Sustainability: Systems-style thinking and our Native American past

Sustainability is a word that is thrown around today with increasing frequency but too seldom pinned down and thoroughly defined.  In searching for a comprehensive and appropriate definition, I found many attempts too limiting, incomplete in scope.  With each consecutive search, more questions arose and the task grew in complexity.  I will not be able to define sustainability in entirety today, but I believe there exists essential terminology that cannot and must not be ignored in a conversation on the topic, pillars of the sustainability discussion, if you will.

First, sustainability is not exclusively an environmental concept.  Let us call a bathtub filled with water ‘a stock of water.’  If the plug is pulled, the water will run out and the stock is depleted. This is an outflow. If, however, the faucet is turned on so that the inflow of water exactly matches the outflow, the stock is said to be in a state of dynamic equilibrium. The stock of water inside the bathtub is maintained, and the system should be described as sustainable. This is a small example and ignores the original source of inflowing water but illustrates an important point: sustainability must be framed within a systems-style of thinking; considering inflows, outflows, and resources, often limited ones at that.

Two more integral aspects in defining sustainability are resourcefulness and forward thinking.  The three together help explain why I chose the picture below, the face of a Native American man’s face depicted through the earth’s terrain and animals, as my representation of sustainability.  I believe many of the Native American tribes adeptly prescribed to sustainable living practices, whether socially, commercially, or environmentally.  They were resourceful by using every part of the animal they killed, wasting nothing.  They left little footprint ecologically, living in modest structures made of biodegradable materials and used fuels negligibly detrimental to the surrounding environment.  They lived this way because they maintained a systems way of thinking.  They, unlike their white European counterparts, understood that they were just a part in the greater system of Mother Nature, one cog in the machine of natural forces maintaining dynamic equilibrium.


The Iroquois, in particular, were very forward thinking.  In my research for this assignment I came across the concept of seven generation sustainability, an ecological concept practiced by the Iroquois that urged the current generation to live in a manner beneficial to those seven generations removed from the current one.

(Taken from Wikipedia)

Oren Lyons, Chief of the Onondaga Nation, writes: “We are looking ahead , as is one of the first mandates given us as chiefs, to make sure and to make every decision that we make relate to the welfare and well-being of the seventh generation to come. . . .” “What about the seventh generation? Where are you taking them? What will they have?”


To view my inspiration and read further, visit the sites below.

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