A Response to: “Sustainability is destroying the Earth”

Everything we think we know about the world is a model” ~ Donella Meadows (Thinking in Systems – A Primer)

There are no separate systems. The world is a continuum. Where to draw a boundary around a system depends on the purpose of the discussion” ~ Donella Meadows (Thinking in Systems – A Primer)

This is an open letter to Kim, the blogger who posted: https://storiesofcreativeecology.wordpress.com/2012/08/28/sustainability-is-destroying-the-earth/
Re-posted at Deep Green Resistant New York: https://deepgreenresistancenewyork.wordpress.com/2013/07/15/sustainability-is-destroying-the-earth/

Your post, which I discover today reposted at Deep Green Resistance, is one of the most honest I’ve read so far about the many predicaments we face and the role of the “green” economy and “sustainability” movement…

For years, I’ve been asking about the further and non-linear consequences of “renewables” and I was also deeply suspicious of the “changing bulbs” mentality…I’ve challenged the concept behind some  permaculturists of “opting out”, “getting off the grid” and “back to the land” movement as one of abandonment and un-compromising with those left behind, including the many processes sustaining the unsustainable systems

Even Transition seems to be stagnant and going nowhere beyond minimal and isolated impacts: changing fro within is possible, but may take decades if not hundreds of years, and may mean nothing if there is not enough people on board.

The reality is that the task, whatever it is, seems so huge that people develop different copying (or escaping) mechanisms including those who have no much choice but continuing the rat race just because there is NO OTHER choice for them…(and I have posted many times about this: there seems to be a persistent attitude that thinks those who don’t change/don’t exchange are not committed or not aware enough, are lazy or too comfortable. This may be true for some, but it is not true for the single mother out there who cannot afford land or leaving her job, or for the middle class man whose wife and kids are not in the same page, or for the girl with schizophrenia, the young man with anxiety disorder, the trans woman struggling to find a place to belong, the immigrant who has to support his family here and his parents and family members back home, to the many migrants displaced, the family across the street battling cancer or the one a block away with a child with cerebral palsy…)

I have to confess that I feel let down and frustrated every time I read “but there is still a window of time”. It seems as this window is eternal and infinite, as we have been reading about it for decades, even before Limits to Growth and Silent Spring…and the world seems to be still out there, so for many, the need to change is just NOT THERE: biodiversity loss is difficult to see unless you are an ecologist and understand the many connections; collapses and social or economic injustices are invisible to many who have a full time job, a comfortable life and lots of entertainment, but is also invisible to those who have their own demons inside, at home or looming in their own community; resource depletion is difficult to grasp when you go outside and see thousands of cars, new house developments, new department stores and malls full of new and “exciting” cheap products…

I’m not sure what the call from your post is either. While the points you make are very real, the “strategy” is unclear…”destroy the grid”? How that would accomplish anything?

A monster with many heads who also has the ability to reproduce limbs faster than they are cut is impossible to kill…unless you learn about what feeds it and how the internal and external mechanisms work. Unless you understand its natural limiting factors, which any system (monster or angel) has…


I’ve been reading a lot about how systems work, and probably these many predicaments can also be addressed with a systemic mentality: what are the cycles, the stocks and the flows and where are the points we can successfully intervene?

In every system, no matter where you draw the lines, there are feedback loops that push for growth and those who push for balance: we can see that in nature where “pests” and “predators” create a balance that otherwise would make certain populations grow exponentially. But each system, no matter where you draw the lines, also has limiting factors: no matter the technology, our attitude, efficiency, etc., resources are limited, even those that are “renewable”.

You are right in many ways: with the hijacked concept of “sustainability” everywhere, we may be pushing the wheels that feed what we don’t want to grow (as in Permaculture: “feed what you want to grow, starve what you don’t…”). By changing bulbs, applying efficiency to our systems, changing the source and means of energy use, going organic, recycling and so forth, we are just “sustaining” a capitalistic system that requires not only continuous growth, credit, debt and consumption, but for it to survive it also requires inequality, oppression and exploitation: because if all people are fully educated, aware and have access to what they need, then they wouldn’t accept the slavery jobs, salaries and livelihoods necessary to support the system.

The thing is, if we understand how systems work, there is no single “culprit” at this point: we are all part of it, even if we decide to resist: just being here makes all of us part of the system and its many sub-systems: this means that we are also governed by its “rules” and archetypes, its limiting factors and feedback loops.

