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Beyond Sustainability
Alex Steffen, 3 Apr 04

One of the central premises of my work is that a quiet revolution is spreading in our understanding of what "sustainability" means and demands of us - that the dangerous lack of sustainability in our industrial systems is as more a product of our failure to think clearly about the future and to design our systems to work with nature than any wrongness in our desires for prosperity.

So I should have gotten this up weeks ago. Six different people I respect have all recommended David Schaller's essay Beyond Sustainability: From Scarcity to Abundance. If you're at all interested in the future of sustainability, it's provocative, insightful and worth reading.

            "Conversations on sustainability can often be quite depressing.  You know the story: ecosystems in decline, species loss, water scarcity, climate chaos, spread of diseases, and then all of the social and economic turmoil that results from these conditions.
            There is a common thread to these grim stories as you might expect, and this thread carries over to the solutions we often find ourselves seeking. I believe it is also the reason we find ourselves so discouraged over our chances for turning things around in some sustainable fashion.
            This common thread has been referred to in words such as scarcity and limits, and in themes such as entropy, closed systems, and carrying capacity.
            We've all been drilled in the absoluteness of limits.  A lot of very good science is telling us more and more precisely just how little there is left, just how much we have to cut back, just how prone to decay and unraveling our natural world is, and just how austere our future will have to be compared to the extravagant present.
            Our policy tools reflect this sense of austerity: we strive to reduce, reuse and recycle as if keeping all those molecules of fiber, glass, metal, and such out of the landfill a few extra months is what it is all about.  We encourage resource efficiency, as if getting another few percent out of our throughput of these materials somehow is enough.  We struggle to add a few more jobs as we make these reuse, recycle, and efficiency measures stretch our resources a while longer.
            But when we settle for a higher recycling rate, or reduced industrial emissions, or a few more jobs (usually low paying), or a little less of a rate of decline in ecosystem integrity, we are really just postponing our own collapse.
            Meanwhile, the more we stretch our resources through efficiency gains, the faster others seek to use them up - as if our savings become their withdrawals.  It all looks like a cruel zero-sum game that we are destined to
lose in the end.  No wonder there is talk of austerity and apocalypse. Who can
be cheerful or encouraged about any of this?
            I believe there is an austerity all right, but it is an austerity of imagination.   All of it is fueled by the premise of scarcity in nature.  
            I propose that there is an abundance to nature that, in our ignorance and even arrogance, we are only beginning to fathom.  In fact, it would be arrogance to claim even that much.   Our microbiologists, botanists,
biologists, mycologists, wood chemists and geneticists are only now scratching
the surface of this great diversity and plenty.  What we don't understand, we can't possibly explain, value, or protect.

