Heinberg on sustainability


Richard Moore

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From: <•••@••.•••>
Subject: MuseLetter for February
Date: Sat, 3 Feb 2007 08:49:34 -0800

MuseLetter #178 / February 2007

Five Axioms of Sustainability

My aim in this essay is to explore the history of the terms sustainable and 
sustainability, and their various published definitions, and then to offer a set
of five axioms (based on a review of the literature) to help clarify the 
characteristics of a durable society.

The essence of the term sustainable is simple enough: ³that which can be 
maintained over time.² 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.

It is probably safe to assume that no society can be maintained forever: 
astronomers assure us that in several billion years the Sun will have heated to 
the point that the oceans will have boiled away and life on our planet will have
come to an end. Thus sustainability is a relative term. It seems reasonable to 
take as a temporal frame of reference the durations of prior civilizations, 
which ranged from several hundreds to several thousands of years. A sustainable 
society, then, would be one capable of maintaining itself for many centuries 
into the future.

However, the word sustainable has become widely used in recent years to refer, 
in a general and vague way, merely to practices that are reputed to be more 
environmentally sound than others. Often the word is used so carelessly as to 
lead some environmentalists to advise abandoning its use.1 Nevertheless, I 
believe that the concept of sustainability is essential to the understanding and
solution of our species¹ ecological dilemma, and that the word is capable of 
rehabilitation, if only we are willing to expend a little effort in arriving at 
a clear definition.

History and Background

The essential concept of sustainability was embodied in the worldviews and 
traditions of many indigenous peoples; for example, it was a precept of the 
Gayanashagowa, or Great Law of Peace (the constitution of the Haudenosaunee or 
Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy) that chiefs consider the impact of 
their decisions on the seventh generation to come.

The first known European use of sustainability (German: Nachhaltigkeit) occurred
in 1712 in the book Sylvicultura Oeconomica by German forester and scientist 
Hannss Carl von Carlowitz. Later, French and English foresters adopted the 
practice of planting trees as a path to ³sustained yield forestry.²

The term gained widespread usage after 1987, when the Brundtland Report of the 
World Commission of Environment and Development defined sustainable development 
as development that ³meets the needs of the present generation without 
compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.²2 This 
definition of sustainability has proven extremely influential, and is still 
widely used; nevertheless it has been criticized for its failure to explicitly 
note the unsustainability of the use of non-renewable resources, and for its 
general disregard of the problem of population growth.3

Also in the 1980s, Swedish oncologist Dr. Karl-Henrik Robèrt brought together 
leading Swedish scientists to develop a consensus on requirements for a 
sustainable society. In 1989 he formulated this consensus in four conditions for
sustainability, which in turn became the basis for an organization, The Natural 
Step.4 Subsequently, 60 major Swedish corporations and 56 municipalities, as 
well as many businesses in other nations, pledged to abide by Natural Step 
conditions. The four conditions are as follows:

1. In order for a society to be sustainable, nature¹s functions and diversity 
are not systematically subject to increasing concentrations of substances 
extracted from the earth¹s crust.

2.  In order for a society to be sustainable, nature¹s functions and diversity 
are not systematically subject to increasing concentrations of substances 
produced by society.

3. In order for a society to be sustainable, nature¹s functions and diversity 
are not systematically impoverished by physical displacement, over-harvesting, 
or other forms of ecosystem manipulation.

4.  In a sustainable society, people are not subject to conditions that 
systematically undermine their capacity to meet their needs.

Seeing the need for an accounting or indicator scheme by which to measure 
sustainability, Canadian ecologist William Rees in 1992 introduced the concept 
of the Ecological Footprint, defined as the amount of land and water area a 
human population would hypothetically need in order to provide the resources 
required to support itself and to absorb its wastes, given prevailing 
technology.5 Implicit in the scheme is the recognition that, for humanity to 
achieve sustainability, the total world population¹s footprint must be less than
the total land/water area of the Earth (that footprint is currently calculated 
by the Footprint Network as being about 23 percent larger than what the planet 
can regenerate, indicating that humankind is to this extent operating in an 
unsustainable manner).

