Posted by: Dave Neads | December 27, 2007


As I write this there is a fine crystalline snow falling, the temperature outside is minus 13, there is a wind rippling the fir boughs and I just let Chilko out.

Chilko is our Maremma/Shepherd cross, one hundred pounds of great dog, companion and a real talker. That is how I know he wanted out, he came over and woofed, then walked to the door.

I began to think about that. He had been splayed out by the wood heater, soaking up the infra red as only dogs can do, and then he simply got up and walked outside into the cold, the snow and the wind.

He didn’t have to put on a parka, mitts, toque, and felt paks. He didn’t have to make any adjustments at all. He just went outside, adapting easily to the winter conditions.

That is sustainability; To be perfectly adapted, to be able to live in the surrounding environment without needing external inputs foreign to the habitat you live in.

For the human species, I think there are three variables which interact to allow sustainability: population, level of technology and expectations.

In this climate the energy inputs needed to sustain my lifestyle are not sustainable. Sure I’m solar powered, but I still need gasoline to come and go, I still need warm clothes, I still need food that I can’t produce myself. I still need a host of things that this environment cannot provide, even with huge energy inputs.

To survive in this climate as aboriginal peoples did for millennia, things need to be balanced. Population levels need to be supported by the amount of food and energy local technologies can provide. That means no solar panels made in California and shipped by truck the Precipice, that means no avocados in January, that means no gas for the chain saw, that means gathering wood by hand and not with a one ton truck.

In short, sustainable living here means a shift to a much lower level of technology. The first nations that survived here did so using stone age technologies–not bullets, pick-up trucks and electricity. We fool ourselves if we think using more efficient wood heaters or passive solar design will solve these fundamental problems. Only a massive shift back to previous technologies or to some new, as yet uninvented means of clothing and feeding ourselves will allow for continued survival in climates such as this one.

In the end, it may be possible for some to continue to live here under radically different conditions but I think, in general, human populations will recede to the tropics and sub-tropics where the energy inputs needed just to stay warm are manageable. After all, when the sun warms the air around you, you don’t need to live in a controlled spaceship environment like a modern house just to keep from freezing to death.

Every species has its natural range. Over the last few million years we have become a global species. The way we did that was to keep population levels low, use natural technologies and be content with caribou skins for warmth and only local plants and animals for food. We didn’t expect to eat the same food in winter as in summer.

Modern civilization has abandoned those principles. Our expectations have increased radically. We seem to think that there is always more, that the bubble can increase forever. The complexity of the web of life on this planet ensures that this cannot be the case. There are too many connections, too many feedback loops, too many finely tuned connections created over the billion or two years that life has had to evolve .

To survive we need to respect that. We need to return to first principles, not just in concept but in reality. Until we can live in a local environment just as easily as our dog does, until the inputs and outputs of our living processes are in balance with the niche we live in on all scales we will not, cannot, be sustainable in the long run.

Stone age, Iron Age, Industrial Age, Fossil Fuel Age, Atomic Age, when did we cross the line? When did we become the architects of our demise? What will a sustainable, post carbon civilization be like? What will its philosophy be? What does the transition look like? Is it even possible? These are the questions we need to be asking, if there is to be another few thousand or few million years of human development here on the third rock from the Sun.


Chilko in the snow


  1. My understanding is that we humans crossed that sustainable line when we gave up the hunter-gatherer mode and started farming, along with the accumulation of harvest etc. that goes with the farming lifestyle. This allowed significant exchange/trade of goods with people from far-off places and thus an increasing dependence on the fruits of that trade. So, ultimately, I think you’re talking about a return to the hunter-gatherer lifestyle.

  2. Dave, your essay touches on all of our fears about the long-term future of our species, and the role that we may choose for ourselves as stewards of this planet.

    Did the dolphins make a conscious choice to return to the sea? It was a move that allowed them a sustainable life-style. I think that humans want to do more with their lives that simply be sustainable. They seem to want to create things. They even have a passion for producing art, and leaving a legacy.

    Once I stood by the edge of a shallow river. The stream in front of me was a gentle flow, and I think could have walked across it. But the shore on the other side was not the mainland, it was an island. And beyond that were many more streams and islands. My view showed only my little trickle, and from there I could not see the enormous breadth of the vast Zambezi River. I tossed a twig into that flow, and watched it meander away from me.

    Reading your essay, I imagine my life being lived like that twig. My perspective is this one little stream, and yet intellectually I sense that it is part of a much bigger story. I also sense the awesome presence of doom. I was standing a few hundred meters upstream from the mighty Victoria Falls.

  3. If not a return to hunter gather life style, at least a return to its principles.

    Things like abandoning the idea that continued expansion is good. Ideas like we are not part of the system.

    I too had a similar experience. I was a park ranger in Tweedsmuir . My fellow ranger and I were paddling in the creek that feeds Hunlin Falls, one of the highest in B.C. We saw the sign that said “Danger, no travel beyond this point”. But the water was a calm, a wide pool and with the arogance of youth and supposed authority, we ignord the sign and paddled on.

    We left the pool behind and started to come around a bend. Still no current, but all of a sudden, the view changed dramtically, all we could see was mist and air.

    Luckily, we were close to the southern bank and were able to get the caanoe beached quickly.

    I climbed out of the canoe, and literally, ten feet further on, the water diappeared into a 900 foot fall.

    I laid down and looked over the edge, my head hanging in space and my feet just ahead of the bow of the canoe.

    I still shake when I think of how close we came to going over.

    I agree that is where we are. If we arrogantly disregard the warnings, hubristic to the end, over the falls we go.

    I am not defeated by this however, I still think we will evolve, we will create. I just can’t really visualize how and when and who.

  4. One could argue that the Great Divide in human history begins with the tool revolution evident around 32,000 years BP. A spurt of inventiveness exciting more of the same.
    There have been several crossroads. The permanent mastering of fire making. On and on.
    I regard humanity as a ‘runaway species.’ Changes coming with ever increased speed, the focus on comfort and possession. We’ve lost our focus re the rhythm of nature, have invented false concepts of our place in the universe and on this precious globe. One can find ample evidence of this in religious edicts…go forth and mulitlpy…as if the planet was an endless, bountiful cornucopia. One could go on and on over the complexities of the human condition, our selfishness/greed. How would one start unwinding the gargantuan knot we’ve tied around our selves? Alexander found a way in his own time re the Persian knot. We need some fairly savage changes in our habits to save the Ark. Name the next dividing line. Who are the environmental assault troops?

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