A primer on sustainability
sus•tain•able adjective. Date: circa 1727. 1: capable of being sustained. 2 a: of, relating to, or being a method of harvesting or using a resource so that the resource is not depleted or permanently damaged ~ techniques> ~ agriculture> b: of or relating to a lifestyle involving the use of sustainable methods ~ society>.
Many change efforts fail because they lack clarit y about the underlying rationale and purpose. Organizations that are leading the way toward sustainability make extensive efforts to clearly understand the end goals. This requires lucidity about what sustainability involves. One way to comprehend sustainability is by following the plight of Pacific salmon. Salmon and steelhead are remarkable mysteries of nature. The fish have evolved through thousands of years of struggle to survive in rivers, streams and oceans from northern California to Alaska's Aleutian Islands. Salmon are born in freshwater streams. When they reach juvenile status, the fish migrate, sometimes hundreds of miles, to the sea, where they spend from one to four years, depending on the species, feeding on the abu ndant food that the oceans provide. Adult salmon and steelhead then somehow miraculously return to the very same freshwater streams where they were born, to lay their eggs before they die. The circle of life then begins again, as it has for aeons. Salmon and steelhead were abundant in the Pacific Northwest through roughly the mid -1880s. They were a prime source of food and had religious and cultural significance for indigenous peoples. Indeed, salmon were the backbone of human society in the Northwest for thousands of years. The salmon's home—their habitat—is rarely static. The physical make-up of the streams in which they live changes constantly. Landslides occasionally bury a spawning or rearing area with silt and debris, rendering it u seless for a time. Fires or drought alter the water levels and modify the basic chemistry of the aquatic habitat on which the salmon depend for survival. Floods sometimes rapidly and dramatically rearrange the size and shape of streams while sweeping young salmon smolts away to their death. Ocean conditions also continually change. Despite these constant trials and tribul ations, the Pacific salmon have survived for thousands of years. Why? Because whenever one stream or watershed was destroyed, salmon would quickly migrate to another nearby intact waterway. They found refuge in these aquatic safe havens and began their cyc le of life once again. The salmon had options, life-sustaining options that allowed them to withstand the inevitable hardships of life. In the past 120 years or so, Pacific salmon have lost many of their options. As overfishing occurs and more and more watersheds have been degraded by human activities such as logging, urban development, dams, water pollution and stream -side farming, fewer and fewer aquatic safe havens have remained for the salmon to migrate to when times get tough. As their su rvival options have
shrunk, so have salmon populations. Researchers believe that more than 16 million anadromous salmon returned to the Columbia River Basin of the Pacific Northwest through the mid -1880s. By the 1990s only 2 or 3 million salmon returned (NRC 1996). By 1999, over 90% of all wild native sea-run Pacific salmon were extinct or listed in the US Endangered Species Act as near extinction. The story of the salmon is the story of sustainability. Sustainability is about protecting our options. This r equires a new economic paradigm that allows humans to live and work in ways that can be maintained for decades and generations without depleting or causing harm to our environmental, social and economic resources.
Protecting our options
Just as the survival of the Pacific salmon depends on the existence of a diverse array of healthy watersheds and streams, to protect our options we must place as much (or more) emphasis on maintaining and...
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