What does ‘sustainability’ really mean?
January 9, 2014 at 12:01 am #7221
May 28, 2014 at 7:05 pm #8819
“Sustainability is doing (all) the things we do today, in ways such that we (including future generations) can continue to do them tomorrow, and into the future.”
Every article and every posting on the MAHB beats around the bush. Not one actually states what must be done. The statement above is another example. It is correct, yet it does not tell the reader that we must control our fertility. We must limit births.
Consider a stable environment such that the population cannot grow, and the people are not using any resources faster than they renew. The population cannot grow, because it is at the limit of how many can be sustained. First, notice that this meets the definition of sustainable. Second, notice that this describes the bulk of human history. Third, notice that we will certainly return to this state, regardless of how we behave, because it is fundamentally impossible to consume resources faster than they renew forever.
But most importantly, notice that if the people average say 3 babies, then 1/3 of all children must die. If they average 2.5 children, then 1/5 die. How many babies we average, determines the child mortality rate. So, sustainability must include the concept of not ATTEMPTING growth that cannot happen.
If the environment is expanding, for example, because we are pumping more oil out of the ground, or we discover a more efficient crop variety, then the population can grow. That expansion cannot happen forever, but more importantly it is poor science to assume that that expansion stayed ahead of our attempted population growth. In other words, we have been, and are still cramming new humans into the environment faster than we are able to expand the environment, and that means that births are killing.
We must understand this and teach it to everyone.
May 29, 2014 at 2:09 am #8827
First and foremost sustainability must equal an economy where products and services are produced and consumed so that the equal opposite environmental impact happens. Sustainability is a zero carbon economy + zero environmental footprint economy. Not just greenwashing, not 70%, but a 100% zero footprint, utilizing 100% circular economy, or bioeconomy. If wondering if this is possible at all, well it actually is possible. It is counter-intuitive to us today, but it is the only logical long term solution.
A 100% zero footprint economy is possible, we can make sure through offsetting environmental impacts with the equal opposite environmental impact, that the sum of all parts is actually zero, and when you think of the human civilization a hundred, or a thousand, years from now, that is actually the only viable, feasible way of organizing an economy (an global civilization, an anthropocene), in the long run.
It´s counter-intuitive and disrupts the current paradigm of: “consumption is bad” “The human population is too large”. With an environmental impact of true zero, no matter the level of consumption or the amount of population, the environmental impact still remains zero.
Now, there remains a whole lot to do, because we must be able to analyze, report, consult, review, audit, verify and certify true 100% zero environmental impacts.
1. We must develop globally legitimate certificates: 100% Green Product/ Service.
2. We must develop ways of selling/ financing/ distributing/ crowd sourcing R&D/ crowd funding presales and finance/ marketing, these products and services above all other non certified products and services globally. In short, we must disrupt the whole global economy with these certified products and services.
That is Sustainability; the disruption of the whole global economy as we know it today.
May 29, 2014 at 8:08 am #8831
I am sorry Vanette Kentta, but we do not know how to keep 7+ billion humans alive at one time without consuming resources faster than they renew. We must burn oil, coal, and uranium or billions will die. We use these to plant, fertilize, harvest, process, ship and preserve food. Maybe we will figure out how to keep 7 billion alive without burning fossil fuels. Maybe not. Nobody knows.
There are no green products today. None. Every single product requires human input and every human requires some portion of the destruction of non-renewables to stay alive, because there are simply too many humans. Imagine if you lived totally “green”. You have a plot of land where all your food is grown. You use only animal labor fed from your land. Now scale this to the other 7 billion. Ooops, there is not enough land. If we do not burn oil, uranium, and drain the Ogallala acquifer, we cannot produce the same quantity of food per acre.
The morality is clear and we must teach it to everyone. We are acting in a manner today that to the best of our knowledge will cause premature death. The action I am referring to is the act of averaging too many babies. We are attempting to grow our numbers in spite of the fact that we cannot keep our current numbers alive without consuming resources faster than they renew.
I have no problem with the goal of figuring out how to make 100% sustainable products, but it is dreadfully poor logic to assume this can be accomplished with our current numbers.
May 30, 2014 at 3:57 am #8841
Hi guys (and John),
Overpopulation is clearly THE issue for John, so, lets examine the concept and the problem of overpopulation a bit further.
Here is Hans Rosling making a case about global population growth: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fTznEIZRkLg
So, we are clearly NOT dealing with a Malthusian catastrophe (uncontrollable population growth), the problem we are actually dealing with is:
A. How to sustainably increase the living standards of 9-10 billion people (we are NOT dealing with a population of infinity!).
B. How to turn population growth in to zero or negative population growth as fast/soon/efficiently as possible. It is already happening, but how can we support this trend?
