Coming to Minnesota in 1973 as a back-to-the-land hippie, I had a lot to learn. Born and raised in Florida, we thought we would die when it got below 45 degrees F. My plan was to heat and cook with wood which I did as a sole source for over 30 years.
The small town (pop. 325) that I lived in while I built my house had a storefront where all the old men would gather. I spent time with the fellows asking them how they did all sorts of things, quite an education. One sample of sustainability concerned the heating with wood. The rule is – one cord of wood (4’x4’x8’) can be gotten from one to two acres of forest. So if you need 10 cords of wood a year for heating and perhaps cooking then you need 10 to 20 acres of forest.
Conceptually, you could start cutting at the front of these acres and by the time you cut to the other end, the process would be ready to start again. Now this is not how it would be done. It would be done with a knowledge of culling the trees and taking any dead fall throughout the ten acres. It would honor the processes of tree ecology. The type of forest would also determine the acreage needed as would the year to year growing seasons.
I asked them about keeping food cold and they told me about ice houses. They cut blocks of ice from the lakes and stored them in buildings putting saw dust around the blocks for insulation. They said the ice would last until the middle of summer.
It is clear to me sustainability is a living process and a process of living.
The one cord to one or two acres example illustrates some of the criteria for sustainability. I have added a few additional. The future may depend on what we mean by sustainable. There are important questions to be asked:
1. When we use something from the earth can it regenerate itself as a tree can or is it non-renewable?
2. When we use something from the earth how long does it take the earth to regenerate itself as in rotational farming or the example of acres of trees?
3. When we use something from the earth how long does it take the earth to assimilate the waste such as computer chemicals and copper processing?
4. When we call something “renewable” does that include all the fossil fuels used to create the devices to capture the sun or wind?
5. How large a geographical area does the sustainable definition include?
6. Is there a holding or carrying capacity to a geographic area and are we willing to discuss it?
7. How should we value non-renewable resources as petroleum from which tractor and ambulance power comes as well as many medicines?
8. All life depends on energy. We need an accounting method to determine the value of how we use energy? Instead of payback in money should we assess a payback in energy for any energy devices such as wind and solar collectors?
We are at a crossroads for the future. This requires hard questions and selfless honesty. We need to be clear about what we mean about sustainability. Faulty definitions create false hopes and dead end decisions.
Also found second post on this page: