Is True Sustainability Sustainable?
I equate striving for sustainability—the practice of not depleting the Earth’s resources—with achieving a certain harmony. On my way to Machu Picchu, I can’t help but observe how the indigenous people in Peru live. The distance from farm to table here sometimes is no more than a few yards. Textiles are made locally, guinea pigs are raised in one part of a room and baked in another, meat and fruits and vegetables are grown at home and might be sold at a farmer’s market, housing is made of adobe bricks and tin roofing. I do not think the people here are doing all of this because there is any other viable alternative.
Sustainability by Choice
I think of how many of us pursue sustainable living in the United States by consuming organic, locally grown fruits and vegetables (to the extent feasible and convenient, just don’t wonder too much where your coffee beans come from, or most of your spices), by drinking cold-pressed juice, by seeing a yogi and an acupuncturist, by using bamboo for kitchen floors or buying artisan-made mugs from which to sip green tea. So many of us, myself included, think we practice sustainability while still getting a full head of highlights, facials, manis and pedis, new fashion—even if made of organic fiber—every season, Kindles, notebooks, iPhones. I can’t help but wonder who is paying for all of this personal sustainability, or how we are paying for all of it, and if the means by which we are earning an income is really helping the Earth in any substantive way.
I also think about what people, myself included, interested in sustainability here want: perhaps we want everyone to eat more locally grown food, to purchase more locally made products, to live in more recyclable housing. Please treat the Earth better so our kids’ lungs won’t be black, their air will be clear, the water swimmable, drinkable. Poor people practice sustainability because they have to, and wealthy people practice it because they want to while I wonder about what the poor people living sustainably would want to do if there were more income on their side of the spectrum.
Sustainability of Necessity
I can’t help but think about what the indigenous people of Peru want, even as they live very sustainably. What they might be wishing for is dental work, a better roof, a place in the city. My guide tells me that old traditions are being lost here, because the kids don’t want to continue the ways of life of their parents and grandparents; the kids want to head to cities. They want to go to school. They might like an iPhone.
What I also see is a standard of living that needs to rise. My guide tells me that unemployment in some part of this country reaches 28 percent. My guide books tell me that export of coca leaves helps bolster income. It looks to me like building codes are few here. I understand that many people do not have health insurance. I am not certain incomes can increase while ensuring the natural beauty of Peru, or while conserving its historic sites.
We in wealthy nations can do so much more to become less of a disposable society. Here in Peru, in its markets, I see all parts of butchered animals—heads, tongues—for sale as food. Alpaca wool is used to make sweaters; alpaca meat is on sale at the market. Resources are used fully. I don’t see a lot of waste. I see indigenous people selling their wares to tourists.
How could income be increased in Peru? By inviting more tourists in, or by exporting more goods or natural resources seem like logical choices to me. But then, doesn’t the Earth suffer just a bit more with either choice? As I travel here and marvel at the tranquility of this place, I can’t help but wonder whether true sustainability—the practice of not depleting the Earth’s resources while treating workers well and paying them decent wages—is even possible.
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