The sustainability dilemma: will we make it?

Sustainability apparently means different things to different people. Fundamentally, sustainability refers to the ability of the human race to survive into the indefinite future. The crux of the sustainability dilemma is the tension between what we want to do and what Mother Nature allows us to do while remaining on Earth. I would like to summarize and expand upon an article that appeared recently in Nature Sustainability. The article’s title is “A good life for all within planetary boundaries”. It was produced by a team from the Sustainability Research Institute of the University of Leeds, UK and the Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change, Berlin, Germany.

The fundamental constraint on sustainability derives from the fact that we’re stuck here on Mother Earth, therefore we must take pretty good care of her if we are to be around very long. What Mother provides us is breathable air, potable water, arable soil, sources of energy and a variety of raw materials that we can make into useful products. The fundamental constraint on “the good life” is our ability to realize at least a minimum level of health and other human needs. The researchers for the paper quoted above described this as the ability of humanity to stay within a doughnut; the inner boundary of the doughnut comprises the human needs requirements while the outer boundary comprises the constraints imposed by nature.

So the region of sustainability exists between these two boundaries of the doughnut. We have to have at least some minimal level of ability to satisfy human needs but we can’t go beyond those outer biophysical constraints without risking our future existence. Now, how does one go about analyzing this?

The research team broke these opposing forces into their basic components and explored their current status by examining over 150 nations and producing sustainability estimates for each of them. For example, rich nations like the United States generally exceed both the human needs boundary and, unfortunately, the biophysical boundary as well. Poor nations are generally well below the biophysical constraints but are also below the minimum human needs boundary. The future sustainability of both of these groups is unlikely if they continue their current trends. As the research group noted: “in general, the more social thresholds country achieves, the more biophysical boundaries transgresses.”

Now consider that the 2017 world population was 7.6 billion.The United Nations estimates it will further increase to 11.8 billion by the year 2100. Assuming no intervening major catastrophes, like a global nuclear war, we have to strike a balance between these two limits. Yet the amount of arable land is shrinking, thanks to climate change and poor husbandry. Our mining activities essentially reduce the availability of natural resources unless we develop much greater efficiency in recycling them.

This means we have to significantly reduce the biophysical impact of the rich countries while increasing access to the basic human and biophysical resources of the poor countries. Technology can play a part in this by making our use of biophysical resources more efficient and effective. But technology cannot solve the dilemma by itself. We need serious and continued evolution in our political and organizational processes if we are to achieve the goals of long-term sustainability.

And we need it now!

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