Category Archives: Energy Technology

What Does “Sustainability” Really Mean?


The Solar Fire P32

I was recently re-reading an entry on solar-powered industry from the fascinating website, LowTechMagazine. It contains photos and a description of the “Solar Fire P32,” a 15 kW solar collector capable of achieving focal-spot temperatures of over 700C. This can melt virtually all the materials from which the collector is made, and the author points out that, “This means that you could use a Solar Fire P32 to make another Solar Fire P32.This blew my mind a little bit.

I was surprised to realize, in retrospect, how careless and limited my definitions of sustainability and autonomy had been. None of the “green” energy technology I had ever worked with was anywhere close to being truly sustainable, because all of it put together would be incapable of driving the manufacturing processes from which any of it emerged.

Photovoltaic (PV) panels and parabolic trough collectors are not bad things, but they cannot realistically reproduce themselves. I realized that we need a more precise vocabulary to describe and discuss different kinds and levels of autonomy and sustainability: A community powered by PV systems represents, at best, only a kind of faux-sustainability, because it relies on technology that cannot be replaced when it breaks or wears out. On the other hand, a system based on solar thermal might be able to recreate itself, if conceived with this intention. We need a language that can reflect this distinction between 1) an excellent but limited energy technology that can last decades but which cannot be repaired or replaced by an industry powered by itself, and 2) a truly autonomous holistic system, which can maintain and regenerate itself essentially forever.

Ironically, I will use the terms “autonomy” and “sustainability” somewhat carelessly and interchangeably here. I thus show my prejudice for decentralized systems: For the purposes of this discussion, I assume that without sustainability there can be no long-term autonomy; and without regional autonomy, there can be no certainty of sustainability. The distinction between these terms (sustainability, autonomy) may also deserve a precise treatment, but that must wait for another time.

So here is a first attempt to create a nomenclature for the different flavors of sustainability and autonomy. Note that in the first three cases, the word “autonomy” is a misnomer, or at least used very loosely.

The Categories:

Disaster Autonomy, or Survivalism. Included for completeness, and to describe a certain mentality, Disaster- or Survival Autonomy promises no more than temporary independence from accustomed supply-lines and infrastructure. The implicit assumption is that normality will return or that something else will establish itself before too long. Simple examples of this might be anything from some energy bars and bottled water, to a well-stocked fallout shelter with a diesel generator, or other supplies for surviving natural disasters, nuclear war, failure of the monetary system, or the zombie apocalypse.

Complicit Autonomy may be a conscious choice or the result of incomplete thinking about autonomy. It creates the illusion of a longer-term solution than survivalism, but Complicit Autonomy is still based on commercially available energy products, materials, and designs that emerge from the industries of our current economic system.

A Western European consumer, when dreaming of a “green” or off-grid home, will typically imagine Complicit Autonomy: Prefabricated compost toilets; store-bought wood-burning stove; PV panels and battery-powered tools, water pumps, vehicles; polar fleece textiles; and so on. It protects a privileged group, temporarily and locally, from the failure of the current economic system… by putting the crisis off for a while. To the extent that the consumer products are needed, the autonomy of the privileged group comes at the expense of other exploited human beings and ecosystems.

The line between Survivalism and Complicit Autonomy is not sharp, but rather depends on matters of degree, and on intention and consciousness. Likewise, it is intention and consciousness that distinguish Complicit Autonomy from the next entry: Transitional Autonomy.

Transitional Autonomy is a conscious compromise between where we want to go and where we are now. For the time being, true and complete autonomy probably exists only among indigenous groups; we can learn from them, but for non-Luddites they are not a model to romanticize or replicate. Some older religious communities—the Mennonites of the Americas for example—perhaps also come close. Among more recent projects, even ecovillages of high atavism and integrity, e.g. Tinker’s Bubble, rely on industrial products that they cannot produce themselves.

Many individuals and groups in the ecovillage movement are interested in recovering the skills and infrastructure to, for example, grow their own fiber and make their own textiles. But to actually be self-reliant in these ways would fully occupy an entire community’s efforts. Without exception, they either do not have the commitment to renounce products of global capitalism, or they do not feel that they can currently effect the greatest global change by investing their time and labor in achieving complete autonomy.

A community might, for example, install PV or wind energy, knowing that this is only to power their work until the social and technological structures can be developed for true independence from the current system of exploitation and destruction. Whether this is rationalization, laziness, and hypocrisy, or a sound set of priorities, I will not debate here. For these definitions, I accept that the intention—to move towards a sustainable culture in this way—is both sound and sincere.

Sovereignty, or Sovereign Autonomy, is probably the highest level currently practiced outside of a few surviving pre-agricultural indigenous groups, and maybe some Old Believers in Siberia. There may be products, conveniences, and technologies in the sovereign community that can not be sourced or created regionally, but the basic functioning of the community does not depend on them. A sovereign group cannot be pressured or manipulated by outside forces because of dependence on unsustainable conveniences, even if—for as long as they are easily accessible—they remain present in the life of the community.

Sovereignty would be an ambitious and appropriate goal for a contemporary ecovillage. If the knowledge and skills, technological and human, are present, for true, absolute autonomy; then it’s not clear what would be served by giving up coffee, 4G phones, or ibuprofen. It might be a perfectly good choice to renounce these things; but such a choice might come from ego, ideology, or a Protestant need to suffer and feel holy. A community that is capable and ready to make the complete transition out of the global economy, by choice or necessity, has accomplished something valuable and indeed extraordinary. They would represent such an important role-model and information resource, that it would probably be best that they keep their smartphones, continue to update their web sites, and even get in airplanes occasionally.

Absolute Autonomy–for communities manifesting what we would recognize as civilization–can probably only be achieved at a regional level. While studying how and why to be absolutely autonomous is worthwhile, it is not clear what it would actually serve to live this way.

Absolute Autonomy simply means that every material and human resource present in the community (or regional network of communities) arises from materials, human skills, and labor, from within the community or region. Any needed infrastructure should also be entirely created and maintained regionally and sustainably.


These definitions are not based on hardware, but on the human and material processes behind the hardware. For example, photovoltaics can be part of Absolute Autonomy… if the needed materials, manufacturing infrastructure, and technical education are all sustainably available within the community or region. Many new technologies perceived as “green” would also need to be thought about in this way: Electric cars, wind power turbines, lithium batteries, polymers, and high-tech materials generally require techniques, infrastructure, and materials which are localized, and currently available only through systems of exploitation and privilege.

Nevertheless, less regional pictures may also be possible, in which concentrated solar power in sunny areas drives the production of (for example) PV panels or wind turbines, for communities living with more diffuse sunlight, all in a sustainable global system. Autonomy becomes harder to define in such a case.

The point is not to think small, but to really see the interconnections between choices: Where does a mirror come from? Who makes it, out of what, and with what kinds of tools? And where do the tools come from? Where is the needed training, to make the mirror, or to make the tools? Who has access to the training, and why?

When we use the word sustainable, we need to know what were saying: That nothing needs to move in or out of the region in question, for the human communities of the region to function indefinitely. The resources, knowledge, skills, materials, and technology need to sustain, maintain, and reproduce themselves into the future. It may be fine if these conditions are not fulfilled, at least in the short term. But unless we use the word sustainable with some care and integrity, we risk failing to create solutions that deserve the name.