Also see:  Sustainable Community Development | Prime Directive | What is Meant by Development? | Social Service | Institutionalized Resistance | My History in Sustainable Community | Educating for Sustainability | Giving Children a Voice | In addition, visit "The Commons" in Essays

Americans will finally become Indians, Natives of their place. If they don't, they will die and their place will die. — Carl Jung


Lifestyle is commonly defined as an internally consistent way of life or style of living that reflects the values and attitudes of an individual or a culture. We in Western civilization have made lifestyle synonymous with "standard of living," which we practice as a search for ever-increasing material prosperity. If, however, we are to have a viable, sustainable environment as we know it and value it, we must reach beyond the strictly material and see lifestyle as a sense of inner wholeness and harmony derived by living in such a way that the spiritual, environmental, and material aspects of our lives are in balance with the capacity of the land to produce the necessities for that lifestyle.

Before we can fruitfully discuss lifestyle, however, we must consider the idea of "sustainable development" as outlined in the 1987 report of the World Commission on Environment and Development, which calls for juxtaposing two mutually exclusive concepts in today's economic/political vernacular—that of "sustainability" and that of "development." Sustainability is the language of balance and limits—of a nonviolent, reciprocal partnership with Nature. Development, on the other hand, is the language of economic expansion, of expecting ever more in limitless fashion.

If we try to imagine sustaining our current, ever-expanding economic concept into the future, we soon bump into environmental crises, and we see the need to re-frame the old economic paradigm—that continued growth is the solution to all our social problems. No longer are we facing the old, simplistic question:   How do we balance development and conservation? Instead, we are confronted by a new question based on a different reality, namely:   Can we have development without the conservation? Conservation implies duration over time by using something wisely, being the sources of its renewal, and passing it forward to the next generation in a condition that we, ourselves, would like to inherit.

The current characteristic of any strategy to raise material prosperity, often thought of as the standard of living, is the assumption that ever-expanding development is necessarily and ethically good, that it presents more material goods and thereby makes life "better" than it presently is—at best, a value-laden process. If development is important only so we can continue to achieve ever-higher levels of material prosperity, then to sustain environmental degradation only to accommodate development is unethical, if not strictly self-centered and immoral. If, however, a whole and harmonious lifestyle is important, then engaging in a mode of development that is anything less than ecologically sustainable is an oxymoron.

Whether a given lifestyle is even possible depends on "cultural capacity," a term that is an analogue for "carrying capacity," which is the number of animals that can live in and use a particular landscape without impairing its ability to function in an ecologically-specific way. If we want human society to survive the 21st century in any sort of dignified manner, we must have the humility to view our own population in terms of local, regional, national, and global carrying capacities, because the quality of life declines in direct proportion to the degree to which the habitat is overpopulated.

But, if we substitute the idea of "cultural capacity" for "carrying capacity," we have a workable proposition for society. Cultural capacity is a chosen quality of life, which can be sustained without endangering the environment's productive capabilities. For example, the more materially oriented is the desired lifestyle of an individual or a society, the more resources are needed to sustain it and the smaller the human population must be per unit area of landscape to support it. Cultural capacity, then, is a balance between how we want to live—the real quality of our lifestyles and of our society—and how many people an area can support in that lifestyle on a sustainable basis. Cultural capacity of any area will be less than its carrying capacity in the biological sense.

We can predetermine cultural capacity and adjust our population growth accordingly. If we choose not to balance our desires with the land's capabilities, the depletion of the land—not of our desires—will continue to determine the qualitative level of our cultural/social experience and our lifestyles. So far, we have chosen not to balance our desires with the capabilities of the land, because we have equated "desire, need, and demand" as synonyms with every itch of "want." We have therefore lost sight of ecological reality.

If we desire to maintain a predetermined lifestyle, we must ask new questions, such as:  (1) How much of any given resource is necessary for us to use if we are to live in the lifestyle of our choice? (2) How much of any given resource is it necessary to leave intact as a biological reinvestment in the health and continued productivity of the ecosystem? and (3) Do sufficient resources remain, after the biological reinvestment, to support our lifestyle of choice, or must we modify our lifestyle to meet what the land is capable of sustaining?