In a paper published in 1994 (revised 1998), professor of physics Albert A. 
Bartlett offered 17 Laws of Sustainability, with which he sought to clarify the 
meaning of sustainability in terms of population and resource consumption.6 
Bartlett¹s criticisms of the careless use of the term, and his rigorous 
demonstration of the implications of continued growth, were important influences
on the present author¹s efforts to define what is genuinely sustainable.

A truly comprehensive historical survey of the usage of the terms sustainable 
and sustainability is not feasible. A search of Amazon.com for sustainability 
(January 17, 2007) yielded nearly 25,000 hits‹presumably indicating several 
thousand distinct titles containing the word. Sustainable yielded 62,000 hits, 
including books on sustainable leadership, communities, energy, design, 
construction, business, development, urban planning, tourism, and so on. A 
search of journal articles on Google Scholar turned up 538,000 hits, indicating 
thousands of scholarly articles or references with the word sustainability in 
their titles. However, my own admittedly less-than-exhaustive acquaintance with 
the literature (informed, among other sources, by two books that offer an 
overview of the history of the concept of sustainability)7 suggests that much, 
if not most of this immense body of publications repeats, or is based on, the 
various definitions and conditions described above.

Five Axioms

As a contribution to this ongoing refinement of the concept, I have formulated 
five axioms (self-evident truths) of sustainability. I have not introduced any 
fundamentally new notions in any of the axioms; my goal is simply to distill 
ideas that have been proposed and explored by others, and to put them into a 
form that is both more precise and easier to understand.

In formulating these axioms I endeavored to take into account previous 
definitions of sustainability, and also the most cogent criticisms of those 
definitions. My criteria were as follows:

§  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 

Here are the axioms, each followed by a brief discussion:

1. (Tainter¹s Axiom): 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.

Discussion: I have named this axiom for Joseph Tainter, author of the classic 
study, The Collapse of Complex Societies, which demonstrates that collapse is a 
frequent if not universal fate of complex societies, and argues that collapse is
directly related to declining returns on efforts to support growing levels of 
societal complexity with energy harvested from the environment. Jared Diamond¹s 
book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed similarly makes the 
argument that collapse is the common destiny of societies that ignore resource 

This axiom defines sustainability by the consequences of its absence, i.e., 
collapse. Tainter defines collapse as a reduction in social complexity‹i.e., a 
contraction of society in terms of its population size, the sophistication of 
its technologies, the consumption rates of its people, and the diversity of its 
specialized social roles. Often, historically, collapse has meant a precipitous 
decline in population brought about by social chaos, warfare, disease, or 
famine. However, collapse can also occur more gradually over a period of many 
decades or even several centuries. There is also the theoretical possibility 
that a society could choose to collapse (i.e., reduce its complexity) in a 
controlled as well as gradual manner.

While it could be argued that a society can choose to change rather than 
collapse, the only choices that would substantively affect the outcome would be 
either to cease using critical resources unsustainably or to find alternative 

A society that uses resources sustainably may collapse for other reasons, some 
beyond the society¹s control (as a result of an overwhelming natural disaster, 
or of conquest by another, more militarily formidable and aggressive society, to
name just two of many possibilities), so it cannot be said that a sustainable 
society is immune to collapse unless many more conditions for sustainability are
specified. This first axiom focuses on resource consumption because that is a 
decisive, quantifiable, and, in principle, controllable determinant of a 
society¹s long-term survival. The question of what constitutes sustainable or 
unsustainable use of resources is addressed in axioms 3 and 4.

Critical resources are ones essential to the maintenance of life and basic 
social functions‹including (but not necessarily limited to) water and the 
resources necessary to produce food and usable energy.

