Or: the good, the bad, and the ugly
Despite more than a bit of misuse in popular culture, what the word “sustainable” actually means is simple – though the implications are quite profound for us all – and it’s this (from merriam-webster.com):
- : capable of being sustained
- a : of, relating to, or being a method of harvesting or using a resource so that the resource is not depleted or permanently damaged
b : of or relating to a lifestyle involving the use of sustainable methods
So here’s my interpretation for the purposes of this discussion (and my own philosophy):
An activity is sustainable if it in no way impedes the ability of future generations to live their lives or to engage in the same activity or other activities – for all intents and purposes forever.
If an activity does not meet that test, then it is unsustainable. Can’t keep it up forever. Can’t sustain the activity indefinitely. If you try to keep up that activity forever, then eventually you crash. It’s a fail.
Sustainability is not a nicety. It’s a requirement and a hard fact. If an activity is unsustainable, then that means we will stop doing it – eventually. The only question is whether we cease the activity voluntarily, or are forced out of it through diminishing options – or whether we ourselves will meet our end before it becomes an issue. (As one cynic put it: We will keep doing what we do until we can’t any more, and then we won’t.)
So that’s my strict definition. But “forever” is a little hard for the human brain (at least my human brain) to comprehend and plan for. When I think about this stuff, I tend to think in more discrete chunks of time, because it’s easier for me, and it clarifies my thinking: five thousand years from now, ten thousand. Will our heavy industry still be consuming at its present rate in ten thousand years? Will the Three Gorges Dam still be standing? Will we still be mining for cobalt?
This, of course, is a blog about art materials, and more than anything else it’s about colors. So which colors are sustainable? Which are not? Which are finite, but nevertheless are abundant enough to probably last the long millenia?
These are the materials that really could last pretty much until the end of the world. Non-destructive, renewable, natural organic colors (definition here) that can be raised or wildcrafted in one’s own bioregion (geographic backyard), and can replenish themselves, through careful horticulture or natural propagation, and can be prepared over a simple fire using abundant, locally available ingredients – these are probably the only colors that can be considered truly sustainable by our strict definition above. One can conceivably at least keep up that activity pretty much forever, so it does pass that test, assuming it’s done with care. (However, it should definitely be noted here that not all natural organic sources pass the test. More on that in the next post.)
Also, I think we can go a little easy on ourselves here and throw the natural earths into this category. Although technically they are finite (especially the nice brightly-colored ones), well, there’s just a heck of a lot of the stuff out there. It’s a little hard to imagine artists ever managing to use up all the red earth in Arizona – or Brazil.
The pigments that are most clearly unsustainable, for various reasons that should be fairly obvious, are the ones that are manufactured from petroleum or other hydrocarbons. These synthetic organics (definition here) are going to go away sooner or later – more likely sooner. For me this is the most easily identifiable group. Flatly not sustainable, because petroleum isn’t. End of story. I’ll actually be rather surprised if they manage to still be around for much longer than another decade or two.
Perhaps slightly less obvious are the pigments that merely require a hydrocarbon-driven industrial process for their manufacture. They may not have petroleum as their basic feedstock, but they are just as dependent upon it for their existence. I don’t see how this group can make it out of the cellar either. I’ll be going through a few examples in later articles.
Any material which is finite is therefore, strictly speaking, unsustainable. However, common sense and a little research indicate that there are certain natural inorganic materials that are so plentiful (and in some cases highly recyclable as well) that we probably don’t really need to worry about them, at least not for a very, very long time. Iron and alum in particular, which can be used to make Mars pigments and lake pigments, will almost certainly not deplete completely from the major regions of the earth in any time scale meaningful to this discussion. Also, the minerals calcium, sodium, potassium and sulfur – also used in the creation of lake pigments and some other pigments – are in abundant supply as well. There are a few other materials that I also count as reasonable candidates for this group, depending on other factors.
So, luckily, I doubt we will ever be restricted to using natural inks and earths only, even though they’re the only materials that actually made it into our “good” category. (As much as I love natural inks, I do like to make an oil painting once in a while.) We’ll be collecting earths, and making lake pigments and a few synthetic inorganic pigments (definition here), for a long, long time to come.
Forever? Can’t answer that. Ten thousand years from now? Almost certainly.
Details to follow…