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  • Writer's pictureJeff Steele

The 3rd Path to Sustainability

There are two popular approaches to sustainability, but both are deeply flawed. The 1st does not do enough, the 2nd does too much of the wrong thing, and neither will lead us to a desirable future.

Luckily, there's a third path that can direct us to not only sustainability, but a happier & more abundant existence for every creature on the planet. The only problem is, very few people seem to know about this path.

I took years of sustainable development courses, but my professors didn't know about this approach. The leaders of our communities have apparently never heard of it. The United Nations is not talking about it. Greta Thunburg isn't demanding that people adopt this approach.

There is a scattering of teachers & influencers doing their best to spread the word, but they’re still far from mainstream.

Given this reception, one might dismiss this body of knowledge as mere conjecture or fringe ideology. That was my initial impression.

In actuality, it's an entirely logical design methodology rooted in real-world experimentation, striving to create value as efficiently as possible for all stakeholders involved. Unlike businesses or governments who may use similar terminology, this approach is informed by the planet's natural abundance. It's a multi-disciplinary study applying ecology, climatology, biology, economics, agriculture, energy, sociology, indigenous knowledge, and any other appropriate field to derive a way humans can live fulfilling lives into the distant future.

A city where biodiversity flourishes at every turn. From apartment rooftops and growing up curved walls, plants offer beauty & nutritious snacks as they cycle our water and utilize the city's wastes, all of which are organic, to create the foundation of a local closed-loop culture.
An AI's vision of a permaculture city more spectacular than my own.

The body of knowledge that has me so optimistic about creating a sustainable future is called Permaculture Design.

If we want to thrive on this planet and avoid devastating resource shortages over the coming centuries (or perhaps decades), we must start designing our way of life using methods that will keep us on, what I'm referring to as the third path. To understand why this is so important, let's examine the other two popular paths to sustainability.

1st Path: The Incremental Approach

Guided by the adage "every little bit helps", the incremental approach attempts to make eco-friendly alterations to our current system, one little problem at a time, to inch our way across the sustainability line.

If these increments eventually got us there, then it would all be worth it. Unfortunately, this approach will never go far enough because it focuses on peripheral problems that are easy to fix instead of foundational issues creating the bulk of the mess. It has us focusing on tiny improvements while overlooking the giant problems.

We happily remember our reusable bags to reduce waste, but try to ignore the fact that everything in the store comes with throw-away packaging. We ride our bikes to the store instead of driving, but everything for sale was trucked in from far away.

We do have more options these days that are a little more sustainable than 40 years ago. But in that same time frame, biodiversity is down 68% worldwide, we've lost hundreds of millions of hectares of forest, 50% of coral reefs are dead, and we've exposed our world to thousands of new chemical compounds.

These peripheral improvements are not even keeping up with our increased environmental destruction.

The incremental approach does often achieve notable decreases in unsustainable behavior. A producer might decrease their pollution by 20%.

A cartoon businessman is chasing a bag of money and seems to be too focused on his greed to notice the cliff before him or the sign warning him that sustainability is in the other direction.
We mustn't let our greed blind us to the existential cliff we are heading towards.

Unfortunately, these incremental green solutions are typically implemented only if they also save the company money. Meanwhile, the core of their business plan continues to rely on burning huge amounts of fossil fuel, exploiting foreign workers &/or stripping environments of valuable resources as quickly as they can get away with.

Producers and consumers alike will adopt these little sustainable habits when it's convenient or saves us money, but that's just not enough.

We need to make transitioning to a sustainable existence our main focus. We need to be spending the bulk of our time and resources working on this problem. We need to change our production processes and business models from the foundation up.

We could buy ourselves a little time doing these little things, but if we continue to ignore the systemic changes we need to make, the little things will have been done in vain.

What's at stake?

To me, sustainability is not a trending hashtag or an extra reason to ride a bike. Sustainability is an existential crisis threatening the livelihood of our families.

A ruff looking guy in front of a 7-11 holding the slurpee he fought for, while a fire rages in the background.
Sustainability is about avoiding a social situation where people must fight ruthlessly for the smallest of luxuries.

Following the incremental path and not doing enough could lead to a Mad Max scenario: people fighting over dwindling resources in an overheated future punctuated with nuclear winters. Our civility would wither under the pain of hunger and life would get brutish & short.

Maintaining our current way of doing things will lead to critical shortages that could kick off that dystopia. We need to take drastic action and make systemic changes. We need to redesign our modern culture so we do not excessively pollute and over-harvest our environment. We need a complete overhaul of nearly every industry to move it into the status of sustainable.

