 2.5 Myr
Homo Sapiens 300 kyr
Anatomically Modern Humans 150 kyr
Agricultural Revolution 10 kyr
Writing, Cities 5 kyr
Modern Science 400 yr
Fossil Fuels 150 yr
Bulk of Ecological Destruction 50 yr

For more perspectives on the second half of the table, I previously compared these timescales to a human lifetime, and also framed the progression as the seemingly-inevitable flow of a river.

Modernity’s Clock

Modernity experiences transformative changes on timescales of decades and centuries. Civilization as a whole might be said to be 5,000–10,000 years old, depending on definitions—the larger number corresponding to a break with hunter-gatherer or horticultural modes in the form of the agricultural revolution.

The present condition is very new on the planet, and has had rapidly accelerating, dramatic, deleterious effects on ecological health: for instance a plummet in wild land mammal mass and extinction rates roughly 1,000 times the baseline—initiating what appears to be a sixth mass extinction.

Some use the word “Anthropocene” to denote a new era of human domination. I take issue with this, because the turbulent years following the Chicxulub impact 65 million years ago was not itself an era, but the fleeting boundary between two eras. Likewise, I believe Earth must experience a post-anthropic era (maybe still containing humble humans) that recovers from the pervasive fallout of modernity—rather than millions of years of human domination in the form of modernity (which I believe to be unsupportable, wishful fantasy—or more like a terminal nightmare for many of Earth’s creatures).

Given the timeline of human activity, if we wished civilization to be in its infancy—rather than nearer its end than its beginning—then we need to be thinking on timescales of many thousands of years. In round numbers, let’s say 10,000 years, at least. If our culture is to operate sustainably, we would want to see it persist at least as long or longer than civilization has been around thus far.

Already, this is a problematic timescale for modernity, given the century-scale draw-down of non-renewable resources—as if spending an inheritance—that supplied the recent fireworks show. Nothing even close to the present scale is likely to be supportable for appropriately long timescales (see the post called Can Modernity Last?). The question is: can we sustain Activity X for civilization-relevant timescales of 10,000 years or more? Modernity is already in trouble, forced to admit that the is answer “no” for most instances of “Activity X.”  The ecosphere just won’t take it.

Biological Clock

But even 10,000 years is short in ecological terms. Human cultural practices have enabled exponential changes on the surface of the planet that are much too fast for the community of life to track. Climate change has its own casualty list (e.g., polar bears, coral reefs), but this is the tip of the iceberg in relation to habitat destruction, wild population declines, and permanent extinctions. Adaptation can’t respond nearly quickly enough to mitigate these influences.

Now, it is true that a population generally contains enough genetic variation to adapt with moderate speed to changes via phenotypic variation. This can work as long as the change is moderately paced and within theworking memory” of the organisms’ genetic codes. Such capability can help species get through episodic climate variations like ice ages, for instance. But once outside of the few-million-year window of past conditions, all bets are off.

Modernity’s changes are far more rapid than even phenotypic variation can track, and—more importantly— producing conditions well outside of experiential range even if executed more slowly. Plants and animals retain no genetic memory to cope with urban sprawl, hurtling hunks on highways, swamp-draining, pesticides, habitat fragmentation by encroachment, mine tailings, a panoply of pollutants, microplastics, ozone holes, rapid carbon emissions, and a host of other novelties suddenly unleashed upon the planet.

Therefore, many members of the community of life are struggling mightily, and are in rapid decline—likely on their way to permanent extinction as inter-species dependencies fracture. What would it take to pull up out of this nosedive?!

It is no surprise that changes this drastic and widespread are taking a huge toll on the more-than-human world. We might imagine getting away with it if slowly introducing elements of modernity over million-year evolutionary timescales, but not thousands of times faster, as we have done. Not that such a slowed pace is even possible: modernity does not have the legs for a marathon, as resource-hungry as it is.  Stretching it out to this extent is not a realistic option, suggesting that modernity is fundamentally incompatible with a healthy ecology and biodiversity.

Modernity boosters would say that defining sustainability over such long timescales is preposterous.  That reaction is actually a key part of our problem, don’t you think?  They also might not care too much about biodiversity, imagining—in a staggering revelation of childlike simplicity—that we could probably get by with a few dozen (domesticated) species on the planet.  Dunning, meet Kruger.

The Ultimate Foundation

Think about it first..

I will point out the obvious facts that modernity requires humanity, and humanity requires an ecological foundation—made resilient via biodiversity. Obliterating large swaths of the community of life is not likely to go well for either modernity or humanity, given countless interdependencies of which we are not remotely aware. We are nothing, without bugs. Modernity is sawing off the branch upon which we stand, marveling at the rapidity and efficiency of our technology in accomplishing this feat.

Any activity that results in a steady draw-down of biodiversity is not one that I would call sustainable, as it ignorantly and relentlessly undermines the critical foundation upon which we are utterly reliant. We are an animal species who got here in the context of evolution in relation to numerous other species of all classes in an intricate and impenetrable web of interdependency.

To remain safely within our context, we need to make sure we are not doing anything that systematically (and unnecessarily) degrades the health of the community of life. That means, to me, giving life on this planet the opportunity to thrive and adapt along with us, at a pace set by evolution and not by maladaptive cultural inclinations.

So, even if we give an affirmative answer the earlier question of whether we could continue a practice for 10,000 years (and most modern activities fail this question miserably), it’s not enough. Can we maintain an activity for hundreds of thousands or even millions of years, giving the community of life enough time to adapt along with us? If the answer is no, then maybe don’t.