            We have identified only the smallest fraction of the species of the
world, particularly in the fungi, algae, and bacteria kingdoms.  Much less do
we understand all of the wealth embodied in these mystery species - which by
the way dominate the living world.  We don~t exactly have the plant kingdom
figured out either.  Taxonomically speaking, we aren~t playing with a full
deck.  And even with the cards we have in our hand, we~re not using them very
            A typical coffee business uses 0.2 percent of the coffee bean to
produce a cup of coffee. This means 99.8 percent of the coffee bush becomes
            When we make a so-called green detergent from palm oil, we use only
5 percent of the biomass from the plantation; the rest is treated as waste.  
            When we ferment barley and hops to make beer, we take out only 8
percent of the sugars. the rest is treated as waste; the same for the proteins
and fibers.  
            Something less than 3 percent of the original Btu value of a lump
of coal makes it out as usable light in our lamps, similarly low percentages
exist for energy conversion in transportation and industry.  
            Studies show that between a half and three-fourths of the materials
used in our industrial economy are generated and treated as waste before ever
entering the economy.  They are not seen or treated as commodities and aren~t
valued as such.  
            Where else can we get away with such foolishness?  
            Imagine being a dancer and told you could only use 10 percent of
the stage to perform! What if writers could only use declarative sentences and
no more than three parts of speech?  What if you were a homebuilder and were
limited to only a hammer and a saw to do your work?  Foolish, right! Why?
Because we know we have so much more available to us to practice these arts and
            When it comes to seeing the abundance available to us in nature, we
are simply not there yet.  Until we do we will be no closer to sustainability
than we were a decade ago.
            The key to the challenge is this. When we fail to see all of the
wealth that nature gives us, we quite readily see ourselves with less.
            When we see ourselves with less, we find it easy to believe in
scarcity and limits.
            When we admit to scarcity, we create economic and social and
political conditions that allow some to have and many to go without.
            And when many go without, we create a damaged and sad - not to
mention dangerous - world.
            Solutions grounded in the premise of scarcity will never result in
            Through clever resource efficiency and technology substitutions we
may do a better job - for a while - of managing scarcity, but we will not even
come close to sustainability.  We can only get there, and beyond, by seeing our
circumstances through the lens of abundance.
            So, how do we begin to see and then capture this abundance?  It
begins with nature and with seeing the system of nature.   But few of us
operate with a systems view of the world.  Instead, we routinely
compartmentalize and optimize the individual sub-components of nature.
            We optimize corn production, for example, all the while poisoning
our soils and leaving the groundwater in Iowa undrinkable.   All because we
refuse to put the same effort in to understanding soil health that we do into
developing stronger pesticides or genetically engineered strains of corn.
            We don~t consider the system of soils and their nutrients,
bacteria, fungi, soil pH, lignin chemistry, not to mention worker safety,
aquifer integrity, farm community security and more  because for the most part
we aren~t even looking for it.  Worse, we may not even care.  We are only
concerned with the abundance of one thing, in this instance, bushels of corn.  
Meanwhile we create scarcity in so many other ways by refusing to value the
other components of the system.  
            And this leads to even further scarcities being created, for our
systems are all themselves interconnected.  Our agricultural system and our
water systems are connected to our industrial meat production system, in turn
connected to our transportation system.  And on and on.
            Moreover, while we are optimizing the output of feed corn for
cattle; they themselves are being optimized at the cost of growth hormones and
antibiotic resistance in consumers, water and air quality degradation, nutrient
loss and damage to distant ecosystems.  
            Our inefficiencies and manufactured scarcities cascade through and
across systems of systems.  And we want to teach this to the rest of the world?
            The economic model that makes all this not only possible but
necessary is failing us.  While we focus on higher yields of single crops or
single industrial products, we cling to the core business model to get us
there.  We are in the beef business, the corn business, the aluminum business,
and the timber business.   Many of these businesses even say they want to
become sustainable businesses. I don~t think so.
            We forget that nature does not have a core business, except that of
diversity, abundance, and continuance.  We cannot see abundance when we are
purposely generating scarcity with our intentional optimizing of individual
products and processes.  
            Looking carefully, the abundance of nature is staggering.  
So-called waste biomass, biomass of all kinds, contains nutrients, vitamins,
enzymes, anti-oxidants, and more.  Creative entrepreneurs are accessing and
valorizing these constituents through simple separation and reformation
processes, yielding additives for food, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, dyes, and
hundreds of other end uses.  We haven~t begun to tap the wealth of even a