And this terrifying realization leads folks to the 2nd common version of sustainability, which is equally as unworkable as the first.

2nd Path: Totalitarian Sustainability

Many have concluded we must coerce people into being sustainable through laws and public shaming. That sustainability is something that must be forced upon humanity.

On paper, their math does add up. If we stop burning oil, move everyone into 15-minute cities, cap the birth rate, and limit a variety of freedoms people have become very accustomed to, then we could be living within our ecological means.

What the math doesn't account for is the emotional reaction of the people it's trying to manipulate. If sustainability means sacrificing our creature comforts and being forced to live lives we didn't choose, people will passionately resist.

A soldier instructs a line of young men to deposit their recyclable materials before them.
While there is some logic to demanding sustainable behavior, it would unlikely lead us to the kind of future we desire.

Sustainability is about striking a balance with the natural world, but it's also about thriving socially. Forcing people to be sustainable is simply not sustainable. Sustainability will either be a democratic decision that serves individuals as well as the masses, or its attempts will fail with crowds in the street and deadly fighting.

This path demands mass conformity from about 8 billion people, which would be exceptionally difficult to manage. Forcibly demanding people to change will require physical violence, which will receive push-back. This would likely cause one of the most environmentally destructive of human activities: war.

We will of course need social & environmental rules, bans on destructive behavior, and a way of enforcing these standards, but leading with these tactics we'll breed unmanageable resistance. This realization should nudge us towards the real solution.

Finding a Middle Path

We have to take big steps to become sustainable, but forcing people to change will not work. First we must create benign and ideally preferable alternatives to the destructive options.

The path to a sustainable world demands options people truly desire. Less expensive options so people don't have to work as hard for them. Food options that taste better and are healthier than what's currently available. Goods that are not only produced sustainably, but personalized for you and your family.

And these options can't just be 20% more sustainable. They need to be at least 100% sustainable. Given the ecological degradation of our planet, many of them must be regenerative.

The big question becomes, is it possible to create a truly sustainable world that people would also prefer? Can we live a sustainable life that's happier, healthier, & more fulfilling as well? Can we find a balance with nature that also provides us with more leisure time and satisfactory creature comforts?


That's right, you can have your eco-friendly cake and eat your creature comforts too, plus an extra dessert of satisfaction, all while living a healthier life.

That's the kind of sustainability people all over the world could truly get behind. That's the kind of sustainability we should all be working towards. You won't be guilted into better behavior in this sustainable future; you'll choose it as the preferable option for your family.

3rd Path: Nature's Sustainability

Welcome to the path that can lead us into a better future! It's time we re-imagine our way of life, keeping the parts we like and evolving the parts we don't like or can't maintain.

What would your ideal neighborhood look like? Free fruit and freshly picked salads. Unique homes made from sustainable materials.

It's time we grow the resources we need locally instead of taking them from foreign lands. It's time we stop stripping the land of non-renewable resources, learn to recycle what we've already taken, or find a more appropriate technology. It's time to apply closed-loop production systems by thinking of "waste" as a resource.

Local producers need to replace centralized production to cut out transportation pollution & various forms of foreign exploitation. Our economic system must shift from inducing competition to encouraging cooperation. It's time we create the abundance that can banish poverty. Our concept of wealth must shift from superficial accumulation to that which people find genuinely fulfilling.

Amazingly, the only thing required to set us on this path of change is education. If we were all studying permaculture, everyone would be as optimistic about the future as I am.

The question I've been pondering is, how do I convince people to study permaculture?

If you enjoy thick books about gardening, you probably already know about permaculture. Same if you've spent a summer volunteering on organic farms through the Wwoofer program. But what about the 99.99% of people not interested in gardening textbooks or unpaid farm labor?

Well, I got an idea that might make permaculture more appealing to the masses: money.

I have applied my 15 years of permaculture research to design a business that cleans up an environmental problem while creating valuable goods.

Using permaculture principles and open-source technologies created by Precious Plastic, I've established a local plastic recycling system that can quickly and effectively transform single-use containers into functional & artistic home decor, within a modest workspace, using only renewable energy.

I figure, if I can create a successful for-profit business that is also good for the planet using permaculture design, maybe more people will be curious about this amazing body of knowledge. And if more people study permaculture, we'll learn to push beyond incremental solutions to create options people truly desire.

To learn more about our journey on the third path to sustainability, keep an eye on our blog.

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