For A. the answer should be simple: zero impact/ footprint products and services. And for B. I´d have to say a combination of
– Free education to all 11 – 25y. women in Africa and Asia (first)
– Easy access to Microfinance for all women entrepreneurs in Africa and Asia (first).
What would those goals accomplish? All women about to have babies or planning for the future having other things on their mind, like education and starting a business, well, take a look at Japans demographics it gives a hint about what those goals accomplish.
Now, those goals seem otherworldly at first glance, so lets examine those goals a bit further. Are we talking about goals that are utterly unattainable?
As we speak three quarters of the world already have mobile phone access. http://www.worldbank.org/en/news/press-release/2012/07/17/mobile-phone-access-reaches-three-quarters-planets-population
Very soon that number will be 99%.
And as we speak most schools, universities and other organizations are already developing Distance Learning courses and lectures.
Microfinance is booming! If you haven´t checked out Kiva loans by now, I strongly recommend doing so: http://www.kiva.org/
Great vid; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b0ci3BExMB4
Conclusion; the world is already fast approaching the goals mentioned above!
And finally for the last part, is it possible to have 9-10 billion people with higher living standards than today but with zero footprint? It is counter-intuitive, weird, alien and strange, BUT well Yes it is.
And for the moral obligation; the world is changing very very fast right now,
so, the absolutely last thing to do at the most important time in the history of our species, would be smug and “know” what works and what doesn´t work. One thing should be clear by now, nobody owns a copy of a definitive “Handbook of system change”. The only sane, logical and moral thing to do is to develop the number of solutions we already got, and make them a reality bit by bit.
The problems ARE solvable, the world IS changing, the solutions ALREADY exist, we just need to be making these solutions a reality, not denying (the problems or) any solutions exist. At the most important time in the history of history, please lets at least try to be a part of the solution, not the problem.
June 25, 2014 at 9:51 am #9223
I’ve published a practical, useful definition of sustainability that grows out of the a common-sense definition of the word. Something is sustainable if it doesn’t destroy the preconditions for its own existence–that much is tautological. Observation shows us that human cultures depend on service flows from four kinds of capital: built, natural, social and cultural. If the service flows are robust enough, we can tolerate reductions in these capital stocks (this describes the past two centuries of economic development, as we increased built capital while drawing down the other three); and we may even be able to tolerate permanent reductions in those flows; but no system can be sustainable if its existence requires that it draw down any of these service flows continually. This definition doesn’t mention population specifically, but a little reflection shows that the only systems that meet this definition of sustainable will be steady-state systems–zero population grown and zero increase in matter and energy throughput in their economies.
July 2, 2014 at 5:12 pm #9387
” This definition doesn’t mention population specifically, but a little reflection shows that the only systems that meet this definition of sustainable will be steady-state systems–zero population grown and zero increase in matter and energy throughput in their economies. ”
Unfortunately this is not good enough. This is basically 2 degrees removed from the facts that must be understood by everyone. The 3 degrees are: consumption, population, and how many babies you create.
Examples of consumption: “you must not burn oil.”, “we must strive for sustainable consumption, so drive an electric car”, “recycle your garbage”, etc…
Examples of population: “We need a stable population”, “a population that is growing is unsustainable”, “we have a population bomb”.
Examples of how many babies: “You must not have more than one baby”, “You must limit the number of babies your offspring create”.
If you can snap your fingers and stabilize consumption, and are so powerful you can make that sustainable consumption, then you will indeed stabilize the population. However, that will be achieved via premature death, unless we control our fertility. Similarly, if you snap your fingers and stabilize the population, then the child mortality rate will be perfectly determined by how many babies we average. If we average 3 babies, then 1/3 of children will die.
If on the other hand, we comprehend that we must control our fertility, then we can limit our births to 1 per adult and simply wait until we are no longer consuming resources faster than they renew. Controlling our fertility can ensure that we are not killing children as a consequence of making babies too fast.
Failure to control our fertility ensure we will continue to kill children as a consequence of making babies too fast, and therefore there’s not much point to worrying about consuming in some “sustainable” manner, because the consequence of unsustainable consumption is simply premature death.
In short, any discussion of sustainability that does not directly discuss the fact that we must all know the limits to how many babies we can create, is a useless discussion.
July 24, 2014 at 6:02 am #9679
Just some waffly thoughts: I think both the definitions by Graham Pyke and Eric Zencey of “sustainability” work, although there have been some objections about maintaining present activities that are themselves unsustainable in the long-term. I wonder: Can we have a quantifiable definition of the sustainability of a society or a particular practice? E.g. How long can we continue to use rare earth elements at the current rate? How much ecological damage are we doing by burning coal, though, even though there are centuries’ worth of coal in the ground? What if we exhaust one source of capital without great ecological or social disaster and move to a different technology that exhausts another – do we then also need to include the known sustainability of that?
