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Excerpt from What We Leave Behind

Sustainability Needs Context (p. 55)

From chapter "Sustainability"

I’ve written elsewhere that the predator-prey relationship is characterized by the following deal: if I consume the flesh of another (or otherwise kill this other) I now take responsibility for the continuation of that other’s community. This deal holds morally, it holds spiritually, and it certainly holds physically. Those who do not know this—those who do not live it—do not survive. They destroy their own habitat, and in doing so, destroy themselves. It may take a while for those circles to close, to become self-made nooses around their own necks, but it happens. Every time.

I would say that the same holds true not only for what we take into our bodies, but for what comes out of them. If we leave something behind— whether it is shit or our bodies or our clothes or our shelters—we now are responsible for the well-being of this community.

The good news is that this is how humans have lived in place for most of our existence. The bad news is that almost no one in this culture lives this way now.


The questions we need to ask ourselves about every action—as we live in the midst of a culture killing the planet—are these: Is this action sustainable? Why or why not? How would this action need to be different for it to be sustainable?

Before we can answer these questions, however, we have to define sustainable. Many politicians, business people, “green” architects, land managers, foresters and other resource specialists, and so on throw that word around a lot in meaningless or deceptive ways, labeling as “sustainable” many manifestly unsustainable actions that most often make a lot of money for them or for the corporations to whom they are beholden. We hear about sustainable buildings, sustainable agriculture, sustainable forestry, sustainable this and sustainable that, and of course, within this culture, little or none of it is even remotely sustainable.

For an action to be sustainable you must be able to perform it indefinitely. This means that the action must either help or at the very least not materially harm the landbase. If an action materially harms the landbase, it cannot be performed indefinitely: any line sloping downward eventually reaches zero.

Central to sustainability is the landbase itself. What may be beneficial to one landbase may be harmful or lethal to another. I feel good shitting outside and dropping pieces of toilet paper willy-nilly across the rainforest floor, comfortable in the knowledge that it will all break down at most within a year. Would this be appropriate behavior in a desert? Certainly beings in deserts still have to defecate, and certainly deserts have developed ways to turn shit into something they can use. But in a desert, I might have to spread my shit and paper over a larger area, and maybe not use paper at all, to ensure I won’t negatively impact the land. A nonhuman example may help make this a little more clear. Cows did not evolve in a desert. Their poop makes big patties, which in moist climates break down into potent packages of food for scavengers and soil alike. In dry climates, however, these patties can ossify, turning into a sort of fecal asphalt that smothers and harms the soil. Antelope, bighorn sheep, and others who evolved in deserts do not poop in big mounds, but rather tiny pellets that are more easily convertible to food the desert can use.

Here’s another way to look at sustainability’s dependence on context. I live on Tolowa land. Prior to conquest, the Tolowa lived here without materially harming the place for at least 12,500 years. By any reasonable definition they lived here sustainably. Their homes were made of wood. This means that here in their rainforest this particular use of wood was sustainable. But people who live where trees are sparse may not be able to sustainably use wood as a building material.

Any working definition of sustainability must emerge from and conform to a particular landbase—to what that landbase can freely give forever—and not be an abstract set of principles, or rationalizations, imposed upon the landbase. The landbase is primary, and what we do to it (or far more appropriately, with and for it) must always follow the landbase’s lead.

What actions are sustainable is determined not only by context, but also by scale. One human shitting in the forest near my home is probably a good thing. Two, three, or four might make an even bigger bonanza for slugs. But let a thousand people shit right here and the slugs will quickly say no más. Likewise, the fact that the Tolowa took out a few trees does not mean this forest (or any forest) can survive industrial (or even extractive) forestry (which should more accurately be called deforestation). And the fact that the Tolowa took salmon to eat doesn’t mean salmon can survive industrial (or even extractive) fishing (which once again should really be called de-fishing).

…The land is a living entity who like any other living entity requires certain foods to survive. Certain other foods can be toxic. But even nourishing foods can be toxic out of scale.

My own shit is just one small bite for this land. But just as I might find one apple delectable and conducive to good health, and just as ten apples at once might make me sick to my stomach and give me the runs, and just as dropping ten tons of apples on my head will kill me, so too the land could find one person’s of shit delicious and beneficial, more shit harmful, and more shit than that all at once lethal.

Time is as important as scale to an action’s sustainability. Indeed they are related. The Tolowa, Yurok, Karuk, and other tribes probably killed more salmon in this region over the last 12,500 years than this culture has in the past 180. But they did it over 12,500 years (they also didn’t dam or poison rivers, deforest hillsides, murder oceans, change the climate, and so on). Killing that many salmon to eat (and dying yourself on this same land, feeding the land and thus eventually the salmon in the same manner as they are feeding you) could have continued in human terms forever. But killing as many salmon as the dominant culture has in such a short time has not been a mutual feeding, but instead a slaughter, and has decimated—and in many cases extirpated—salmon.