Peace, Conflict and Sustainability: a Deeper Definition of Sustainability
Richard Bradshaw, PhD
Internationally and historically the ‘main theme’ running through most definitions of sustainability can be labeled as the ‘2Rs’, Resources: the wise use and management of economic and natural resources, and Respect: respect for people and other living things. These two ‘dimensions’ of sustainability are intimately and intrically interconnected, for in order to have true sustainability, there must be an ongoing, dynamic balance between the concept of ‘resources’ and the process of ‘respect for all other living systems’. Finding the nature of this perpetually, ongoing balancing act, and how to create this balance may be the next step in the evolution of humankind toward an ‘enlightened’ species living in harmony with the other living systems in our biosphere.
However, the twin themes of resource management and respect can also be antithetical to each other; antithetical because to manage any other species in our ecosystem imposes restraints upon these living systems that transform them in ways we cannot even imagine, simply because our knowledge of other complex living species and systems in so incomplete. This lack of knowledge makes it impossible to predict any but the crudest of outcomes from ‘management’ on the part of humankind. To interfere in the ongoing lives and evolution of other species with such a limited knowledge of the outcome shows anything but respect. What it does show is a certain amount of arrogance. The problem with arrogance is it hinders one from seeing the true nature of what is being focused upon.
Part of the process of respecting others is coming to know them, whether individuals or species. Yet, all of us know the difficulty of really knowing another living being. We can live with the same person for a lifetime and still not understand what goes on underneath the social and relational veneer. On the species level knowing and understanding can only be many times more complex. Especially so because every species including our own, are in constant states of evolutionary flux, changing in response to changes in ‘ecosphere’, i.e., the other species and living systems and their complex sets of relationships, as well as the general biosphere, animate and inanimate in which we all live.
Picture a web of life of many, diverse sets of beings and any action by any of the ‘beings’ in any of these sets of beings vibrates and introduces change into the structural and relational dynamics of the entire web, and you begin to get an idea of what happens when any species within our ecosystem begins to ‘manage’ its ‘environment’.
Thus respect, in order for it to be a true respect, must entail a process in which we as a species constantly search for and hopefully discover a more viable sustainability within our own ecosystem through intelligent, perceptive and compassionate interaction with all other species, plant or ‘animal’ we share this planet with. In other words we have to think of everything out there that is not us as if it were us. This kind of relationship with our environment will perhaps enable humankind to better understand the ecosystem we live in, and through understanding be more able to return to the ecosystem what we have taken from it, hopefully with a bit of well informed, caring improvement contained in the process. In this way, we ensure our own survival, by improving the human-niche nurturance of the ecosphere we exist in. Notice, I didn’t say our ecosphere because it is not ours; we simply borrow some space along with a few quadrillion other species from the planet we live on.
Ironically, the other ‘R’ above, resources is a much more personal endeavor for the human race. This endeavor necessarily contains a rethinking of what our real needs are and how to harmonize the fulfillment of those real needs with the needs of all other species on earth. In order to do this we must become more parsimonious, a key word in the endeavor toward sustainability that in this context means taking what you need but only what you need to continue sustaining your species. Reorienting ourselves toward a truly parsimonious approach to resource ‘management’ on this planet is a vital endeavor for the human race. It is an endeavor that will require constant, persistent efforts on our part to better understand and fit within our ecosystem in ways which are non-intrusive to other species.
This may entail radical social, economic and personal revolutions in the way we perceive ourselves, our possible lifestyles, other species and our relationships with other species. We need to redefine the concept of well-being and the meanings and strategies for attaining persistent personal and social states of security and happiness; a definition that must include the wise use and management of human and natural resources in relation both to ourselves and to the other life forms within our ecosystem and biosphere. There are more than a few issues that must be addressed in this endeavor toward perfect sustainability, but one of the most persistent is what constitutes a sustainable human population. It is indeed a tragedy when the natural ‘mothering’ instincts of human kind, and the desire to have children and a family becomes the basis of an ecological tragedy, but, that is what is happening now.
‘the human population is two to four orders of magnitude larger than is optimally sustainable when compared with the populations of other mammalian species of similar body size…this is a significant contribution to health problems for our species, other species, and ecosystem-a systemic pathology’.
To help alleviate the problems engendered by this unsustainable population, Fowler, the author of the above quote, suggests a ‘systemic’ management style for humankind that is ‘intransitive’, i.e., more passive than active (transitive). This ‘passive’ approach does not attempt to ‘manage’ other species. It focuses instead on learning about and attempting to exist in a sustainable fashion within the natural ecosystems of sustainability that have nurtured our species and the other species sharing these ecosystems through our mutual evolution. By learning more deeply the nature of these ecosystems we can better understand how to answer our needs in a non-intrusive way, a way that does not impinge upon the sustainability of other life forms in our ecosphere. Of course, a first step in this direction is managing our own population. It is cruel to our children to bring them into a world where they may experience starvation and deprivation of basic resources because there are too many grasping for the same. Better to have one child whom this world can provide for rather than two or three or more who will simply end up fighting each other for their basic needs.
A second step in coming into more harmony with the sustainability limits of our ecosystem as a species is recognizing and addressing the insanity of ever-increasing mass-consumption as a measure of happiness and economic well-being. Gross National Product needs to be measured in terms of quality not quantity. (Here, quality can be defined as a measure of the physical, emotional, mental and spiritual well-being deriving from some action or product, and leading to happiness.) Or as Bhutan has put it, instead of GDP, let's think about GNH (Gross National Happiness).
