Richard Heinberg on Sustainability

by Catherine Haug

ESP’s Mission states, in part:

We build community, live sustainably, preserve and cultivate local resources …

So I thought it quite apt to discuss just what is meant by ‘living sustainably.’ How timely, then, when Edmund sent to his email list an article by Richard Heinberg from 2007, titled “Five Axioms of Sustainability.” This is definitely worth a read, as the meaning of the terms “sustainable” and “sustainability” get watered down by commercial interests and the media. You can find his article on his blog:

What is an Axiom?

Before getting to the meat of Heinberg’s article, let’s first explore what is meant by an ‘axiom’.  Many people think it is the same as a “law” or a “truth.” But this is not exactly so. Wikipedia provides the following definition:

In traditional logic, an axiom or postulate is a proposition that is not proved or demonstrated but considered to be either self-evident, or subject to necessary decision. Therefore, its truth is taken for granted, and serves as a starting point for deducing and inferring other (theory dependent) truths. … Outside logic and mathematics, the term “axiom” is used loosely for any established principle of some field.

Heinberg, states he used the following criteria to determine his axioms:

  • To qualify as an axiom, a statement must be capable of being tested using the methodology of science;
  • Collectively, a set of axioms intended to define sustainability must be minimal (with no redundancies);
  • At the same time, the axioms must be sufficient, leaving no glaring loopholes; and
  • The axioms should be worded in terms the layperson can understand.

What is Meant by ‘Sustainable’

Heinberg offers this definition:

“‘That which can be maintained over time.’ By implication, this means that any society, or any aspect of a society, that is unsustainable cannot be maintained for long and will cease to function at some point.”

He goes on to assert that in societal context “sustainability” is a relative term, because, as with an axiom, one cannot know what happens when one approaches infinity. No society can endure forever.  So, he refines his definition of a sustainable society as:

“A sustainable society, then, would be one capable of maintaining itself for many centuries into the future.”

To be sustainable, then, a society cannot select what it wants to sustain and what it can allow to be depleted.  In other words, we can’t decide to sustain one resource at the expense of another resource.

Heinberg’s Five Axioms of Sustainability

NOTE: I only present the axioms here; please read the article for the discussion. These axioms help one to grasp the deeper meaning of the term.

Axiom 1. (Tainter’s Axiom) [defines sustainability by its absence]: Any society that continues to use critical resources unsustainably will collapse.

Exception: A society can avoid collapse by finding replacement resources.

Limit to the exception: In a finite world, the number of possible replacements is also finite.

Axiom 2. (Bartlett’s Axiom): Population growth and/or growth in the rates of consumption of resources cannot be sustained.

Axiom 3. To be sustainable, the use of renewable resources must proceed at a rate that is less than or equal to the rate of natural replenishment.

Axiom 4. To be sustainable, the use of non-renewable resources must proceed at a rate that is declining, and the rate of decline must be greater than or equal to the rate of depletion.

The rate of depletion is defined as the amount being extracted and used during a specified time interval (usually a year) as a percentage of the amount left to extract.

Axiom 5. Sustainability requires that substances introduced into the environment from human activities be minimized and rendered harmless to biosphere functions.

In cases where pollution from the extraction and consumption of non-renewable resources that has proceeded at expanding rates for some time threatens the viability of ecosystems, reduction in the rates of extraction and consumption of those resources may need to occur at a rate greater than the rate of depletion.


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