“Sustainability” in today’s world primarily means a concern over environmental and resource sustainability, which is basically an unintended consequence of advanced technology.  When humans did not have the capacity to alter nature to extract substantially more resources, leveraging technology, the Earth was sustaining itself and was in good shape. It was humans who were vulnerable and unsustainable.  Life expectancy before the 10th century is believed to have been about 20~30 years, and it was still only about 50 years by the beginning of the 20th century.  Our lives became drastically more sustainable over the last 100 years.

But ironically, the condition of the Earth started to become unsustainable very rapidly, as humans’ sustainability drastically improved.  For about 99.99% of humans’ 100,000 years journey, they were worried about their own sustainability. Now we are worried about Earth’s sustainability. Are they mutually exclusive? Why do they have to go toward an opposite direction? Can humans achieve sustainability while leaving the Earth in a sustainable condition?

sustainability-tradeoff

Nature has explicit boundaries: ultimately it’s the boundaries of the plant Earth. Humans are limited physically, but have almost unlimited potential to create things that overcome and go beyond their physical limitation. We could say that the tension between sustainable and unsustainable is also the tension between limited and unlimited. While humans’ relentless efforts to make the impossible possible is plausible, the focus has dominantly been making something limited unlimited. Probably something like “economic growth” has long been the notion we associated with our unlimited potential.  But since we didn’t explicitly try to define “unlimited,” it’s starting to collide with the physical/material limitation of the Earth.

It’s time to start defining our “unlimited” potential, just like we perform a goal-seeking analysis. The goal can be defined by the physical/material limitation of this planet. Then we change the variables to maximize our potential. Many people fear that this would actually minimize our potential (e.g. economic growth forgone), but it’s not true. You will be surprised how much our potential can be unleashed when we stop the excessive dependence on “more” resources and materials. 

And we can call this maximization “Zero.”

“Zero” is our self-sustaining ability to reach happiness on our own, without relying on external help. Of course we’d need outside help such as food, shelter, family, job and whole bunch of stuff to pursue our happiness, but our happiness doesn’t have to be made 100% from outside help.  Actually, the less the outside help is, the deeper and more mindful our satisfaction becomes. Imagine you ran a full marathon. There would be no way you could compare the joy you’d feel when you finish if you were instead driving the same distance.

Sustainability through a Zero lens is not something we do “for the sake of” the Earth. It’s not really about “Save the planet.”  It’s really about maximizing our potential – pursuing deep, mindful satisfaction.  When this happens, our definition of “unlimited” potential becomes decoupled from the physical or material perspective.  And the distance between nature and humans become really close, and the boundaries start to blur and dissolve.  Then we don’t have to worry about the conflict between the physical limitations inherent to our planet.