Beyond Sustainability: A Deep Green Future


What do we mean when we talk about sustainability? Do we mean forging, after thousands of years of civilization, at last, a truly sustainable relationship with nature? Do we mean “net-zero” resource impact (which, by the way does not necessarily equate to being rid of practices corrosive to natural systems)? Do we mean “living within our means”, according to the metabolic limitations of our natural environment?

At our roundtable discussion on “Utopia or Oblivion“, where we discussed a number of issues which demonstrate that only our best is good enough to solve the mounting global crisis involving climate pattern destabilization, resource depletion, food insecurity and chronic pervasive water scarcity, a graduate student asked why we don’t talk about what lies beyond sustainability, in a genuinely environmentally responsible future.

Her meaning was very useful to the whole discussion of sustainability: are we, surreptitiously, but consciously, trying to figure out a way to sustain economic, industrial and political paradigms, that are not conducive to having a constructive, generative relationship with natural systems? Can sustainability be interfered with, due to lexical vulnerabilities, in a way that privileges the maintaining of corrosive practices over the invention of a new human way of being in nature? There are some vital questions at work here:

  • Are there entrenched interests that can misuse the logic of sustainability to undermine the aims of sustainability?
  • Is it wrong to think of sustainability as the destination, when it should be the starting point of a journey to something more pervasive, more attuned to a comprehensive, long-view approach?
  • Can we get into trouble, as a civilization, if we don’t first focus on sustainability as a question of awareness?
  • If sustainability is a question of elevated and expanded awareness, what lies beyond that threshold after which something far healthier than the status quo is truly possible?
  • Do cities, states, the intertwining of major political trends across the globe, serve as obstacles to improving our relationship with nature?

For some time, I’ve been thinking about what will make a “deep green” future happen sooner rather than later, and what it would be like. This student’s idea that we need to think beyond sustainability helps give context to those meditations. Sustaining the paradigm of energy from destruction (combustion/fission) also sustains the risk of non-sustainable perils. Or rather, that vision of sustainability, in which we find ways to “offset” destructive practices, means we are continuing down the path toward a moment when shared thriving stops, and natural systems come apart.

So it is worth looking at some key principles of the deep green future:

  • Sustainable practices are the baseline, not the goal… the landscape, not the destination.
  • Energy should be derived from non-destructive processes, harvested without promoting depletion.
  • The human role in the complex universe of natural systems must become collaborative, and cease to be adversarial.
  • The value of natural landscapes, watersheds, glaciers, biodiverse webs of metabolic activity, must be presumed to exceed the calculus of human economic activity.
  • Economic activity should be measured not by total consumption—where more consumption is reflexively viewed as better—, but by generative value.
  • Stakeholders—those invested involuntarily—must be given a voice.

This is a start, but it’s not the whole story. We will be building a clean-energy economy, in which the human “footprint”, or impact, on the natural environment, is less a matter of trampling and undoing what is there and more a matter of cultivating more vibrant mutually beneficial output from what is there, from natural systems and the genius of their diverse complexity. A practical question which anyone must ask, then, is: how do we get started on something so pervasive, so global in scale, and so much linked to human consciousness?

The first step has to be to make sure the metrics of our economy tell the truth, and to begin that transition, we need to start moving subsidies to where they ought to go, to the technologies, the priorities, the best practices and the collective and individual wellbeing, we claim to seek. In an unexpected way, record oil profits are potentially a very good thing for the clean energy economy: not only is it absurd that such long-running, such seasoned and influential enterprises continue to claim they are not mature enough to survive without tens of billions of dollars in subsidies (from multiple governments simultaneously), and the right to manipulate prices to fatten their bottom line… it is now self-evident how unnecessary those subsidies are.

When the world’s most profitable corporations are all oil companies, and they are all securing more profits than any enterprise at any previous moment in the history of civilization, they are mature enough to stand on their own, to do without subsidies, and, indeed, to pay taxes to sustain the civilization that sustains them, like the rest of humanity. So we can phase out, or even eliminate without delay, subsidies for fossil fuel enterprises.

We can also move to establish a global treaty outlawing tax breaks for fossil fuel producers, so they have to pay their fair share everywhere, and are no longer free to pollute without remorse or penalty, so that governments are returned to the electorate, and powerful interests no longer buy and sell influence with impunity.

Next, we need to attach fees to harmful activities like fossil fuel production, which not only contaminate the environment and undermine our long-term economic solvency and the prosperity of a hard-working middle class, but also emit massive amounts of greenhouse gases, contributing to the destabilization of our global climate. Those fees can be applied at the source —the mine, the well, the port of entry—, with 100% of revenues returned directly, and evenly, to households.

This fee and dividend approach will allow consumers to cover the rising cost of fossil fuels, which in turn allows both fossil fuel producers and the wider consumer economy to weather the transition away from dirty energy to clean energy resources. This is the fastest, most responsible, most scalable and consumer-friendly way to speed the transition to clean renewables, and that is the first step to entering a future where sustainability is not a prompt for raising awareness or a far-off ideal destination, but the groundwork on which we build a “deep green” way of being, a state of economic vibrancy and innovation, defined by our ability to understand, to work with, and to honor the high-value—often incalculable—contribution of natural systems to the health and dynamism of our civilization.

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Originally published April 10, 2011, at

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