For most people sustainability is going to be somewhere between how long a practice can continue without impacting itself, and a stricter definition of how long it can continue without causing harms elsewhere. The kayak analogy works only because it’s all of us in one kayak deciding to avoid the rapids.
I’m not surprised at a the reaction of John Taves’s given an association of this site with population concerns. Clearly population is a factor in environmental degradation, but it’s not the only one. I see why people tend to neo-Malthuthian worries about geometric or exponential growth, but I’m not sure what we can do about it beyond encourage the “demographic transition” that is supposedly already underway, with increased access to family planning, sex education, sexual equality (I note the Ehrlichs point out this is still not achieved in Sweden) and life chances for women. In fact, to maintain a steady-state impact of our species on all others, population could rise with increasing technological efficiency, or fall if we want increased economic growth, so long as the total production of waste or exploitation of resources does not exceed the productive capacity of the Earth (“planetary boundaries”). Similarly, there may be shifts between say “built capital” (infrastructure?) and other forms of capital which are cyclical but do not necessarily endanger long-term stability because we have a plan to turn the kayak around before we get to the rapids.
I don’t quite understand JT’s argument about replacement rate. If we define replacement rate in terms fertility of adult women where child mortality is low, then replacement rate is slightly higher than 2.0 children per woman. Yes, if it’s higher than this then child mortality or adult mortality will ultimately need to rise, but that is what it means to be beyond the short-term replacement rate. It’s slightly sexist, but one could say that there are masculine and feminine ways of achieving a neo-Malthusian equilibrium: the worse way is to exploit all resources, go to war over them and kill each other or die of starvation; the other way is to consciously decide on family size.
May 30, 2014 at 2:44 pm #8845
All your arguments are based on extrapolation, and that includes Hans Rosling’s points too. Extrapolation is nothing more than saying X happened in the past, therefore it will happen in the future. This is a poor basis for drawing conclusions about the future.
Keep in mind I have absolutely no objection to any of the cool concepts you are pushing. Please explore them and make them happen. However, you and everyone else needs to stop overlooking the death that is happening right now as a consequence of our uncontrolled breeding. (Just to make it clear what “uncontrolled breeding” means; China is controlling their breeding, no other country is).
Rosling’s arguments are nothing more than an extrapolation. He shows how fertility has dropped dramatically in the past and how that drop correlates to other factors. The techniques he is using, sampling and extrapolating, are not appropriate for the topic he is discussing. It is simply bad science to sample and extrapolate something (fertility rates) that are exponential by nature (the number of offspring depends on the number of people). However, it is probably futile to show the flaws in your’s and Rosling’s arguments. So, I will focus on the thing that is being overlooked here.
He does not compare or discuss whether the fertility rates he is tracking are below some level that matters. Not once does he, or any other population scientist, ever put a value judgment on a fertility number. They always say “low fertility”. They never say “low enough fertilty”, or “below the maximum tolerable”. They frequently compare to “replacement rate”, but the definition of “replacement rate” assumes that deaths are not caused by the fertility rate. Notice what this means; the definition that scientists use for “replacement rate” is circular! It depends on itself. If the fertility rate is higher, then the replacement rate, which tells us a fertility rate, will be higher. The only way their definition of “replacement rate” has value is by assuming that deaths are not being caused by too high of a fertility rate. That is a stunningly stupid assumption. Everyone assumes this. Let me be clear on this. Scientists are assuming it is not happening, which is a horrid mistake by itself, but worse they are not investigating whether that assumption is correct or not. That act of omission, is a second dreadful mistake.
I stated above “In other words, we have been, and are still cramming new humans into the environment faster than we are able to expand the environment, and that means that births are killing.”, and you have not even comprehended what this means. You, Rosling, Ehrlich, and every other population scientist have totally ignored this possibility.
There is no such thing as “uncontrollable population growth”. We are on a finite sized planet. So of course I agree “we are NOT dealing with a population of infinity!”. This cannot be emphasized enough. Paul Ehrlich is concerned about a rising population, but why?
“How to turn population growth in to zero or negative population growth”? Answer: we can do anything we damn well please. We will have zero or negative population growth regardless of our actions. It cannot rise forever on a finite planet, so why worry about it? Well we worry because it might get so high that it causes death, premature death. It might cause the worst possible deaths; child mortality.
How to do this as “fast/soon/efficiently as possible”? Answer: shut off the oil pumps. That would cause negative population growth real quick, but obviously it would cause the premature death we are trying to avoid.
You did not ask the question: “how do we ensure that the environment is not limiting or stopping or reducing our numbers via premature death”? You didn’t even notice the answer. That is the problem with Rosling’s thinking, your thinking, and every other population scientist’s thinking. The answer is that the environment was killing children during the whole of human history because we averaged too many babies, and the environment is killing children right now as a consequence of averaging too many babies. The environment will continue to kill if we continue to ignore this.