Why the modification? Because "necessity" is a very different proposition from the collective "desire, want, need, demand" syndrome, so arguments about the proper cultural capacity revolve not only around what we think we want in a materialistic/spiritual sense but also around what the land can produce in an environmentally sustainable sense. Cultural capacity is a conservative concept given finite resources and well-defined values. Put differently, the more we want from the land, the fewer people it can support; the less we want from the land, the more people it can support. By first determining what we want in terms of lifestyle, we may be able to determine not only if the Earth is capable of supporting our desired lifestyle but also how we must behave with respect to the environment if we are to maintain our desire lifestyle.

These considerations are vital because every ecosystem will adapt in some way, with or without the human hand. That said, our current heavy-handedness precludes our ability to guess, much less to know, what kind of adaptations will emerge. Thus, we must pay particular attention to ecological "backups," of which biodiversity is the "nuts and bolts."

Each ecosystem contains built-in backups, which means that more than one species that can perform a similar function, thereby giving the ecosystem the resilience to either resist or bounce back after disturbance. But we have little knowledge about which species do what and how. So when we tinker willy-nilly with an ecosystem's structure to suit our short-term, economic desires, we lose species to extinction, thus reducing the ecosystem's biodiversity. With decreased biodiversity, we lose choices for meeting our social-environmental desires—not to mention necessities, which directly affects the Earth's cultural capacity and therefore our lifestyles. The loss of biodiversity may so alter the ecosystem that it no longer can produce that for which we valued it in the first place—a desired lifestyle.

Today, nearly half the American population lives within an hour's drive of a coast. By the year 2010, predicts the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, nearly sixty percent, or 127 million people, will live in the coastal zone, including the shores of the Great Lakes, Puget Sound in the state of Washington, and along the shores of such rivers as the Columbia.

Pollution and destruction of habitats, problems faced in every coastal region of our nation, are fueled both by unchecked growth of the population and by an increasing desire on the part of many Americans to live by the sea or some other shore. Whereas communities on the eastern seaboard have struggled with the over population of coastal areas since the end of World War II, the Pacific Northwest began to feel the pressures of a growing coastal population relatively recently.

In Oregon, for example, the demographics of the coastal population are changing with the influx of retired persons during the last couple of decades (give or take a few years), many of whom have some environmental awareness. Nevertheless, as people build their dream homes by the sea and along other shores, they fill in wetlands, cut down forests, and cause the erosion of the beaches, thus making changes that threaten the livable quality of the very environment that drew them to the coastal areas in the first place.1

The decline of the Hawaiian paradise is a prime example this dynamic. The United States Fish and Wildlife Service, the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources, and The Nature Conservancy of Hawaii made the decline the subject of a joint report that took a decade to prepare.

Until people found the Hawaiian Islands, perhaps one new species evolved every ten thousand years. This number is significant because the Hawaiian Islands surpass even the Galapagos Islands, off the coast of South America, in the number of species that evolved from a single ancestor. In Hawaii at least fifty species have evolved from a common ancestor.

Beginning in the 1700s, the islands became a crossroads for Pacific travel, and early seafarers introduced domestic pigs, goats, horses, and cattle onto the islands as sources of fresh meat. But even within the last fifteen years, the introduction of foreign species of plants and animals has increased dramatically.

Besides the obvious introductions of domestic animals, less expected imports have affected the islands:  bird malaria and pox, both of which are carried by mosquitoes, have had a severe impact on native Hawaiian birds. Brown tree snakes, which have devastated the native species of birds on Guam, have been intercepted on flights to Hawaii six times.

The banana poka, a passion-flower vine, which is kept in check in its native South America by the feeding of insects, has no such controlling mechanisms in the islands. Consequently, it has smothered 70,000 acres of forests on two islands since arriving in Hawaii, and is threatening larger tracts.

To date, nearly two-thirds of Hawaii's original forest cover has been lost, including half the vital rain forests. Ninety percent of the lowland plains, once forested, have been destroyed. Of 140 species of native birds, only 70 remain, and 33 of those are in danger of extinction. Eleven more species are beyond recovery. As of November 1991, 37 species of plants native to Hawaii are listed as federally endangered; within two years 152 more species will be proposed for federal listing. Among the state's rarest species of plants are 93, including trees, shrubs, vines, herbs, and ferns, each of which has only about a hundred known surviving individuals. At least five species have been reduced to just one individual.