Unsustainable outcomes can be accomplished arbitrarily quickly—think: global nuclear warfare. Sustainability, on the other hand, necessarily concerns itself with far-future outcomes. No species has ever had to deliberately consider such distant time horizons, but no other species has had the capacity to enact such rapid and grossly unsustainable practices as we witness today. Will our intelligence prove to be too much of a “good” thing and turn us into evolution’s deadliest blunder, or will at least some of us learn to tuck back into our family, no longer hubristic enough to play at being gods?

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10 thoughts on “Sustainable Timescales

  1. Yes, "sustainable" has been overused so much that it no longer has meaning. It seems to now have the meaning "sustainable over some long period of time." "More sustainable" seems to mean "can be sustained over a longer period than would otherwise have been the case" and is synonymous with "less unsustainable,"

    To me, adding any time period to "sustainable" makes it unsustainable and implies that we don't care about those who come after that period. Any time period added starts to erode immediately. Something which is sustainable over 100 years, say, can only be sustained for 90 years, after the first 10 years. Then 80 years after the next 10 years. Would people be satisfied at only having 50 years left, 50 years after something was deemed sustainable for 100 years?

    Richard Heinberg distilled some ideas on sustainability in his "Five Axioms of Sustainability" which for me boil down to: not using any resource beyond its renewal rate and not damaging the environment beyond the ability of it to assimilate that damage. This allows for variation as new information comes to light (about resource renewal rates or how the environment deals with damage).

    I don't hold out any hope that "some of us learn to tuck back into our family." As humans are a species, and species consume resources as quickly as they can, I think humans would have to evolve out of evolution to become something that lives and doesn't damage its environment. All other species quickly hit limitations of predators and resource access but humans can overcome a lot of those limitations, for a while, wrecking life systems in the process. Even though humans will be reined in eventually, if they survive, they will again start to do the same, or similar, damage just because humans are so good at it.

    • In reality, all living forms modify the environment. There's an excellent book about why life is a geological force, "Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth" by James Lovelock. Read it.

      • Absolutely right. But when an ecosystem reaches a climax state (which will always be a temporary state, even if long lived) the various actors have reached a kind of balance when it can be thought of as sustainable.

  2. The first steps towards building long-term sustainability are jettisoning the idea ( grandiose delusion) of human exceptionalism, and replacing our debt based monetary system. Once those difficult but necessary changes have been made, many other things will become a lot easier.

  3. We didn't get here because we're smart
    Or clever enough to make a blue planet
    But the turn of seasons finds us fortune's children
    Now it's ours to enjoy and ours to lose

    The trees didn't get here because we're smart
    Nor the birds and beasts in wild profusion
    But we're crowdin em out chasing a fond illusion
    Now they're ours to enjoy and ours to lose

    The fish didn't get here because we're smart
    And the whales that traverse the world's wide oceans
    How we're pullin em out — is that some crazy notion
    Now they're ours to enjoy and ours to lose

    Earth is our only home
    This, in despite that we were born to wander
    No better place awaits us way out yonder
    Now it's ours to enjoy and ours to lose

    We didn't get here because we're smart
    Or clever enough to make a blue planet
    But the turn of seasons finds us fortune's children
    Now it's ours to enjoy and ours to lose

    Song written April 2006 by Bob Pittman

  4. I have a theory that civilization, that uses metals, is not sustainable in the long term. Long term being many millions of years. The reason being entropy and dissipation of all our metal 'tools' over time. As you have already shown even a 90% recycling rate leaves only 10% of whatever metal after being recycled 22 times.

    This means constant mining, however we are already into very low grades of most metals, especially those like copper, zinc, tin, nickel. The lower grades, and continuing to go lower over time, means more energy to extract a constant supply.
    Once energy contraints kick in, it means less metals. The existing metals used in civilization, continue to suffer from entropy and dissipation, leaving thin layers of oxidized metals scattered all over the urban, agricultural and mining areas., in other words scattered over most of the planet.

    At some point in the future we are either using so much energy we boil the planet in the effort to gain metals from kilometers deep, in the ppm range, or we cease using metals at all because of lack of easy to access energy. (the numbers clearly favor the latter).

    How do we farm without metals? we can't and don't! How do we feed cities or large towns without farming? We can't and don't.

    In my humble opinion, any type of civilization is simply not sustainable in the very long term. All civilization is self limiting and hence the Fermi Paradox is fully explained, because the physical reality is universal..

    • It does explain the Fermi Paradox.
      It's funny how the prevailing narrative is still one of inexorable technological progress, even from experts who probably should know better. Many 'TV physicists' point to the rise of technology over the past century or so, and say things like 'if that's how much our technology's advanced in only a hundred years, just imagine how advanced alien technology is'.
      But the lifespans of civilizations (due to energy constraints), coupled with the mind boggling distances between any aliens and us means that, even if they do exist, we'll never see them.

      A world without metal, wow. Your logic is sound, though. The only source of metal that far into the future would be from meteorites. Tutankhamun's dagger is thought to have been made from a meteorite:

  5. One over-used phrase which irritates me no end is "sustainable growth". If something is growing, then it is not sustainable, because perpetual growth is impossible, But try telling politicians that.

  6. Two definitions of sustainability:

    The bad guys: "sustaining" the status-quo

    The good guys: sustaining Mother Earth's ecosystems

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