Posted by: chrismaser | October 28, 2009


Constraints are limitations to freedom, which many people in our society view as unnecessarily restrictive to human “rights,” however “rights” are defined. What must be understood, however, is that absolute freedom cannot exist because everything is defined by its relationship to everything else. And, by functional definition, every relationship is a constraint on absolute freedom. In other words, all relationships are constantly changing, which means you, as well as everything in the universe, are continually responding to changes that are induced outside of yourself and therefore out of your control; these are non-negotiable constraints. Nevertheless, by understanding constraints and constructively using those that are negotiable, such as your behavior in response to circumstances, you can acquire a measure of desired control, which is analogous to freedom. But, if you react to the circumstance, then it controls you and limits your freedom in like measure.

The constraints imposed by Nature, such as climate, are for all practical purposes non-negotiable. Nature’s constraints are the biophysical circumstances we are given to work with, such as the effects of a volcanic eruptions that are ongoing around the world, over which we have no control. In contrast, constraints imposed by society on itself, either consciously or unconsciously, are negotiable—but not without consequences, as the inviolable biophysical principles posted under “Nature’s Rules of Engagement” make clear.

Clearly, then, sustainability is a reciprocal relationship between the people of a community and their overall environment—without and within. As a community alters its landscape, so the landscape defines the community. As a community alters the dynamics of it infrastructure, so the infrastructure determines how the citizens must behave. Therefore, if a the members of a community want something from the surrounding landscape, sustainability dictates that they determine how they must treat the ecosystem in question to allow it to respond in the way they want by providing the ecological services they require on a long-term (=sustainable) basis. In the final analysis, sustainability is not an endpoint, as currently construed, but rather a journey of consciousness dictated by the growing necessity of accepting and living within the constraints of nature’s inviolable principles to the benefit of all generations and the biophysical systems that support them.

Consider, therefore, that any time a community creates a vision for its future, it’s trading freedoms. For example, to have more open space, a community must voluntarily limit the growth of its human population because one cannot have unlimited growth and simultaneously maintain a viable system of open spaces in a land area that is fixed in size—as all useable land ultimately is.

Thus it is that members of a community must choose, and in so doing, they gain more freedom in one area by giving up some freedom in another area. Here, it’s important to understand that not making a choice is still making a choice, but most likely an unwise one.

By imposing voluntary constraints on some freedoms and relaxing constraints on others, a vision not only becomes something against which the attainment of and the consequence of an outcome can be measured but also becomes a tool for holding the creators of the vision accountable for that outcome. Moreover, when local people craft a vision, they become the government and thereby empower themselves to guide the destiny of their future. However, they simultaneously become accountable for the rate of change in their own population and thus the rate of change they exert on their community and its immediate landscape. The farther into the future a community plans, the more biological diversity a community can save, protect, and pass forward to the next generation.

That said, there is an important fundamental consideration that one must address at this juncture: the notion of “cultural capacity” (the quality of lifestyle) versus carrying capacity (the absolute number of individuals a habitat can support). Cultural capacity was naturally built into the indigenous people’s nomadic way of life; when conditions of livability became unfavorable, the people moved to an area with favorable conditions or split into groups.

On the other hand, when their life became sedentary with the advent of agriculture, cultural capacity had to become a conscious choice, if for no other reason than the rising human population and the question of what to do with the continual accumulation of human offal, garbage, and diseases, which are part and parcel of a sedentary culture. But cultural capacity as a conscious choice did not materialize. It was forcibly interjected into human culture by the cumulative effects over-using the immediate environment, which became increasingly clear through habitat alteration and degradation—also part and parcel of a sedentary way of life.

People in society today spend much time arguing whether an ecosystem is natural or unnatural ecologically, right or wrong morally, good or bad economically. Yet, neither ecosystems nor habitats are either natural or unnatural, but rather are a continuum of naturalness. Consider, for example, that a mountaintop untouched by human alterations constitutes the most natural end of the continuum, while a shopping mall constitutes the most cultural end. Such a continuum can easily be symbolized as follows: N<—————>C, where N represents the most natural end of the continuum and C the most cultural end. Everything in between, depending on where along the continuum it falls, represents a degree of naturalness and a degree of culturalness.

The question for us today is where along this continuum must we of necessity maintain a piece of land if the whole of the landscape, in the collective of our individual choices, is to be sustainable, both environmentally and socially. The answer depends, in large measure, on our chosen lifestyle.

Although we may think ourselves wise in our own eyes, we are too often blind to the truth that we neither govern nor manage Nature. We treat Nature wisely or unwisely for good or for ill, but we do not control Nature. We do something to Nature, and Nature responds, and in the response lies the lessons we are loathe to learn—lessons about lifestyle.

