Wednesday, July 9, 2014

What we talk about when we talk about sustainable*

We've managed to post a number of times about Sustainable St. Croix (and the Iron Range) without getting into a definition of sustainability. Fortunately, Donella Meadows has already done the heavy lifting for us. Here's her definition of sustainability. (* See Raymond Carver's classic short story What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.)

As presumptuous as I may be on occasion, I would never presume to try for the last word when it comes to sustainability or systems and Ms. Meadows is involved. (Although I did have the pleasure once, many, many years ago, of debating something or other with her husband Dennis, on a radio station in Boston. My recollection is that whatever we were debating, it turned out a draw. His recollection may differ.)

Hieracium aurantiacum (Orange Hawkweed)
Photo by J. Harrington

What started me thinking about this was a recent pattern recognition that many of the wildflowers prevalent along our roadsides are listed as invasive. That made me begin to wonder if many of us, including me on an off day, too often confuse "sustainable" with "preserve". We shouldn't confuse the two, especially since we've entered into what promises to be an extended period of volatility in our weather. Global warming is likely to increase (has already contributed to) weather impacts that are more than minor inconveniences. It's not that we haven't experienced floods or severe storms before. It's that we can expect them to occur with greater frequency and severity than we're used to. If we haven't recovered from the last flood or severe storm before the next one hits, both our resiliancy and sustainability will be sorely tested and any restorative efforts are likely to be overwhelmed.

Leucanthemum vulgare (Ox-eye Daisy) [white],
Lotus corniculatus (Birds-foot Trefoil) [yellow],
both invasive
Photo by J. Harrington

At some point in the not too distant future, we will probably have to set priorities on what it is we're trying to sustain. Sustaining infinite growth on a finite planet isn't viable, nor is it smart. Neither, it seems, would something like rebuilding NOLA again, if it gets another Katrina-like storm in the next generation or two. We have to deal with the reality that we don't have unlimited resources, we can't expect our future weather patterns to be like our past nor, consequently, our ecosystems to be stable. This indicates that making any sort of priority of eliminating invasive species, especially of "wildflowers," might not make sense. Since we can't expect our resources to be unlimited or our climate to stabilize soon, when do we begin to think about priorities and triage and what comes next, as D. Nurkse seems to?


By D. Nurkse

We gave our dogs a button to sniff,   
or a tissue, and they bounded off   
confident in their training,   
in the power of their senses   
to recreate the body,   

but after eighteen hours in rubble   
where even steel was pulverized   
they curled on themselves   
and stared up at us   
and in their soft huge eyes   
we saw mirrored the longing for death:   

then we had to beg a stranger   
to be a victim and crouch   
behind a girder, and let the dogs   
discover him and tug him   
proudly, with suppressed yaps,   
back to Command and the rows   
of empty triage tables.   

But who will hide from us?   
Who will keep digging for us   
here in the cloud of ashes?

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