fraction of the biomass abundance nature provides.
            People in Morocco have struggled to find a way to keep their native
argan forests from disappearing under the relentless pressure of firewood
harvesting.  The key has been to find value-added uses for the tree that give
people a stake in its survival.   Researchers first found that they could
extract an oil for use in cooking and traditional medicine.  Exports to Europe
followed.   But they now know that the tree contains more than this.  It offers
extraction residues that have value! as anti-microbial agents and antioxidants.
 The potential is just unfolding.
            The perception that the tree was useful only as firewood created an
artificial scarcity that overlooked the abundance of value added-products
produced by the tree.  A women~s cooperative is now helping stabilize the
forest ecosystem and deriving income, jobs, and hope in a setting that
previously had little of any of these.   Scarcity becomes abundance when we see
more clearly what we have in front of us.  
            In the industrial setting, the issue is put to us differently. We
have a perceived scarcity problem of elements and materials only because we
aren~t very good at taking things apart.  We have mastered the creation of
alloys, polymers, synthetics, and composites of all type and combination.  The
simplest of these lend themselves to capture and reuse with comparatively
little entropic loss, aluminum for instance.  The more complex of our
manufactured products we bury and burn or if we are clever perhaps turn into
some temporary product - that in a few years itself must be buried or burned.
            Where we have failed and where the abundance of this non-organic
world awaits is in the development of separation technologies.  We need to free
up for reuse the constituent elements of the most complex compounds and
composites that we have created.  
            A glimmer of hope in this area comes from Japan where scientists
are now working on methods for separating tricky composites such as DVDs, CDs,
and printed circuit boards into their constituent elements: polycarbonates,
aluminum, chromium, gold, plastics and more.  
            What is most intriguing about these separation advances is that the
processes being developed are conducted at ambient pressure and temperature
using combinations of algae, bacteria and enzymes.  This is a far cry from what
is normally used in materials separation - physical and chemical destruction
using strong acids and bases, high temperatures, and high pressures.    Nature
takes things apart every day (and puts them back together) at ambient pressure
and temperature. We must learn how to do the same.
             Biological separation provides one solution.  Another way is to
design our materials and products in a way to ease separation and recovery of
valuable input materials.
            Imagine recovery technologies so effective and complete that all
the necessary elemental material for industry could be recaptured from the
disassembly of end-of-life products, buildings, machinery, vehicles, furniture,
etc.  We could continually harvest these technical, inorganic nutrients,
integrate them into all the wonderful products we care to design, and then
separate them at the end of product life to where they can be used again and
            Suddenly and hopefully, all of the once-gospel conditions of
scarcity, limits, and closed systems are turned upside down. Nature will give
us nothing more.  That much we know.  Instead we must do more with what nature
has already given us.  
            But we can only get there if we seek and embrace abundance.  For
only then will we be motivated to seek out all that is possible and not be
satisfied until we find it.  When we concede to others the issue of scarcity,
we cannot expect solutions that do anything but allocate that scarcity.  And
the allocation of scarcity is not sustainable.                
            Frances Moore and Anna Lappe~ wrote in their book ~Hope~s Edge~
that ~To question ideas that have long given our lives coherence and meaning is
just about the scariest thing that any human can do.~
            So it is up to us.  What will it be?   Will we settle for scarcity
or seek out and embrace abundance?   How much of the stage will we use?  
Presented at
~Sustainability Expo: Leaders of Sustainability in an Urban Environment~
University of Colorado at Denver
Chancellor~s Scholars and Leaders Program
May 2, 2003
Since 1995, David Schaller has served as Sustainable Development Coordinator in
the Denver office of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. In this
capacity, he has helped promote the broad tenets of sustainability within the
context of EPA's core regulatory, research, education, and outreach missions.  
David has also served as international coordinator for EPA in the Denver office
and has delivered technical assistance and capacity building on sustainability
themes in over twenty countries. He was a member of the U.S., delegation to the
United Nations World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg in 2002.
 In 2003, David became a certified practitioner of the Zero Emissions Research
and Initiatives (ZERI) methodology.  David has worked for EPA for over 25
years. He has also worked at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (then SE!
RI) and in the private sector on a range of renewable energy issues.  He also
served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Micronesia.  David has a BS in Geology and
a MA in Environmental Policy, both from the University of Arizona.
David Schaller
Sustainable Development Coordinator
Sustainable Practices and State Partnerships Program
US Environmental Protection Agency Region 8
999 18th Street; Ste. 300   (8P-SA)
Denver, CO  80202
1-303-312-6146 (voice)
1-303-312-6741 (fax)