The Exception and Limit to the Exception address the common argument of 
free-market economists that resources are infinitely substitutable, and that 
therefore modern market-driven societies need never face a depletion-led 
collapse, even if their consumption rates continue to escalate.8 In some 
instances, substitutes for resources become readily available and are even 
superior, as was the case in the mid-19th century when kerosene from petroleum 
was substituted for whale oil as a fuel for lamps. In other cases, substitutes 
are inferior (as is the case with tar sands as a substitute for conventional 
petroleum, given that tar sands are less energy-dense, require more energy input
for processing, and produce more carbon emissions). As time goes on, societies 
will tend first to exhaust substitutes that are superior and easy to get at, 
then those that are equivalent, and increasingly will have to rely on ever more 
inferior substitutes to replace depleting resources‹unless rates of consumption 
are held in check (see Axioms 2–4).

2. (Bartlett¹s Axiom): Population growth and/or growth in the rates of 
consumption of resources cannot be sustained.

Discussion: I have named this axiom for Albert A. Bartlett because it is his 
First Law of Sustainability, reproduced verbatim (I found it impossible to 
improve upon).10 The world has seen the human population grow for many decades 
and therefore this growth has obviously been sustained up to the present. How 
can we be sure that it cannot be sustained into the indefinite future? Simple 
arithmetic can be used to show that even small rates of growth, if continued, 
add up to absurdly large‹and plainly unsupportable‹population sizes and rates of
consumption. For example: a simple one percent rate of growth in the present 
human population (less than the actual current rate) would result in a doubling 
of population each 70 years. Thus in 2075, the Earth would be home to 13 billion
humans; in 2145, 26 billion; and so on. By the year 3050, there would be one 
human per square meter of Earth¹s land surface (including mountains and 

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.

Discussion: Renewable resources are exhaustible. Forests can be over-cut, 
resulting in barren landscapes and shortages of wood (as occurred in many parts 
of Europe in past centuries), and fish can be over-harvested, resulting in the 
extinction or near-extinction of many species (as is occurring today globally).

This axiom has been stated (in somewhat differing ways) by many economists and 
ecologists, and is the basis for ³sustained yield forestry² (see above) and 
³maximum sustainable yield² fishery management. Efforts to refine this essential
principle of sustainability are ongoing.11

The term ³rate of natural replenishment² requires some discussion. The first 
clue that harvesting is proceeding at a rate greater than that of natural 
replenishment is the decline of the resource base. However, a resource may be 
declining for reasons other than over-harvesting; for example, a forest that is 
not being logged may be decimated by disease. Nevertheless, if the resource is 
declining, pursuit of the goal of sustainability requires that the rate of 
harvest be reduced, regardless of the cause of the resource decline. Sometimes 
harvests must drop dramatically, at a rate far greater than the rate of resource
decline, so that the resource has time to recover.

This has been the case with regard to commercial wild whale and fish species 
that have been over-harvested to the point of near-exhaustion, and have required
complete harvest moratoria in order to re-establish themselves‹though in cases 
where the remaining breeding population is too small even this is not enough and
the species cannot recover.

Axiom 3 is implied in the Natural Step¹s third condition.

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 

Discussion: No continuous rate of use of any non-renewable resource is 
sustainable. However, if the rate of use is declining at a rate greater than or 
equal to the rate of depletion, this can be said to be a sustainable situation 
in that society¹s dependence on the resource will be reduced to insignificance 
before the resource is exhausted.

This principle was first stated, in a more generalized and more mathematically 
rigorous form, by Albert A. Bartlett in his 1986 paper, ³Sustained Availability:
A Management Program for Non-Renewable Resources.² 12 The article¹s abstract 

If the rate of extraction declines at a fixed fraction per unit time, the rate 
of extraction will approach zero, but the integrated total of the extracted 
resource between t=0 and t=infinity will remain finite. If we choose a rate of 
decline of the rate of extraction of the resource such that the integrated total
of all future extraction equals the present size of the remaining resource then 
we have a program that will allow the resource to be available in declining 
amounts for use forever.

Annually reducing the rate of extraction of a given non-renewable resource by 
its yearly rate of depletion effectively accomplishes the same thing, but 
requires only simple arithmetic and layperson¹s terms for its explanation.

