July 21, 2017: Now That’s True Sustainability!

We hear the words ‘Sustainable’ and ‘Sustainability’ bandied about by politicians and businessmen so often they have come to mean little more than ‘Profitable’. Even in the worlds of Green Building, Environmental Activism and Energy Efficiency, ‘Sustainable’ has been used to describe many, many things that are blatantly and clearly NOT sustainable. And I’ll be the first to admit that I have been guilty of this myself. Nothing I have ever designed or built could be described as truly sustainable (except perhaps the bark and brush cubby houses I built as a kid) and yet, even on the homepage of this website I describe the Greeny Flat as ‘Sustainable’.

Well I’m sorry to break it to you but… it’s not…. I lied.

What I should have said is that it is much MORE sustainable than most new houses built in the ‘developed’ world. Unfortunately that’s not much to brag about because most new homes, especially here in Australia, are shockingly unsustainable and horribly environmentally damaging.

So what is ‘Sustainable’ and where can we find it?

The United Nations defines ‘Sustainable Development’ as  ‘development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’ and this is still the most concise explanation I have found. Anything that we do now that uses up finite resources or damages the natural environment has the potential to limit the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. So using materials like steel and concrete (as we have in the Greeny Flat) is clearly unsustainable. And I can tell you, from decades of trying, that building anything in a truly sustainable way in our culture is pretty much impossible. The closest you can get is by building with natural materials like mud-brick, rammed-earth, straw-bale (although straw-bale presupposes that you have a tractor and a baling machine which run on diesel), timber (usually cut, milled and dried using fossil-fuel energy), bamboo (usually shipped to Australia from China or Vietnam using fossil fuels) and various forms of natural fibres (such as cellulose, cotton, and wool) for insulation. But what about windows? What about roofing iron? What about plumbing and drain pipes? What about water heaters, stoves and other appliances? What about solar panels? Not to mention the vehicles we drive to get from our houses to the places we work, shop, learn, etc. These are all made from, and often powered by, non-renewable resources.

Is this sustainable? What about the fact that mud-brick is a very poor insulator?

Is this sustainable? What about the fact that mud-brick is a very poor insulator?

Hopefully you see my point that nothing we build in Australia (or most of the world for that matter) is truly sustainable. So where can we find examples of true sustainability?

The answer to that can be found in indigenous cultures all over the world. The reason for that is because indigenous people did not have fossil-fuels. When you think deeply about it, almost every unsustainable thing we do can be connected to using fossil fuels as an energy source. In fact that’s how I like to gauge whether something is truly sustainable… if you take away fossil fuels, can you keep doing it? In most cases, for us the answer is NO.

But indigenous people didn’t have that dilemma. They didn’t have a choice. They had to live in harmony with their natural environment or they would die. And they had to build shelters using local, natural materials that could be gathered, transported and erected by hand or with the help on an animal or two. They built with what they had at hand.

In Africa that was mud and grass.

In Africa that was mud and grass.

In the arctic it was ice.

In the arctic it was ice

In North America it was sticks and hides

In North America it was sticks and hides

And in Europe it was stone and clay

And in Europe it was stone and clay

I’m not suggesting that we should all go back to living in mud huts (although I have to say that the European hill town above looks like a place I could easily hang my hat). All I’m saying is that when it comes to sustainability we have a lot to learn from indigenous cultures.

And the culture that we have the most to learn from is the one that has proven to be the most sustainable on earth…. ever! I am, of course, talking about Australian Aboriginal culture. I recently read an eye-opening book called ‘Dark Emu’ by Bruce Pascoe which turns the white-man’s view of aboriginals as stone-age hunter-gatherers on its head. They actually had very sophisticated agricultural techniques and probably invented farming at least 20,000 years before anyone else on the planet.

The proof of their ability to live sustainably on the land (in an extremely harsh and unforgiving climate) is in the longevity of their culture. Just this week it was announced that we now have definitive proof that aboriginals occupied the north of Australia at least 65,000 years ago. And when whities arrived a mere couple of hundred years ago, they were still here taking beautiful care of the environment on which they depended. Now that is what I call truly sustainable!

Here are links to a couple of articles about the latest archeological discoveries up in the Northern Territory. One is from the Sydney Morning Herald, the other from The Conversation.

I think the world has a great deal to learn from Aboriginal ways of relating to, caring for and nurturing the natural environment. Ways that can help us all live more sustainably.

Thanks for reading.

Leave a Reply

You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>