What does sustainability mean?

Posted on August 9th, 2019
Grain field in Norway

August 6, 2019

I’m currently visiting my Daughter and family in Norway. As always I enjoy observing the differences in cultures, societies and the way people do things in different countries.

Norway prides itself as a leader in clean energy and other environmental practices that are “sustainable”. Norway is a leader in hydro-electric production and electric car utilization. Forty percent of new car sales are electric. Hi-efficiency wood pellet and garbage burning energy plants abound. Trees are fully utilized.

The intensive use of agriculture, forests and aquaculture may not be sustainable by the definition of others. How destructive to wild species and bio-diversity are the Norwegian practices? In other places environmentalists and scientists oppose many of these same practices as unsustainable.  

Clear cutting forests is the major methodology of forest harvest in Norway and Sweden. They do seem to be stopping the planting of non-native tree species, which had been done previously.  Many times, I see second growth forests that are dark, with no underbrush just like the clear cuts of SE Alaska that environmentalists have fought to stop.  With private lands in Nordic countries this is much harder to stop versus public forests.

Alaska has banned farmed salmon to protect wild salmon.  Norwegians bemoan the loss of wild salmon but are the world leaders of promoting farmed salmon.  Has Norway had the same diseases spreading to wild fish and the local farm pollution that other areas of farmed salmon are experience?

Russians are negatively impacting Norway by bringing Pacific Ocean species such as red king crab and pink salmon to Western Russia along the Norwegian coast.  These species are expanding their territory with negative consequences for native species of fish in Norwegian rivers.

Farming is highly subsidized in Norway.  This promotes clearing of natural forest lands into fields of grass, grain and livestock in Norway. There is no diversity of plants on these lands compared to adjacent lands which have incredible flowers, berries and tree diversity. How does this change the flora, fauna, insect and microbiological environment in Norway?

Does sustainable mean “naturally sustainable” as the original balance of nature was?  Or, does it mean sustaining an altered human production mode of agricultural, forest or aquaculture usage? Land could be used as a tree farm and only measured for its sustained yield of one species of tree.  Land could be used as a farm and only measured for its sustained yield of one crop of wheat, corn, rice or potato.  A bay or fjord could be used to farm Atlantic salmon and only measured for salmon production.

Hawaii is an extreme example of an altered land mass and biosphere by humans.  Only a small percentage of land is covered by native plants.  Hawaiians are struggling to keep native plant and tree species alive. This has also extended to native birds. The masses of birds you see in Hawaii are introduced species whether on the ground, in the trees or in flight. Many Hawaiian birds have gone extinct and many more are endangered because the native plants they were adapted for have disappeared. Rats, mongooses, feral cats and other feral animals are also destroying native birds and plants.   

We can find some places in the world where humans have not taken over and totally altered the environment, but these places are increasingly rare.  Even in remote uninhabited islands that I have been to like the Aleutians, South Georgia, Svalbard or the Antarctic Peninsula the impacts of heavy harvest of sea mammals, introduction of species like rats or reindeer have changed the environment significantly. Four hundred years later whales have not returned to Svalbard in any comparable numbers.

Wiping out salmon to a mere shadow of itself in Washington, Oregon and California has altered the environment in ways we can no longer measure or even imagine.  We have no baseline to compare to.  We can go to Alaska and see and measure the impacts of returning salmon runs so thick “you can walk on them”.  When you see the abundance of salmon in Alaska you can then imagine how the Columbia River should look and the tremendous loss humans have wrought on the Columbia River and all the rivers of the west coast of America and Canada.

As I tour Norway and Sweden how can I imagine what is missing or changed from the alterations by humans over thousands of years? Is what I see sustainable or will it be altered again in a few generations? Are current practices “sustaining” more than humans?

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