On my blog, TinyHouseDesign.com, I use the tagline Less is More Sustainable. While this probably makes a lot of literal sense for a blog about tiny houses, but I hope people read more into this statement.
I also noticed that Seth Godin recently wrote a post called, Carrying capacity, that sends a similar message; although I suspect he’d say that there’s a sweet spot of sustainability for everything. If so I’d have to agree with him… I’d just add that the sweet spot doesn’t loose track of the human scale.
The only case where more is more sustainable happens when we’re taking about the diversity of all living things that make up the fabric of life on Earth. In other words, more diversity is more sustainable and less impact, risk, rapid growth is more sustainable. Here are a few examples:
Nature teaches us again and again that when a natural ecosystem is thrown out of balance the inevitable consequence is a rebalancing. This might come in the form of a collapse but collapse can also be looked at as the end of one cycle and the beginning of another. Life is hard to keep down for long.
So if all lifeforms in an ecosystem stay in balance (zero rapid growth) then the system continues to thrive and provide support for every life form in the system.
The smaller our homes, the easier they are to heat, cool, repair, clean, purchase, furnish, and so on. In other words the smaller our homes, the fewer inputs they require to maintain which allows them to give us back time for ourselves.
Small homes also make us less susceptible to economic hard times because few inputs are needed naturally lowering risk. Living within our means and taking on less risk (debt, expenses, responsibilities) also adds to the sustainability of our lives.
In business we see that rapid growth is only possible if the right inputs are added into the mix. This is usually capital and the right human resources. So one could surmise that more inputs mean more economic growth.This is true. The only trouble is when the inputs become unavailable or too costly growth slows, stops, or reverses.
An excellent example of this was clearly visible at the beginning of the last recession. Credit dried up and many businesses reliant on credit failed. Those left standing were those that ran their businesses on less risk or were big enough to be able to ride through the storm.
As governments grow past their ability to serve its citizens and maintain central control they fail. Decentralized control, like a healthy democracy, lasts much longer because the entire system is not reliant on the same central supports.
The Bottom Line
Slow steady growth and living simply is more sustainable because the margins of risk are wider. Zero growth is probably indefinitely sustainable.
For example, for the first 190,000 years anatomically modern humans walked around on earth not getting much done; but I suspect they were in a near perfect balance with their surroundings like the other critters around them. Life was not luxurious or terribly comfortable for them but it was certainly sustainable, after all their descendants are still here.
For the last 10,000 most humans have been busy focused on progress. We’ve had a few setbacks as different civilizations collapsed under their own weight or corruption but for the most part we’ve been much more productive.
In the last 150 years, supercharged by fossil fuels, we’ve done amazing things and have been incredibly productive. In fact it seems like more people these days are now convinced that more is more sustainable because we’ve gotten so clever at making progress.
But if we take a big step back and look at the foundation we’ve built I think we’d see a delicate framework.
I’m not suggesting that we pull the plug on the whole deal and go back to living in caves for the next 190,000 years. I am suggesting that we get smarter and find a way to have our cake and eat it too. I think we are clever enough to find a sustainable way to keep most things running and moving smoothly but it’s going to take switching to a different pace and refocusing diversity and a sustainable scale.