Sustainability in a Nutshell

July 17, 2003

by Starhawk

* Click here for a translation in Espanol

To create a sustainable culture and society, we need to change our understanding of how the world works. The mechanistic model of the world that underlies many of our most unsustainable practices sees the world as a fixed, static thing made up of isolated parts that interact in simple, cause and effect relationships. To create not just sustainability but ongoing abundance, we need to understand that the world is a web of dynamic relationships, that everything exists in communities and nothing stands alone.

We can’t benefit one part of a community at the expense of another and expect that community to last. We can’t orient our economy, our agriculture, our forestry and our science to produce profits for the few, and expect our system to survive. But if we consider how to create beneficial relationships among all aspects of a community, the health and abundance of the entire system will increase.

A forest is not just a factory for producing doug firs — it’s a community of plants, animals, birds, insects, soil micro-organisms, mycorrhizal fungi, and human beings. A business is a community that includes the whole biological community that creates the resources used, those who do the work and make decisions and ultimately use what is created.

I practice permaculture, the art of designing beneficial relationships to produce systems modeled on natural systems, in my home and gardens, and find it a useful lens for looking at any system. I also practice magic, “the art of changing consciousness at will.” One tool I find useful for thinking about sustainability is the magic circle of the four elements, air, fire, water and earth, with spirit in the center. When making a decision, we can ask:

How will this affect the air, the climate? The birds and insects? Will it bring inspiration and refreshment?

How much energy will this use, and where will it come from? Will it use more energy than we take in? How much human energy will it require? Will it energize or drain us?

How will this affect the water? The fish, sealife, and water creatures? Will it use more water than we have? How do we feel about it?

How will this affect the earth? The health of the soil? The microorganisms and soil bacteria? The plants and animals? The forests?

How does this affect our human community? Will it benefit the poorest and least advantaged among us? Does this reflect and further our deepest values? Will it feed our spirit?

Sustainable abundance is a goal we can move towards. No one in this society can lead a totally sustainable life today, but if we ask the right questions, we will begin to move in the right direction.

To learn permaculture, effective activism, and magic with Starhawk and co-conspirators Erik Ohlsen, Penny Livingston-Stark and Charles Williams, see information on Earth Activist Training at (page will open in a new browser window).

Copyright (c) 2003 – 2006 by Starhawk. All rights reserved. This copyright protects Starhawk’s right to future publication of her work. Nonprofit, activist, and educational groups may circulate this essay (forward it, reprint it, translate it, post it, or reproduce it) for nonprofit uses. Please do not change any part of it without permission.