Estimates of the ³amount left to extract,² mentioned in the axiom, are 
disputable for all non-renewable resources. Unrealistically robust estimates 
would tend to skew the depletion rate in a downward direction, undermining any 
effort to attain sustainability via a resource depletion protocol. It may be 
realistic to assume that people in the future will find ways to extract 
non-renewable resources more thoroughly, with amounts that would otherwise be 
left in the ground becoming economically recoverable as a result of higher 
commodity prices and improvements in extraction technology.

Also, exploration techniques are likely to improve, leading to further 
discoveries of the resource. Thus realistic estimates of ultimately recoverable 
quantities should be greater than currently known amounts extractable with 
current technology at current prices. However, it is unrealistic to assume that 
people in the future will ever be able to economically extract all of a given 
resource, or that limits of declining marginal returns in the extraction process
will no longer apply. Moreover, if discovery rates are currently declining, it 
is probably unrealistic to assume that discovery rates will increase 
substantially in the future. Thus for any non-renewable resource prudence 
dictates adhering to conservative estimates of the ³amount left to extract.²

Axiom 4 encapsulates Bartlett¹s 7th and 8th Laws of Sustainability. It is also 
the basis for the Oil Depletion Protocol, first suggested by petroleum geologist
Colin J. Campbell in 1996 and the subject of a recent book by the present 
author.13 The aim of the Oil Depletion Protocol is to reduce global consumption 
of petroleum in order to avert the crises likely to ensue as a result of 
declining supply‹including economic collapse and resource wars.

Under the terms of the Oil Depletion Protocol, oil-importing countries would 
reduce their imports by the world oil depletion rate (calculated by Campbell at 
2.5 percent per year); producers would reduce their domestic production by their
national depletion rates.

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.

Discussion: If axioms 2 through 4 are followed, pollution should be minimized as
a result. Nevertheless, these conditions are not sufficient in all cases to 
avert potentially collapse-inducing impacts.

It is possible for a society to generate serious pollution from the unwise use 
of renewable resources (the use of tanning agents on hides damaged streams for 
centuries or millennia), and such impacts are to be avoided.

Likewise, especially where large numbers of humans are concentrated, their 
biological wastes may pose severe environmental problems; such wastes must be 
properly composted.

The most serious forms of pollution in the modern world arise from the 
extraction, processing, and consumption of non-renewable resources. If (as 
outlined in Axiom 4) the consumption of non-renewable resources declines, 
pollution should also decline. Thus, in theory, if a society is following the 
terms of Axiom 4, these pollution problems are less likely to arise in the 

However, in the current instance, where the extraction and consumption of 
non-renewable resources have been growing for some time and have resulted in 
levels of pollution that threaten basic biosphere functions, heroic measures are
called for. This is of course the situation with regard to atmospheric 
concentrations of greenhouse gases, especially in relation to the burning of the
non-renewable resource coal; it is also the case with regard to 
hormone-mimicking petrochemical pollution that inhibits reproduction in many 
vertebrate species. In the first instance: merely to reduce coal consumption by 
the global coal depletion rate would not suffice to avert a climatic 
catastrophe. The coal depletion rate is small, climate impacts from coal 
combustion emissions are building quickly, and annual reductions in those 
emissions must occur at high rates if ecosystem-threatening consequences are to 
be avoided. Similarly, in the case of petrochemical pollution, merely to reduce 
the dispersion of plastics and other petrochemicals into the environment by the 
annual rate of depletion of oil and natural gas would not suffice to avert 
environmental harms on a scale potentially leading to the collapse of ecosystems
and human societies.

In the case that reduction in emissions or other pollutants can be obtained 
without a reduction in consumption of non-renewable resources, for example by 
using technological means to capture polluting substances and sequester them 
harmlessly, or by curtailing the production of certain industrial chemicals, 
then a reduction in consumption of such resources need only occur at the 
depletion rate in order to achieve sustainability. However, society should be 
extremely skeptical and careful regarding claims for untested technologies¹ 
abilities to safely sequester polluting substances for very long periods of 

This axiom builds upon Natural Step condition 2.