The cause of the decline is twofold:  (1) the cumulative effect of people's careless, unplanned, unbalanced conversion of the land from Nature's design to society's cultural design in the form of agriculture, ranching, commercial, and residential use, and (2) the introduction of non-native species of plants, insects, and mammals.

The results include the loss of the forests, which once intercepted and generated rainfall and protected the coral reefs and beaches from siltation caused by the erosion of soil. Forest loss, coupled with the extinction of native plants and animals, affects every level of the islands' economy and cultural heritage, such as the generation of unique materials for clothing, textiles, ornaments, canoes, and scientific study. Because its cultural capacity has been grievously exceeded, Hawaii has become largely a paradise lost.2

If we want to choose the quality of our lifestyle by determining the cultural capacity of the land over time, we must abandon the cherished, mechanical notion of "sustained yield." We must instead shift our attention to "caretaking" the land as social-environmental trustees for a sustainable array of choices, which means we must afford the maximum protection to the existing biodiversity, regardless of the apparent, short-term, economic and political costs.

To those who insist that we can't convert capitalism to an ecologically friendly form quickly enough to protect existing biodiversity, I point out that our entire economy was transformed to a wartime basis in a matter of a year or so at the beginning of World War II. And it was changed back again to a peacetime economy in a similarly short time at the end of the war. The mechanism, which allowed the shift to the wartime economy and back again, was simply a choice of priorities. Similarly, a shift to an ecologically friendly economy today, which also will serve for tomorrow, is merely a choice of industrial/political priorities.

We must make the only viable choice we can, to consciously convert our society to an ecologically friendly version of capitalism as quickly as possible through the purposeful protection of biodiversity as our major source of renewable energy and the novelty of environmental adaptation. After all, what to sustain and what not to sustain in our capitalistic system is a choice of priorities in economic allocation—of wants, desires, needs, and demands as opposed to necessities.

Long-term, ecological wholeness and biological richness of the landscape must become the measure of economic health. We must therefore do our best to care first and foremost for land if we want the land to be able to provide for us. This brings me to the question of sustainability per se.

We cannot, however, "manage" sustainability for the sake of sustainability, because sustainability most often is thought of in terms of some one thing, such as a sustainable yield of corn, or salmon, or water, or cattle, or trees. Beyond that, every ecosystem is inevitably evolving toward a critical state in which a minor event can, and sooner or later does, lead to a catastrophic event that alters the ecosystem in some way. After such a catastrophe, a system may eventually be able to approximate what it was through resilience—the ability of the system to retain the integrity of its basic relationships.

Because of the dynamic nature of the evolving ecosystems we attempt to "manage" and because each is constantly organizing itself from one critical state to another, we can only caretake an ecosystem for its possible evolution—not for a sustained yield of products. Therefore, the only sustainability for which we can nurture an ecosystem is that which ensures the ecosystem's ability to adapt to evolutionary change, such as warming of the global climate, in a way that may be favorable for us. In other words, we need to caretake ecosystems for choice, which is synonymous with biodiversity, which, in turn, is a social-environmental "insurance policy."

Thus, when the arguments are over, it must be remembered that if we are to remain within our cultural capacity we must make our desired societal lifestyle the highest, conscious priority—and be persistent in the priority. Then the Earth's ability to sustain that particular cultural capacity and the size of our human population has a far better probability of remaining in harmony with each other. Today, however, the human carrying capacity of plant Earth is poised to exceeding Nature's productive capacity of our home planet.

In the final analysis, it comes down to a question of choice—quantity or quality? How shall we choose:  the maximum carrying capacity for ourselves as we blindly pursue the money chase or a sustainable cultural capacity as an unconditional gift to all generations of children whose only choice is to inherit the consequences of our decisions as the circumstances of their lives?


  1. The foregoing discussion of the population influx into coastal zones is based on:  Roberta Ulrich. Growth fuels coastal-protection laws. The Oregonian, Portland, Oregon, June 16, 1991.

  2. The foregoing discussion of Hawaii is based on:  Daniel B. Wood. Report details decline of Hawaiian paradise. The Oregonian, November 7, 1991.

This piece is excerpted in part from my 1992 book, "Global Imperative:  Harmonizing Culture and Nature." Stillpoint Publishing, Walpole, NH. 267 pp.

©Chris Maser 2009. All rights reserved.



Chris Maser
Corvallis, OR 97330

Copyright © 2011. All Rights Reserved.

Protected by Copyscape Web Copyright Protection