During these Extraordinary Times, where climate change, the loss of biodiversity, and our oceans are making human sustainability questionable, we must ask, how do we determine what constitutes Sustainability? But first, what is Sustainability and why is it so important? “For humans it is the potential for long-term maintenance of wellbeing, which in turn depends on the wellbeing of the natural world and the responsible use of natural resources…” (Wikipedia). In other words, we have to get Sustainability right, or the system that keeps us alive breaks down. You have to be alive to have‘wellbeing.’
We tend to assume that all those actively involved in monitoring our environment—official entities whose purpose is to monitor and maintain our environment, scientists, environmentalists, and the media—have at the very least a good idea of what a healthy environment looks like. Yet, I’m not so convinced that they do.
Just for argument’s sake, let’s highlight the recent (1/20/2010) rivers delisting of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation:
• Three Hudson Valley Waterbodies Set to Be Removed from Impaired List
• Three North Country Waterbodies Set to Be Removed from Impaired List
• Three Broome County Waterbodies Set to Be Removed from Impaired List
Here’s the NYS DEC’s reasoning for delisting these bodies of water: “"New York is making great progress in improving water quality throughout the state through initiatives that target untreated sewage effluent discharges, stormwater and agricultural runoff, industrial pollution, and other sources of contamination," Commissioner Grannis said. "While there is much more work to be done, we recognize the efforts of communities that have helped clean up our waters."
I’m not faulting the DEC’s reasoning, nor am I an expert on delisting anything—animals from the Endangered Species Act or rivers from the impaired list. But I wonder what model of a healthy environment is being used? Is the correct model one where rivers are free of what we consider dangerous chemicals? Or, is the correct model a river, say, with enough fish to make fishermen happy and boaters whose hulls aren’t being corroded by bad water? Or, a river free of nutrient overloads that create weed overloads, or invasive species gobbling up fish and plants we like? Or, it is a healthy river one where children can swim and play with safety and developers are anxious to develop condos on the shores?
Probably, you would say, all of the above. However, five hundred years ago our rivers were vastly different rivers altogether. They were filled with astounding numbers of otters, beavers, sturgeon, oysters, bass, offering up food for bears, cougars, and moose. They were lined with huge trees (white pines); there were no made-made chemicals, no endocrine disruptors, no phosphorus overloads, no pharmaceuticals, no bridges above leaching petroleum, or pesticides from roadside spraying. In short, even after our area’s rivers are delisted from the impaired list, they will be far less than what they were.
My point: I don’t expect that we can return our rivers to what they were—or even ascertain what a river so undisturbed by man looked like. But, given how little we actually know about the vast complexities and interactions of life on this planet, shouldn’t a more realistic model of how we judge a healthy environment include at least an estimate of what an undisturbed state of nature for our region was—however difficult that research might be? Regardless of our wonderful ability to measure stuff and decide what appeals to our sense of aesthetics, how much do we actually know how Nature works? Besides the loss of plants and animals and wetlands and large (really large) trees, is there a chance that we have lost some critical knowledge of what constitutes a healthy New York environment because we have lost the sense how life worked here only 500 hundred years ago?