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Hmmm, I certainly agree with the premise. Nature's abundance is amazing, and we would do well to be better aware of it. But most of what he seems to be talking about is, basically, improving our efficiency in ways that will make us even more vulnerable when we do reach real limits. In my house, for example, we use compact fluorescent bulbs, which convert electricity to light with 4 or 5 times the efficiency of incandescent bulbs. LED lights may eventually do even better. But if all the world uses hyper-efficient lighting and we've still used up all the coal and haven't invested in new energy sources, our only choice left is less light.

Schaller argues "we aren't very good at taking things apart." That's true, but we can do it. Here's a dumb way: throw everything into a high-temperature plasma that breaks all molecular bonds, and electromagnetically separate the elements. The "not very good" part is that, right now, such a process would be far too expensive compared with mining and refining the elements from what nature provides us raw. And the fundamental source of those costs is the human effort and underlying energy requirement for such a process.

Because while we can "take things apart" and put them back together again as much as we want, as far as physical elements are concerned, the laws of thermodynamics absolutely prevent us doing anything similar with energy itself.

Which is why I said basically as much under the "TREES and Green Futurism" thread. Energy is the key - and the only long-term sustainable source out there is the sun. Let's open our eyes to nature's abundance, as Schaller recommends - but realize the real source is outside this planet.

Posted by: Arthur Smith on 3 Apr 04

A great extension of these ideas can be found in Dr. Peter Ellyard's article "Planning for Thrival and Thrivability in a Planetist 21 Century"

We need a new word for "beyond sustainability" and he offers insights into emerging industries and the language necessary to transcend our language of limitations.

Posted by: Echo on 3 Apr 04

it's funny, because I think of "sustainability" as the new word (and new focus) for "environmentalism"--which had a real doom and gloom image, partially as a result of its proponents, and partially as a result of opponents who have worked so hard to paint it as an unpleasant, unrealistic approach.

I don't think we need a new name for sustainability--by definition, the word describes a state in which resources are not depleted. but we do need to focus on that aspect: the thinking, technologies, and practices which ensure that our systems replenish themselves. doom and gloom scenarios are part of that picture, but if that'a all there is to it, what's the use?

sustainability is a system of thriving now, and into the future, indefinitely.

Posted by: rebecca blood on 4 Apr 04

Hey Rebecca - I think you're right, in that sustainability is the definition of what we hope to achieve as a baseline for our society.

On the other hand, sustainability as a word has been branded to mean "having less" "scaling back" even "gradual decline."

I wonder if we don't need a new term which includes as one of its fundamental principles sustainability, but goes beyond it to include the ideas of dynamism, prosperity, and progress?

Posted by: Alex Steffen on 5 Apr 04

Same problem with the new "contraction and convergence" proposal (next step beyond Kyoto). By the way, it would be good to see a discussion of that here, if you haven't already - see
and a review at FPS:

"Emissions trading is essential"...

How about "econologic" as a term - representing the need for economic, ecological, and generally progressive thinking in the modern world?

Posted by: Arthur Smith on 5 Apr 04

are we really going to change terms whenever we think the current term's connotations become to negative? if we do that, all anti-environmentalists have to do is make a concerted effort to negatively smear the term du jour, and we're off to the drawing board again.

I think that's the wrong approach.

I like "sustainability" because it's a term that explains itself. I think we need to get out there and talk about the successes at the same time we talk about the problems. maybe talk about the successes a little more--because successes and solutions are happening all around us.

in the coming election, for example, the republicans plan to point out that the air is cleaner and the forests are healthier than they once were. and we should be right next to them pointing out that this is the result of effective government regulation and public education.

I think that's one of the reasons world changing is so popular. every day it's a hopeful breath of fresh air. "we are succeeding. the answers are all around us." who can resist a message like that?

Posted by: rebecca blood on 5 Apr 04



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