I’ve talked before about the way running “jogs” loose all kinds of thoughts and allows for connections to be made between seemingly disparate ones. The latest brain buzz came almost two months ago but I’ve only now gotten around to writing it up in some “official” form. So here goes.
Sustainability can be thought of as maintaining balance. There is a happy medium to be reached in being able to use the bounty of resources this planet is endowed with, and yet not go so over the top as to destroy our modern way of life or the health of our species and others through unbridled consumption. We are pretty darn good at using our bounty of resources, but have to work on not going overboard.
Look around and you’ll see other grand examples of the concept of balance.
For one, take the human body. An absolute marvel of time-spanned engineering, you sweat if you’re hot and shiver and get goosebumps if you’re cold in order to maintain a balanced body temperature. Your body regulates levels of sugars, salts, and hormones so that – on the average – you don’t have too much of one chemical racing through your body upsetting the way a balanced system works. There are many more ways the body regulates itself to maintain homeostasis, but let’s leave the examples there and move on to economics.
The market economy, for all its faults, is still the best system we have largely because it strikes a balance. Ideally, it moves money from those who have it to those who don’t (loans, investment, buying and selling of products) and it reaches equilibrium between consumers and producers, and supply and demand. Even the huge fluctuations between economic booms and busts will eventuallyeven out. Stock markets will spike and sink, bubbles will expand and then explode, great wealth will be made and lost, companies will be born and die (sounds like evolution; getting to that in a second), and the equilibrium appear once again. Of course, the negative side of an unbridled market economy is too harsh to face without some government intervention, safety valves, floors and ceilings, and other necessary manipulations, but for the most part the free market maintains a large amount of freedom, especially in the U.S.
As for evolution, chance meets change to produce a force perhaps like no other. A random gene mutation produces a trait that enables those of a population that inherit the trait to better function in its environment. This gives it a leg up in the survival game and so it lives on to reproduce that trait in other offspring. Gradually the preferred trait is “selected for” because it is better at helping the species survive. Eventually, the mutation becomes a standard and necessary trait that is now the norm throughout the population. Mutations at both ends of the spectrum – those that are extremely advantageous for survival and help a species adapt to its environment as well as those that are harshly detrimental for a species and cause it to die – are weeded out. The population moves toward a more balanced existence. The useful traits of a population resemble an S-curve, which is – you guessed it – a kind of balance.
Homeostasis. Equilibrium. Selection of traits and S-curves. These three concepts are all about one thing: balance. All three can be thrown out of whack and balance thrown off. The body catches a cold or disease runs rampant. Housing prices double in the space of a few years or there is a bull market. Internal or external factors can cause a species to over produce or die off. But in the end there is a balance.
However, making matters more complicated (in a better way or worse way, depending on your thoughts) is that human will power, intelligence, and emotion are often capable of throwing the balance off kilter. We can smoke, drink, eat fast food, and not exercise. Conversely, we can reduce some indulgences, run, and eat a balanced meal. There are a million other actions that affect the possibility of knocking a body out of balance. Likewise, we make stupid investment decisions, buy high and sell low, and let emotions take control of our financial choices. We can also discipline ourselves to save more and spend less, think long term for investment strategies, and not rush out to buy every new-fangled gadget or airbrushed burger we see displayed in a TV commercial. In evolution, we are getting to the point where we can select traits we find most attractive or necessary in our DNA/children, from gender and eye color to likelihood for intelligence and propensity to get diseases. And, we’re unfortunately all too familiar with historic atrocities where humans tried skew evolution by extinguishing those who had the “wrong” religion or skin color or background.
Sustainability is no different from these other three examples, except, perhaps, in the fact that we have more awareness of and direct impact on the outcome of whether we find a balance or tip the scale. Our choices and actions, as individuals and as a global species, will have an influence on the three main concepts just explained. Pollution could harm to our bodies and our health. A regenerative and greener economy could impact our economic fortunes. A failure to arrest the worst of our misalignments with nature could see us go the way of the Dodo bird. It’s nothing short of an existential decision.
Just as scary or thrilling (again depending on your thoughts on human nature) is the realization that many of the policies, practices, and behaviors we choose in regards to living sustainably rely on our ability to exert some will power, self-control, and discipline; or to find ways to make us take the actions we know are in our long-term interest but can’t take on our own. As with everything, balance will be reached. Whether it is the body, the economy, or evolution, or the planet the trend is toward balance. The only question is what kind of shape will our species be in – or whether we’ll even be here at all – when a balance is reached.