Last week, I learned an important lesson about sustainability. I had the privilege of visiting the Tarkine rainforest in Tasmania, the largest temperate rainforest in Australia at roughly 447,000 hectares (1,104,561 acres). The forest has been around for 65 million years (!) since Australia was a part of the ancient continent of Gondwana, which included modern Antarctica, South America, Africa, Australia, and more. The Tarkine was inhabited for over 40,000 years (!) by the indigenous people of Tasmania.
This is the timeframe we are looking at in order to achieve sustainability – our goal should be to create a society that survives until our sun burns out (and possibly after – we could become quite crafty in that multi-billion year timeframe). But the question is: what society or way of life is it that we are trying to sustain?
I ask this question because unfortunately, the settlers thought they knew better than this incredibly long-lived culture that successfully inhabited ancient land. In the 1830’s, at the order of the Governor of Tasmania, they rounded up the tribes and literally drove them off cliffs, destroying their entire culture in less than one generation. They proceeded to fell trees for timber and clear land for agriculture, but luckily didn’t take out very much of the place, unlike less fortunate areas in the world.
Do we really want to continue the kind of culture that destroys ancient cultures and even older environments? Though for the most part we are no longer actively extirpating indigenous people, we are still clear-cutting old growth rainforest worldwide for toilet paper and other equally superfluous uses. The present consumer lifestyle places economy as the sacrosanct purpose of human life while eroding community, family, health, and the environment. It scarcely needs to be pointed out how egregious it is to destroy the robust products of billions of years of evolution for a flimsy human product that will be carelessly used once and then permanently forgotten.
That night back on the farm, we spent quite a while building a campfire to ameliorate the damp chilly weather. When we victoriously finished and sat down to warm up, a downpour of rain commenced. We all went back to the chilly kitchen area, where the farm intern Jose said of our extinguished fire: “it took ages to put it on, and seconds to put it out.” I immediately connected this comment with the aforementioned extinguishing of aboriginal culture and rainforest. What makes us think we are wiser or more important than ancient cultures and prehistoric landscapes? Who could have had the brazenness to make the first tree cut, or the malevolence to kill the first aboriginal instead of starting a dialogue? Wouldn’t it make more sense to align ourselves and our society with these primordial, time-tested ways of human life and living systems? The processes and products of evolution of the natural world (which includes humans and our diversity of cultures) offer billions of years of wisdom, so long as we are intelligent enough to observe, learn from, and honor this vast repository of life experimentation.
On a separate but related note, I realized that I passively adopted the ubiquitous buzzword “sustainable” in my lexicon and blog title without critical reflection. Pretty ironic for a self-described philosopher, no? Anyhow, I realized that perhaps what the environmental movement strives for is not so much sustainability, but rather vitality. Read: a society centered around Life. Humans living as if Life – their own lives, the lives of others, the lives of organic beings generally, the living systems that produced and continue to sustain us – was the principal thing that matters in life. Imagine that! Not the economy, or jobs, or things as being the stuff of life, but Life itself.
When stated so simply, it seems to be a truism, but when we zoom out and take a look at the bigger picture, the patterns of human life and society as they presently exist are not centered around Life – neither in the way that they function, nor the goals toward which they operate. In fact, our modus operandi tends towards lives and livelihoods that are not only completely out of touch with the modus operandi of biology and ecology, but often in opposition to these foundational life sciences. What does it mean for us as organisms when our systems sabotage the living systems that created us, the systems upon which we rely for our continued and healthy existence?
How complex yet unintelligent of a system we have created! How abundantly easy to call its bluffs! How difficult to craft and inhabit alternatives. However, we are intelligent beings and we will creatively rise to the challenge – I have seen examples of ecologically-grounded living in all three of the places I have lived so far in Australia. I am still trying to work out the language for what it is that the environmental movement is seeking – not just sustainability, which is an obvious necessity, but also viability, vitality, and/or vibrancy. We are seeking not merely to survive and continue our present systems for as long as we are able, but also to thrive in the context of a human society recalibrated to function within the contexts of Life broadly speaking (I first start to elaborate this concept in the last four paragraphs of my first blog post).