Lifestyle is commonly defined as an internally consistent way of life or style of living that reflects the values and attitudes of an individual or a culture. Many in Western society have made lifestyle synonymous with “standard of living,” which we practice as a search for ever-increasing material prosperity—as measured by materialistic acquisition. If, however, we are to have a viable, sustainable environment as we know it and value it, we must reach beyond the strictly material and see lifestyle as a sense of inner wholeness and harmony derived by living in such a way that the spiritual, environmental, and material aspects of our lives are in balance with the capacity of the land to produce the necessities for that lifestyle.

Whether a given lifestyle is even possible depends on “cultural capacity,” which is a notion used to describe, in qualitative terms, the kind of lifestyle a community wants to enjoy measured against the ability of the community’s surrounding environment to sustain that lifestyle. “Carrying capacity,” on the other hand, is strictly quantitative in that it represents the maximum number of animals—or people—that can live in and use a particular area without destroying its ability to function in an ecologically specific way. Where cultural capacity deals with the quality of life per individual, carrying capacity deals only with maximizing the number of individuals to the threshold of habitat destruction, beyond which the population will collapse.

If we want human society to survive the twenty-first century in any sort of dignified manner, we must, at the very least, have the humility to view our own population in terms of local, regional, national, and global carrying capacities, because the quality of life declines in direct proportion to the degree to which the habitat is overpopulated. But, if we want a lifestyle that is more than simply survival, we can substitute the idea of cultural capacity for carrying capacity and have a workable proposition for sustainable community.

Cultural capacity is a chosen quality of life that is sustainable without endangering the productive capacity of the environment. The more materially oriented the desired lifestyle of an individual or a community, for example, the more resources are needed to sustain it and the smaller the human population must be per unit area of landscape. Cultural capacity, then, is a balance between the way in which we want to live—the real quality of our lifestyle and our community—and the number of people an area can support in that lifestyle on a sustainable basis.

Cultural capacity (which equals quality) of any area will be less than its carrying capacity (which equals quantity ) in the biological sense. Cultural capacity has built into it the prudence of limitations as a margin of safety in the event of such long-term phenomena as global climate change. Carrying capacity, on the other hand, uses the environment to its maximum and lacks a margin of safety for difficult years or unforeseen environmental changes, which, when they occur, as they always do at some point in time, wreak havoc on the population. The long-term environmental risks hidden in the momentary notion of an area’s carrying capacity, when exploited to the maximum, have doomed more than one civilization to collapse by destroying the biological sustainability of the surrounding landscape.

David Skrbina, while a graduate student at the University of Bath, in Bath, England, posed the problem a little differently. As Skrbina sees it, the challenge faced by most human populations is one of scale. In order to sustain itself, a given human population must maintain a size that is both compatible with a concept of community and consistent with a human scale, which not only means a community of a size that fosters people actually knowing one another but also means a community of a size that fits with ecological comfort into its immediate landscape.

The problem of human population has two dimensions, according to Skrbina—the size of the population and the density of the population. While a large population can be a problem, “it is a different problem if those people are packed onto a small island than if they are spread across a large prairie.” Population has two factors that must be simultaneously accounted for—the number of people and the area of landavailable to support them sustainably in order to make cultural capacity a workable idea.1

We can, for example, predetermine local and bioregional cultural capacity and adjust our population growth accordingly. (Bioregion is used as a geographically definable area of biological similarities, which is largely self-contained when it comes to a supply of water.) If we choose not to balance our desires with the land’s capabilities, the depletion of the land will determine the quality of our cultural/community/social experience—our lifestyle. If, however, we choose to balance our desires with the land’s capabilities, then we will model our social-environmental planning in a way that honors Nature’s non-negotiable constraints by emulating Nature’s biophysical processes, which means humanity would leave a much lighter imprint on the Earth to the benefit of all generations.

Related Posts:

• Why Be Concerned With The Building Blocks Of Sustainable Planning

• Feedback Loops

• Of Human Relationships And Social-Environmental Sustainability

• Grieving For Our Environmental/Social Losses

• Transportation—Efficiency Or Effectiveness, A Choice Of Focus

• Is Space A Resource?

• Open Space—A Biophysical And Cultural Necessity

• An Urgent Plea For Open Space

• Surrounding Landscape

• Riparian Areas And Floodplains

• Restoration Of A Specific Condition Is Not Possible


  1. David Skrbina. Convivial Communities. Resurgences, 196 (1999):16-18.

© Chris Maser, 2009. All rights reserved.

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If you want to contact me, you can visit my website. If you wish, you can also read an article about what is important to me and/or you can listen to me give a presentation.

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