Ecological Sustainability

A definition of sustainability

Sustainability is defined as ‘development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.’1

1           Report of the World Commission On Environment And Development: Our Common Future.  The Brundtland Commission, United Nations, 1987

Sustainability is also about ensuring that economic, environmental and social developments go hand in hand.  At the moment economic development rules the world, to our long-term detriment.

Human beings are absolutely extraordinary!

Yes, humans beings are absolutely extraordinary.  We have shaped the planet to meet our needs and have been doing this for longer than anyone suspected.  Did you know that we would very likely be in the middle of another Ice Age if our human industry had not changed the glaciation cycle of the planet?

It was human development of agriculture, which occurred around 10,000 to 11,000 years ago, that prevented the planet going into its cooling cycle. Exposing soil to the air allows its trapped carbon to escape into the atmosphere, warming the planet a little  — enough to prevent glaciation .  Then there was methane.  When we domesticated animals in large numbers, their droppings and, yes, farts! released methane into the air also, further preventing a likely cooling of the planet.  So we started shaping our environment long before we had any understanding of what we were doing.

The atmosphere

We did not even know there was such a thing as an “atmosphere” until the late 1800’s.  The planet produces its own CO2 and methane as part of its own cycles.  The big change is the amount that we humans are producing, through extraction processes and burning fossil fuels. We are doing so much of it that the poor planet cannot possibly absorb the amount of carbon we are producing. The amount we produce is quite small overall, but it could be leading to a dangerous “tipping point” which could drive the planet into much higher temperatures, badly affecting all of us.

Carbon dioxide and methane, two of what we call “greenhouse” gasses because they act like atmospheric greenhouses to keep the planet warm, and prevent heat excaping, are crucial for our survival.  Not enough (estimated at under 260 ppm [parts per million] and the planet could start to freeze; too much and the planet heats up, with pretty dire consequences for human beings and other creatures.

For balance, the magic number seems to be 350 ppm.  We are currently over that number and some scientists estimate that we could be heading towards 500 or even 600ppm.  And that is even if we stopped all the practices that we humans do to contribute to this warming.   On the other hand, we already know what we need to do to stop and reverse this increase.  Wouldn’t it be wonderful if our leaders would stop bickering and fighting about what constitutes global warming, and we all just got on with the job of reducing it?

Watch 300 years of Fossil Fuels in 300 seconds!

Sustaining our bio-diversity

Ecological Sustainability is about sustaining bio-diversity within our eco-system.  We are currently losing species before we even get the chance to study and learn from them.  Vast tracts of the Amazon are being clear-cut to provide space for cattle to graze  – cattle destined for hamburgers in the US and elsewhere.  The problem is that a) clear-cutting destroys any possibility of the local eco-system recovering b) removing so much forest is very likely to affect our weather patterns around the world and c) if the theory that planet earth needs a certain percentage of forest cover to “breath”, then we are sacrificing our future for a few million hamburgers.   Not quite the extraordinary human behaviour mentioned earlier in terms of intelligence and adaptability!

Our massive mining and extraction systems are coming back to bite us!

The other huge change modern humans have made is to develop massive complex mining and extraction methods.  The planet is being stripped of its minerals and gasses at a truly astonishing rate.  All this mining creates more environmental damage.  Can one mining company point to a single site which they mined from and left in good condition?    John Perkins (Confessions of an Economic Hitman) describes returning to Ecuador to the place he worked while in the US Peace Corp.  The tribal group was no more  — Chevron had been in extracting oil.  Not only was the land area at the headwaters of the Amazon devastated, but the human population had been decimated. I don’t even want to think about what probably happened to them.  Oil companies employ guards with guns.

Population pressures

Population pressures are a growing problem.  We will have reached 7 billion people on earth sometime in 2011.  Most of these births take place in what we call the developing world.  But before we start screaming about why these people are having so many kids lets face a few facts. Fact one: most people in the developing world have no access to anything like financial security. There are no state welfare schemes for the unemployed, no state and few other pensions. So people have children so that they can be supported in their old age.  They have not yet quite come to terms that more of their children are surviving than they did in the past, due to access to clean water and sanitation, and immunisation mostly.

So, until one generation of people have seen their children survive into adulthood, it is very difficult to preach to them about limiting their families. And also, so few people have access to Family Planning.  Did you know that Australia does not fund any family planning activity in the countries it gives aid to?  Not sure why, but probably does not want to offend Big Brother over in the USA, which suspended family planning funding to the UN and other groups, claim they were just abortion mills.

Fact two:  the so-called developing world is not the one consuming the resources at a startling rate.  We, in the developed world, are.  The biggest culprit is the USA, which consumes about one quarter of the world’s resources and has been doing this (and more) as a deliberate government policy since the end of the Second World War.   However, we in Australia have little to be proud of, neither can Europe or Japan boast about restraint in resources consumption.   The pressures from  the growing economies of China and India are what is putting so much strain on resources.  Everyone wants them and nobody, or scarcely anybody, is asking:  where is all this going to end?

We used to depend on new discoveries and inventions — but where are they?

There is no sustainability where resources are concerned.  All that we can hope for is that someone will invent replacements  – and even then, where will they come from but the good earth?  So it is over to us to do something before it is too late.

Sustainable Business

In the long run, if we are all to live sustainably, the prevailing Dominator business ethic has to change.  We have to move from profits at any price to running our businesses to protect the planet, while making a reasonable profit.  It’s possible  – listen to what Hunter Lovins has to say about it. In …

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Cradle to Cradle

Forget about just reducing, reusing, and recycling!  It is not enough, as everything we recycle has to emerge further down on the value scale. The latest understanding in the search for true sustainability is that of Cradle to Cradle (a riff on Cradle to Grave). The idea is that the manufacturers take responsibility for using …

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