What is a Sustainable Society?
People have been busy trying to build a perfect society where they can live and enjoy. Only until recently, many of them started to wonder whether our society could last long enough to see its perfection. With this in mind, they began to ask; “What is a sustainable society?” Based on experience, knowledge, and vision of the world, different people have offered different answers to this question. Our answer to this question is the following:
A sustainable society is one that can progress without catastrophic setbacks in the foreseeable future.
This answer recognizes the fact that human beings will not be able to build a perfect society or even to agree upon what is a perfect society for very many generations to come. A sustainable society is simply one that can avoid a devastating blow so that human society can continue its long journey to perfection.
In the past, by design or by accident, the planet Earth was a sustainable system in a grand view. First, the planet and its energy source, the Sun, were stable. Second, the law of nature had successfully ruled every living thing on Earth. Individual species which threatened the integrity of an ecosystem because of overpopulation or having destructive living habits were quickly suppressed by means of resource starvation. As a result, a colorful and vibrant world existed before human beings started to dominate the world. Nature was not perfect, but it was sustainable.
Armed with the capability to think, human beings discovered ways to utilize the resources the Earth had accumulated in the past. For example, a forest may have taken several hundred years or more to establish. Every year, it produced a certain amount of resources, such as fruits, lumber, etc. If our yearly consumptions were limited to the amount the forest produced each year, we would be on sustainable footing. However, we wanted more, much more. To support our ever increasing demands, we cut down the entire forest. Even that was not enough; we dug underneath for the resources that nature had built for millions of years. Through time, we have built a society which requires far more resources than nature can offer on a continuous basis. This is not sustainable.
For millions of years, nature had built a vast reserve of resources. Now, our society is largely relying on this reserve to operate. However, this reserve is finite. In just a few generations, we have almost used up all of those reserves. To make things worse, we are not only gobbling up the stored resources, but also destroying the planet's capability to generate new resources by polluting the air, water, soil and by altering climate. If we keep on the current track, we will run out of resources at a point in time not far from today. By then, catastrophic setbacks to human society have to happen in order to adapt quickly to the diminished resource supply.
A society running on a huge resource deficit is not sustainable. If it is allowed to continue, future generations have to pay a grave price. To build a sustainable society, a delicate balance between current needs and future needs has to be reached. In the past, the law of nature ensured this balance. Today, the law of nature still applies. However, with our capability to utilize the reserved resources, human beings have a choice to make. We could continue to use up all the reserved resources and let our children suffer the consequence of resource starvation. Or, we could aggressively move away from non-renewable resources and put ourselves on a sustainable footing once and for all.
Mahatma Gandhi has said, "Earth provides enough to satisfy every man's need, but not every man's greed." The Earth had vast resources to satisfy our needs. The only reason we are running on a resource deficit is that we did not keep our greed in check. We have allowed our population to grow at a rate which Mother Nature could not support. At the same time, we have allowed our resource consumption per capita to rise rapidly. To make things even worse, we treat natural resources as a free giveaway. Our efforts have been focusing only on how to retrieve it fast and with minimum cost to us, regardless of what impact it could have to others or future generations.
Our ability to think coupled with our greed has led us on a collision course with Mother Nature. If we continue on this path, a final showdown with Mother Nature is imminent. However, this is not necessarily the only course for human beings. If our ability to think is coupled with our care for future generations, we will be able to strike a balance between current needs and future needs. That way, we will make peace with Mother Nature. This is the only way to build a sustainable society.