The “Malthusian catastrophe” concept is a bad interpretation of Malthus’ writings that were in turn a poor understanding of the concepts he was close to understanding. Malthus should have said that reproduction attempts exponential growth, and given that we are in a finite sized environment, nature is killing children proportional to how many babies adults are averaging to stop or slow that attempt. Malthus should have said that we have managed to increase the environment’s capacity with numerous cool discoveries. He should have said that these may or may not continue into the future, but there is no excuse to assume that we have ever managed to increase the environment’s capacity faster than our fertility has attempted to grow our numbers. He should have thought about how that death might be detected given the fact that nature does not care how death occurs just so long as it occurs at a frequency that is related to how many children we average.
Had he thought about that, he might have recognized that because we form groups that compete economically against other groups within the same environment, then logically we’d expect some groups to suffer the death disproportionately to others. If he had done a bit of simple modeling about what must happen at the limit (see At The Limit), he would have understood that over breeding kills children and only children. He would have understood that we pointlessly sacrifice adult life expectancy to keep specific children alive. He might have put these two facts together and realized that the symptoms of over breeding, groups with horrid child mortality rates and dreadful adult life expectancy, are obviously present.
Had he published that, we probably would not have the current “malthusian catastrophe” concept which is simply a death rate that is high enough that forces us to accept that deaths are being caused by the existence of too many people, and that too many people is in turn caused by uncontrolled fertility. We need to comprehend that the malthusian catastrophe has been happening and is happening, but it is a lower death rate than you, and Malthus, and Ehrlich were expecting to see.
July 25, 2014 at 10:33 am #9685
CK, I will try to clarify the replacement rate issues.
You are correct to state that we should assume a rate slightly above 2 per woman everywhere. It is trivial to find researchers that should know better arguing the opposite. They will state that because some country has a higher death rate, they have a higher replacement rate. They assume that deaths are not caused by the birth rate when they make this sort of statement.
Note that it seems like you are assuming that births are not killing today because you said “ultimately need to rise”. This statement suggests you are assuming that deaths are not happening today as a result of too high of a fertility rate. I don’t really understand what you mean by “short-term replacement rate”. I also don’t know what “neo-Malthusian equilibrium” means. Your following sentences seem to be describing ways that births will cause deaths and maybe that is what you mean by “neo-Malthusian equilibrium”.
Just to be clear on my position. Birth are causing deaths today. We have never controlled our fertility such that it is rational to conclude that zero child mortality can be attributed to the birth rate. The symptoms of that are obvious with millions of children starving every year. If I understand “Malthusian equilibrium” correctly, I think it is safe to say that we are at that equilibrium right now. One reason we don’t know this is hinted by your statements. We seem to expect some arbitrary higher amount of misery than the child mortality we see today. Malthus said “famine” which is an arbitrary amount of starvation. He should have said “starvation”, which was present then and now. Specifically, he should have said groups suffering higher levels of child mortality that are not starvation caused by genetic incompetence (mental and physical retardation), are the symptoms we will find when we overbreed.
But, that understanding of replacement rate is still insufficient. We need a proper definition of replacement rate that I will define as the “real replacement rate”. The “real replacement rate” is defined as the minimum average number of babies that adults should create to keep the population stable when the population is not overpopulated. “minimum” is included to ensure we are not causing some of the death by too high an average. But the point I am trying to bring up is in reference to “overpopulated”. Note that “overpopulated” must be understood correctly according to the definition, and that nobody seems to understand that very definition. The definition includes the concept of “indefinitely” which means that resources cannot be consumed faster than they renew in order to keep the species numbers alive. Or to flip this around, if we humans are consuming resources faster than they renew and those resources are required to maintain the population numbers, then we are overpopulated. Obviously we are way overpopulated. We have never created sufficient food for 7+billion humans without burning fossil fuels. The point I am making is that the minimum fertility rate we see today of slightly above 2 is achieved by burning fossil fuels, which is only short term. Maybe that is what you meant by a “short-term replacement rate”, if that is so, then you might convey that better by saying it is an “unsustainable replacement rate”, given that this thread is about sustainability. My point is that the replacement rate value that scientists routinely use is both circular because it does not factor out the child mortality caused by excess births, and it is not sustainable.
But note that since we humans have never controlled our fertility to ensure that births are not killing, we have no clue what that sustainable replacement rate might be. It might not be higher than the minimums we see today. In other words a human population on Earth that does not consume resources faster than they renew and does control their fertility might discover that their child mortality rate is no higher, and possibly better, than the child mortality rate we see in developed countries today.
- This reply was modified 5 years ago by John Taves. Reason: Added the last paragraph