There are only two ways to change the behaviours and/or mental models that support a system: either we consciously take distance to see what’s going on, accepting the limits to growth and start intervening intelligently on the areas where we can truly change the direction of the loops/cycles, or the system will apply its rules to us: the solution will be system-imposed.

I’m not sure destroying anything will do it. Take for instance people who suddenly decide to avoid plastic in their lives and get rid of all the plastic they have: where does all that plastic go?

If we “destroy the grid”, another will appear somewhere else. The reason Jevon’s paradox works is because it is based on how system’s work: you make something efficient, now you are trapped by more of the stuff you wanted to avoid in the first place. The paradox also apply to destruction: that’s why revolutions and civil wars rarely “work”. Unless we have a magical wand, destroying grids will only create major suffering among those who cannot afford living without it, and we won’t accomplish anything.

Bringing industrial civilization to a halt, apart from technically, politically and socially impossible would not solve things: if we were able to stop mining and using fossil fuels and raw materials today, we wouldn’t solve the climate change predicament, the pollution predicament or the biodiversity loss predicament: the feedback loops that influence climate change have already been started and some that are actually “helping” (such as air pollution) will suddenly disappear, making possible for greenhouse gases to create warmth even faster; pollution is already in place for watersheds, soil and many ecosystems and “clean up” would only push the problem somewhere else; biodiversity loss is a function of feedback loops: we fed them long time ago when we started intervening in ecosystems by applying toxic pesticides, cutting forests and bringing exotic plants and animals to feed our thirst for novelty.

If one wants to stop the dependence on fossil fuels, changing to renewables does not make it not only because all you mention in your post (cradle-to-grave products and materials cycles), but because the mental models (i.e. the “stories” that say we are the chosen, special ones and the rest are no other than “resources” and the one that says we “deserve” comfort and stuff and unlimited pleasure) are so ingrained in most of us that will push for finding another way, technology, resource and even planet…

Our mental models (the stories we tell ourselves and have been told and accepted by us) influence our behaviours, and our behaviours influence the events we see: deforestation, resource depletion, displaced or crushed wildlife, social injustice, etc.

If we keep focusing on these “events” and trying to reverse or oppose them as such, we are just pushing the wheels even further…digging the hole deeper in the same direction we are criticizing.

After some years of trying to be involved in “changing events”, I’m now trying to understand the archetypes and mental models, the behaviours behind these events.

I haven’t yet found the answer…


Note: I don’t own any of the pictures posted here and have forgotten where or from who I got them. As I’m not making any personal gain with this blog and my posts are free for anyone to read, comment or share, I apologize if posting them causes any inconvenience. We don’t really “own” anything, much less “creation”. No human being is an island…

7 Comments on “A Response to: “Sustainability is destroying the Earth”

  1. Pingback: A Response to: “Sustainability is destroying the Earth” | Mainstream Permaculture | WORLD ORGANIC NEWS

  2. Hi Silvia,

    For more details on the Deep Green Resistance strategy, read Decisive Ecological Warfare.

    Simply, if underground activists sabotage the flow of fossil fuels, electricity, and communications on which the omnicidal system depends, it should be possible to cripple industrial civilization to a point from which it can not recover. If they rebuild the electrical grid once, twice, thrice, ecosaboteurs can destroy it again, and again, and again, until the centralized hierarchy has fallen apart and it can no longer coerce people to rip the land apart to extract materials, or coerce people to reassemble those materials into systems of control.

    It means we don’t need to hope for a widespread shift in attitudes and practices, but instead can work towards a much more feasible goal of a handful of people willing to take strategic and direct underground action. With of course a large network of aboveground activists doing everything we can to rebuild sustainable and just cultures, and providing support to any underground as best we can.


    • Thanks Norris, will check, read and comment…however, my understanding on how history work, systems work, etc. gives me a different idea of what would happen, not what I want to happen…the challenge is that destroying the different grids doesn’t not get rid of the foundations of the system, but creates chaos and suffering…is that the only option?


      • Hi Silvia,

        I think one big difference between your analysis and that of DGR is a classic difference between liberal and radical lenses for viewing the world, and how change occurs. Liberalism considers individual attitudes and minds as the main basis for how things are set up, and therefore how they can change. In this view, there’s no use in physically stopping the flow of oil if hearts and minds aren’t changed first.

        Radicalism is based on materialism, and sees power imbalances and the institutions which maintain them as the basis of our systemic structures. So if people can destroy the the grids and prevent the ability of oil to flow, that will get most of the way to goals of redistributing power, and heading off the worst extremes of climate change and ecological collapse.