These axioms are of course open to further refinement. I have attempted to 
anticipate criticisms likely to be leveled at them, which will probably be of 
the sort that says these axioms are not sufficient to define the concept of 
sustainability. The most obvious of these is worth mentioning and discussing 
here: Why is there no axiom relating to social equity (similar to the Natural 
Step¹s fourth condition)? The purpose of the axioms set forth here is not to 
describe conditions that would lead to a good or just society, merely to a 
society able to be maintained over time. It is not clear that perfect economic 
equality or a perfectly egalitarian system of decision-making is necessary to 
avert societal collapse. Certainly, extreme inequality seems to make societies 
vulnerable to internal social and political upheaval. On the other hand, it 
could be argued that a society¹s adherence to the five axioms as stated will 
tend to lead to relatively greater levels of economic and political equality, 
thus obviating the need for a separate axiom in this regard. In anthropological 
literature, modest rates of resource consumption and low population sizes 
relative to the available resource base are correlated with the use of 
egalitarian decision-making processes and with economic equity‹though the 
correlation is skewed by other variables, such as means of sustenance 
(hunting-and-gathering societies tend to be highly equitable and egalitarian, 
while herding societies tend to be less so). If such correlations continue to 
hold, the reversion to lower rates of consumption of resources should lead to a 
more rather than less egalitarian society.14

Will local, national, and international leaders ever shape public policy 
according to these five axioms? Clearly, policies that would require an end to 
population growth‹and perhaps even a population decline‹as well as a reduction 
in the consumption of resources would not be popular, unless the general 
populace could be persuaded of the necessity of making its activities 
sustainable. However, if leaders do not begin to abide by these axioms, society 
as a whole, or some aspects of it, will assuredly collapse.

Perhaps this is sufficient incentive to overcome the psychological and political
resistance that would otherwise frustrate efforts toward true sustainability.


1. Eric Freyfogle, Why Conservation Is Failing and How It Can Regain Ground 
(Yale University Press, 2006)

2. World Commission of Environment and Development, ³Our Common Future² (1987), 

3. Albert A. Bartlett, ³Reflections on Sustainability, Population Growth, and 
the Evnironment‹Revisted.² Renewable Resources Journal, Vol. 15, No. 4, Winter 
1997-1998, 6-23. www.hubbertpeak.com/bartlett/reflections.htm

4. www.naturalstep.org

5. William E. Rees and Mathis Wackernagel, Our Ecological Footprint (New 
Society, 1995). www.footprintnetwork.org

6. Bartlett 1998, op. cit.

7. Simon Dresner, Principles of Sustainability (Earthscan, 2002); Andres 
Edwards, The Sustainability Revolution: Portrait of a Paradigm Shift (New 
Society, 2005)

8. Julian Simon, ³The State of Humanity: Steadily Improving.² Cato Policy 
Report, Vol. 17, No. 5, 131.

9. Jared Diamond, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (Viking, 
2005); Joseph Tainter, The Collapse of Complex Societies (Cambridge University 
Press, 1988)

10. Bartlett 1998, op. cit.

11. E.g., Simone Valente, ³Sustainable Development, Renewable Resources and 
Technological Progress² in Environmental and Resource Economics Vol. 30, No.

1, January 2005, 115-125.

12. Albert A. Bartlett, ³Sustained Availability: A Management Program for 
Nonrenewable Resources.² American Journal of Physics, Vol. 54, May 1986, 398-402

13. Richard Heinberg, The Oil Depletion Protocol: A Plan to Avert Oil Wars, 
Terrorism and Economic Collapse (New Society, 2006). 

14. See, for example, Marshall Sahlins, Stone Age Economics (Aldine, 1972).

Gerhard Lenski, Power and Privilege (University of North Carolina Press, 1977); 
and Ivan Illich, Energy and Equity (Calder and Boyars, 1974).

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