The Seven Sustainable Wonders of the World

CC BY 2.0. Alan Levine

Humans should be proud of these inventions, for they enable us to live gently and efficiently on Earth.

Way back in 1999, American scientist and writer Donella Meadows wrote a wonderful article titled “The Seven-Plus Sustainable Wonders of the World.” In it, she described some of the most basic yet revolutionary technologies that allow humans to live gently on Earth. The original concept comes from a book by Alan Durning, director of Seattle’s Northwest Environment Watch.

Now, nearly two decades later, the list is being expanded further by the Story of Stuff project, which posted it on Facebook (where I first saw it), asking readers to weigh in on yet more sustainable wonders of the world.

So, what’s on the list?

The bicycle – because it’s the most efficient form of transportation ever invented and can be afforded by 80 percent of the world’s population, whereas only 10 percent can afford a car (as of 1999).

The clothesline – because it runs on solar energy and is even more affordable than a bicycle.

The ceiling fan – because it requires very little energy to cool a room significantly. “A fan makes a space feel 9 degrees F. cooler than it really is. A typical ceiling fan draws no more than 75 watts, about as much as a single incandescent light bulb, only one-tenth as much as an air conditioner.”

The condom – because it controls population growth and protects from disease.

The public library – because it provides information to the world (less significant now with the Internet), but also from a sustainability perspective, which I hadn’t thought of before: “A book that is loaned ten times cuts not only cost but paper use per read by a factor of ten.”

Pad thai – because it represents ‘peasant cooking’ at its most basic, a simple yet magical combination of noodles, vegetables, a little protein, and sauce. Every culture has its version (think rice and beans) that feeds the masses relatively easily, cheaply, and nutritiously.

The ladybug – because it’s a powerful natural pesticide that can do away with plant-destroying aphids far more effectively than a chemical pesticide. Obviously, it doesn't fall into the 'invention' category.

Meadows added a few more sustainable wonders to the list, including the sari (a long, versatile piece of fabric), the basket (whose production had yet to mechanized, as of 1999, and is completely biodegradable), and the root cellar (where food can be stored for long periods of time without energy-consuming refrigeration). She writes:

“What do all these wonders have in common? Well, their kindness to the earth and to human health is what qualifies them for a sustainability list. They are accessible to anyone, inexpensive to obtain and maintain. Many of them serve not only practical but also esthetic needs; they satisfy the eye, the palate, or the soul. Most are old in concept, though they may have modern variations. Something like them has evolved in many different cultures. Most are objects you can buy, but usually from a local maker, not a multinational corporation.”

It’s a wonderful list that filled me with some emotion while I read. For the first time in a long while, I felt proud to be a human on Earth, proud of human ingenuity that came up with such simple yet life-changing inventions (minus those ladybugs!). I also felt hopeful, thinking that if such basic technology has the power to make such a difference in our lives, surely we will come up with (or revive) other ancient inventions that can steer us off the destructive course that we’re currently on.

So, back to the Story of Stuff’s question: What sustainable wonders would you add to this list?