The five laws of sustainability

EARTHFUTURE by Guy Dauncey

It happens so easily. The oil spill on the driveway you hosed down the drain. The spray-on chemical that found its way into your body. The quick trip to the store that released ancient carbon into the atmosphere.

Every day, we do things that break the laws of sustainability, without being penalized in any way. Our culture may be civilized, but it is not naturalized. Why didn’t someone tell us the oil was going to kill the fish?

When our ignorance is fragranced with the perfume of freedom that companies like to use when they lobby governments against creating new laws, it becomes even harder to know what is or isn’t okay. We grow up pickled in ignorance about the natural world and we carry that ignorance into our adult life. How many cabinet ministers understand the carbon cycle? How many supermarket managers understand the marine food chain for the fish they sell?

During this century, all this must change, and if we don’t change, we’ll be toast, butter-side down on the scorching sands of an overheated planet.

Parents will need to demonstrate the laws of sustainability to their children. Schools will need to teach them. Colleges will need to make ‘Sustainability 101’ a prerequisite for acceptance. Candidates running for political office will need to show that they understand them. Businesses will need to enshrine them in their activities, as the carpet company interface is doing with its goal to become 100% sustainable by 2020. Municipalities will need to build their operations around them – as Whistler is doing.

In my definition, sustainability enables the present generation of humans and other species to enjoy a sense of social well-being, a vibrant economy and a healthy environment without compromising the ability of future generations to enjoy the same.

And what are the five laws of sustainability? The first four derive from The Natural Step, a process developed by Swedish cancer specialist, Dr. Karl-Henrik Robèrt, used around the world by companies and municipalities working to go green. The fifth law is my addition.

The first law of sustainability says that we must live, behave and flourish in such a way that there is no progressive build-up of substances extracted from the Earth’s crust, such as heavy metals in the soil, plastics in the ocean or an excess of carbon in the atmosphere. This means we should strive for renewable energy, zero waste and zero emissions from all our activities.

The second law says that we must live, behave and flourish in such a way that there is no progressive build-up of chemicals and compounds produced by society such as dioxins, PCBs and DDT. This means a shift to green chemistry.

The third law says that we must live, behave and flourish in such a way that there is no progressive physical degradation and destruction of nature and natural processes, such as over-harvesting forests, paving critical wildlife habitat, draining wetlands, exhausting the world’s oceans or warming the atmosphere.

The fourth law says that we must live, behave and flourish in such a way that all humans are able to meet their basic needs. In the words of Chilean economist Manfred Max-Neef, this means everyone should have access to a subsistence income, protection, affection, understanding, participation, leisure, creation, identity and freedom. Whatever we do, we must include the needs of humans, for we are part of Nature.

To cap things off, the fifth law states, “If it’s not fun, it’s not sustainable.” In all our work and activities, we must strive to live, behave and flourish in such a way that life sparkles. This spreads joy and reminds us that it is our attitude to life that determines whether we experience it as grumpy or great, miserable or miraculous.

Future generations will think of sustainability the way most people now think of justice and human rights – as being both natural and obvious. The challenge to our generation is to cease breaking the laws as quickly as possible so that future generations of humans – and all other species – will have a chance to flourish.

Guy Dauncey is the publisher of the free, monthly newsletter, EcoNews; sign up to receive it at

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