        If you’re curious to learn more about the contrast, check out the liberal vs radical video with Lierre Keith as a presenter at a DGR workshop.

        Also, I would argue that the flow of fossil fuels and electricity is precisely what is causing global chaos and suffering right now, for both humans and non-humans. So destroying those grids will, on balance, immediately decrease the suffering, not create it. Though many first-worlders will miss their easy lifestyles based on exploitation of others, those vastly more numerous others will be much better off. Personally, I don’t see another option in the time we have remaining.


      • Hi Norris,
        I listened to the videos yesterday and I find the differentiation between liberals and radicals very simplistic and anthropocentric…and not helpful at all.
        No, I don’t think more education and awareness will make it. I also know that what we are, the ways we act/react both as “class” or individuals is heavily influenced by where and when we were born, the resources (including type and amount of information) available to us, etc.
        We are animals, systems within systems, and we need energy and resources to live as anything else in this planet. The stories we tell ourselves (mental models) shape how we behave, as those stories are both individual, socio-cultural and attached to the times we live. That’s not “liberal” nor “radical”, that just is…from there, you can try to change the stories (and they change over time, sometimes too slow, sometimes fast), and/or you can try cutting the blood of what you think is the root cause…unfortunately, fossil fuels are not the root cause neither are the grid for electricity, water, etc.
        The root cause (and this is just an attempt) was simple but became complex, non-linear and with multiple factors: the root cause is that we separated ourselves from nature and from each other as a specie…this may or may not be “fixable”…we may just be going towards extinction along with many other species and entire ecosystems. There are no “black and white” groups; there are no “classes” anymore because the world has become much more complex than when Marx analyzed it 150 years ago…if I want to identify myself I would have a lot of trouble: what am I? I’m Latino, middle aged mother, coming from very poor roots I may be considered “middle class” now; I’m an immigrant living in Canada, I work in social services, I am also a permaculturist and a doomer…but I also identify myself with aboriginal and black people, those displaced in the Middle East and the many outcasts in the world without age, colour or “race” who feel isolated, troubled, unloved and overwhelmed…beyond that I identify myself with every animal and insect who is being displaced or dying, every tree and plant, every watershed and soil microorganism, I am me with my stories and traumas, challenges and fears, my hopes, dreams and hidden desires…and I am all the people similar to me, all the trapped and humiliated women, all the strong women, the men who cry and hug, the children who are abused and abandoned…
        The world is terribly complex, I would like to think that cutting all the streams of the blood that feeds the beast would do it…but first, I know it will not be without pain, chaos and suffering for many: from the chronic ill whose life depends on the machine that changes his blood to the many whose food depend on the trucks and trains coming every week (as they have been cut from the land and have no tools and no seeds or knowledge anymore) and all in between…second, I’m not so sure all the streams can be cut all at once; third, the blood is only a piece that keeps this beast alive and fourth, I’m not so sure there is only “one” beast…
        I rather be the one above ground who builds resilience with love and compassion and truth while accepting that we are all living through this at different levels; I rather feed the soil and stop the damage wherever I can; I chose long time ago to extend a hand while embracing that the times we are living (and those to come) will be terrible for many…


  3. Hi Silvia,

    I don’t think there’s any disagreement from a radical analysis that stories and mental models influence human behavior. Radical diverges from liberal, however, in identifying material conditions and power structures as the biggest shapers of those mental models, and doesn’t think we can just educate a mass movement into new mental models without simultaneously disrupting the power structure.

    I agree with you that there are complexities and difficulties to the task of carrying out that disruption, including minimizing collateral damage, shutting down enough of the system at once to induce cascading systems failure rather than repairable piecemeal disruptions, and laying the groundwork to prevent reemergence of hydra-like hierarchical systems of exploitation from the rubble of industrialism. You have very valid concerns, and those are a big part of our long-term challenge. I think the Decisive Ecological Warfare strategy does a pretty good job of acknowledging and accounting for those…but that doesn’t mean it’ll be easy.

    I also agree in large part with your analysis that the “root cause is that we separated ourselves from nature and from each other as a specie”. That’s tied up with agriculture, the early development of civilization, and the development of human classes. There’s an interesting audio interview of Saba Malik of Deep Green Resistance on this topic, exploring the origins of those separations. You might enjoy it.

    Finally, thank you for doing the work you do. Despite my emphasis here on the underground work, I do think we need it all. It’s wonderful that you’re one of the people doing the necessary aboveground healing and education work. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

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