Meditations on Sustainability, Part One. Our Living Habitat: A Tiny Membrane


Meditations on Sustainability is a three part series created for ELBOW COLLECTIVE that considers the planet, its population and the nature of sustainable behaviour. In this first edition, Alexis LeFranc explains what is meant by 'the planetary ecosystem'

Collective awareness of our living habitat is so limited, that we do not even have a word for it. We often refer to ‘the planet’ as the place where we live. But the planet existed for billions of years until a habitat liveable to humans began to develop. It is about 13,000 km across -we dwell in fewer than 20. It is not ‘Planet Earth’ that we inhabit. Instead, we live in a very minute membrane of air, water and soil wrapped around it-let’s call it ‘the planetary ecosystem’.

Our planetary ecosystem is a shut environment, about 20 km thick and 40,000 km around. You can’t really picture it flat, so imagine it as a round balloon - we live inside the lining, not inside the balloon. Anything else above or below this lining is death to us and other forms of life.

Earth has been here for 5 billion years, and in all likelihood will last as long in the future. There is no evidence that the ecosystem will remain liveable for us. In fact, throughout most of its existence, it was too hot and too carbonated for human life. Having an awareness of the history of our planetary ecosystem can help us tell whether what we are doing today is sustainable, and if not then why. It draws our attention to how fragile we really are, despite the feeling of control we derive from ever more powerful technologies. The truth, of course, is that we can control very little. We do not know, as yet, how to engineer sustainable levels of carbon or methane in the atmosphere, nor how to control temperature changes inside our tiny planetary ecosystem. We just know that we are making both rise, mainly through industrial and agricultural activity, with dramatic consequences for us.

Aggregate global temperatures, today estimated around 14 degrees Celsius, were much hotter (between 20 and 22 Celsius) for most of the planet’s 500 million years recent history. Carbon content in the atmosphere, today rising close to 400 ppm (parts per million, or one millionth of any given amount), was over 500 ppm before the Ice Age, and went as high as 2,000 ppm in the Carboniferous era. Some say that if conditions have changed so much, so often and for so long, then surely we’ll find a way to adapt- just like the dinosaurs did.

"What can we do...we know, deep down, that greater awareness is needed, on a massive scale"

The problem is that these new conditions, which we are contributing to, do not work for us as a species. They create mayhem in our communities, disproportionately affecting the most vulnerable among us, and put the whole human habitat at risk of becoming hostile. This in return makes relationships between humans increasingly hostile, and spreads unnecessary suffering. A growing number of research papers now highlight links between the effects of climate change and sectarian strife, mass migration or full scale conflicts. Where their livelihood is threatened, humans struggle to relate to a global community, while in richer nations fear takes hold of privileged populations.

What can we do? We can of course watch what we eat and do: try to be carbon neutral, seek an organic lifestyle and limit our waste output. These are noble pursuits, although we know they will not suffice. We know, deep down, that greater awareness is needed, on a massive scale.

In an earlier post, Emily Ruygrok was making this insightful point: “It is essential that we bring forth a new level of understanding about the interconnectivity of all living things and the impact of all of our actions, that we are not powerless as individuals but an integral part of a greater whole”. Meditating on sustainability is a way to develop our consciousness of this interconnectivity.

By reflecting on the scale of our human habitat, we begin to measure how fragile it is and how much actually depends on us: what we do, but also what we say, what we think and what we know- and ultimately how we feel in daily life. ALF

Born in Paris, Alexis has lived and travelled across Europe, Asia and the Middle-East. He discovered Yoga in Russia in 2005 and has since practiced with several teachers around the world. He now works in refugee education, and specialises in Sustainable Development.