It is absurd to assume we can continue ravaging the planet to sate the mindless appetite of mass consumption, an appetite mostly created by the constant barrage of exaggerated, or downright false advertising, intended to create artificial needs so that some may become ‘winners’ by accruing vast sums of money through unneeded sales. This is a vicious cycle of greed and waste, whose only purpose is to accrue power, and the manipulation of that power is then used to achieve more money... and power.
The dismal result of this exercise in futility is smoking, mountainous waste dumps and huge islands of floating debris from our over-consumption polluting the planet. This is a zero-sum game (only one winner) in which the biggest loser is us, not to mention the environment and the other life forms attempting to live, i.e., survive on the same planet as we do.
We have to stop playing the domination game, the zero-sum game, and begin playing a non-zero sum game in which everyone can win equally. Instead of fighting each other and all the other life on this planet under the guise of ‘resource management’, and the mistaken assumption that consumption at any level is good, let us recognize that each of us as individuals or species have both basic needs and unique contributions that help create the dynamism of the living biosphere around us.
Living within this dynamic biosphere in ways which allow all equal access to the resources needed to sustain themselves, and thus be free to creatively actualize their evolutionary potential is the goal we should all be focused on. Why? Because an optimally sustainable ecosystem is possible only through the creative contributions of all life that have evolved within it. Only by every form of life being free to make that contribution, i.e., unconstrained by ‘intrusive management’, is a totally efficient sustainability possible. Thus this quest for equality is not an ideal; it is a necessary ingredient of any really efficient ecosystem and biosphere.
This state of equality is what Galtung refers to as a state of entropy, an entropy not of chaos and disorder, but of vast horizontal networks of interconnected, individual nodes of creativity, each node a living being or group of beings. Within this horizontal network all individual beings are empowered equally and thus have equal interconnectedness and equal access to all other nodes of creativity, and where, like the internet, information and communication can travel in any direction. This kind of open, entropic complexity encourages maximum creativity and efficiency within any ecosystem.
In contrast, today’s system of vertical power structures concentrates and isolates vast amounts of power within polarized groups. This polarization reduces the amount of interconnections and creativity in the system and often results in competition, antipathy and violence over belief systems and the ‘private’ selfish utilization of resources.
‘When ‘the system of maximum complexity crystallizes (into a vertical, polarized power structure) … (it) becomes more orderly, and the number of social types (…nations, blocs, alliances) become smaller…And the links of interaction no longer fill the total space of (creative) possibilities, but tend to connect certain types…mainly in a negative, hostile way.’ .
So what’s the problem with a little hostility, hatred, violence and defensive hoarding that derives from a bit of polarization? Simple; it’s wasteful. It wastes our creativity, our material resources, our opportunities to communicate and our ability to work together as fellow members of a species or a biosphere to create a more comfortably sustaining world. And when resources, both human and material are limited, as they always will be, waste is the enemy of sustainability.
Thus we return to the theme of parsimoniousness, of taking only what we need and allowing others the possibilities for finding what they need, and through this strategy, create a world in which polarization is no longer an attractive alternative to peace and creative communication. This is a world where a horizontal state of creative entropy allowing open, unrestrained communication in any direction will help all of us maximize our creative potential. It is a world where we will find our true happiness and well-being in what resides within us, of our own creativity and self-actualization as a path of continual, ever-present sense of achievement, happiness and contentment. It is a path of quality, not quantity; a path that has very little to do with how much we can consume. It is a world of existing compassionately and parsimoniously, while trying to constantly deepen our understanding of the nature and needs of the other individuals and life forms in our environment.
One reason this is so important for us is because the other life forms are the environment, and we developed out of this symbiotic set of ecosystems within the biosphere we call Earth the same as these other life forms, which means they are as much an integral part of us as we are of them. Thus when some life-form disappears from our ‘ecosphere’ as a result of our ravaging the planet via over-population and/or irrational consumption patterns, part of what nurtured us to where we are now has gone and our environment becomes thus less supportive of us.
Nothing in this world is static. Everything is evolving. Everything is embedded in a web of dynamically evolving systems of life forms, ours and others. Nothing is as it was a microsecond ago. The actions of all life within our biosphere are like stones thrown in water. Despite humankind’s egotistical belief that we can ‘manage’ the environment, the actuality is the effects of our actions ripple outward, and blend with other ripples within this dynamic web of living flux in ways we cannot even imagine.
Fowler (ibid., p. 59) sites Bateson (1972/79), Campbell (1974), and others in asserting that ‘ecosystems’ have limited options for control…that inclusive systems control or constrain their components (species) more than their components can control the whole of which they are a part’. Thus ecosystems cannot realistically be managed by any one component (species).
In other words, according to the quote above, ‘resource management’ as envisioned by humankind, is impossible. The vertical power structure with us at the top ‘managing’ all other life as resources is ultimately a form of self-delusion. It is time we became rational and began to speak to the other species on this earth as equals, for they all have their own story to tell and their own wisdom.
This then, more than any other reasoning embodies the meaning of respect, as a process in which we as a species constantly search for more viable sustainability strategies through intelligent, perceptive and compassionate interaction with our ecosphere and the other life forms within it.
Once again, picture that web of life of many, diverse sets of beings, and any action by any of the ‘beings’ vibrates and introduces change into the structural and relational dynamics of the entire web. Such is the world we live in, a world full of nurture and promise, but very, very delicately and dynamically balanced. We need to live within that balance, just like the other life that lives here.
 Fowler, C. W. (2005). Sustainability, health, and the human population. EcoHealth, 2(1), 59.
For further insights into the 'self' and self-actualization see my forthcoming books Freedom: What it is and how to achieve it, Book 1, Freedom and Self, & Book 2, Freedom and The Ecology of Relationship, due to be published in July of 2019.