Motherhood, apple pie, and sustainability. Who could object? Surely we are acting morally if we limit our consumption of resources to assure that future generations have the same opportunities. This seems to be what the Iroquois meant by caring for the seventh generation. But there is another way that some Native Americans see sustainability, a view that pulls back the curtain from the anthropocentric assumption at center stage of modern environmentalism.
From a TED talk some years ago came the story of an Algonquin ecologist who told her elders that she was going to a conference on sustainable development. When asked what this term meant, she provided the standard account that originated with the United Nations’ Brundtland Commission in 1987: “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” After a long pause, one of the elders replied, “It sounds to me like they just want to keep taking from the Earth.”
To understand sustainability as a strategy to assure that we can extract forever—without a duty to give back—is to see the planet as a storehouse of commodities. The insightful critique offered by the Algonquin elder evoked an image of my cat, Gus. Last summer, Gus caught a mouse in the backyard. Now then, Gus is not the brightest feline, so I doubt that he grasped the concept of sustainability. However, it was evident that he didn’t desire to kill the mouse. Gus wanted the mouse to keep moving for his enjoyment, so that he could repeatedly pounce. My guess is that had Gus understood that sharing a few of his kibbles with the mouse would have sustained the interaction, the cat would’ve fed his captive. Gus’s behavior shouldn’t be judged in moral terms, but ours ought to be. And prolonging the life of other species or ecosystems on a dominated planet so that future generations can pounce on resources seems deeply problematical.
There’s another metaphor that is familiar in the environmental literature. The natural world is often framed in economic terms. The soil, water, and air are a kind of “principal” from which we draw “interest.” According to this perspective, sustainability is a matter of spending the interest without depleting the principal. Ecology becomes akin to managing an investment portfolio. Humans are the trust fund babies of the earth.
It would be absurd to have an investment that grew without anyone taking the gains. Why have an endowment fund generating interest that is never extracted? But picture a natural landscape—a forest, grassland, desert, or lake—that flourishes indefinitely without our ever logging, farming, grazing, or fishing. This doesn’t seem so implausible. Maybe we could even imagine such a place as a wilderness where we choose to never go—even to extract pleasure. This imaginary place would be valued for itself and not because it was a means to our ends. Such a landscape would be a moral asset, a physical manifestation of our humanity and humility.
All of this is not intended to suggest that having concern for future generations is a bad thing. We do have an ethical obligation to those who come after us. But that cannot be the whole story. We might well contend that treating a slave in a sustainable fashion is better than shortening his life or extracting every ounce of her labor. Nevertheless, sustainable slavery is a horrible mistake because a human is not a commodity that we sustain for our use.
Might the same be said of the earth? What is the right metaphor to understand our relationship to nature? The TED speaker who shared the story of the Algonquin ecologist was Robin Kimmerer. This botanist from the Potawatomi Nation proposed that we should see the natural world as a bounty of gifts. And at the very least when we receive a gift, we return gratitude. That’s not much, but it’s something.