Saturday, April 11, 2009

"Top 10 Myths about Sustainability"

"Even advocates for more responsible, environmentally benign ways of life harbor misunderstandings of what 'sustainability' is all about," writes Michael D. Lemonick in Scientific American's March 2009 issue.

Naturally, the myth of population caught my eye.

"Myth 9: Sustainability is ultimately a population problem.
This is not a myth, but it represents a false solution. Every environmental problem is ultimately a population problem. If the world’s population were only 100 million people, we would be hard-pressed to generate enough waste to overwhelm nature’s cleanup systems. We could dump all our trash in a landfill in some remote area, and nobody would notice."

Pretty hard to disagree with that, although we were able to cause many extinctions with smaller populations. We could live sustainably at 100 million if we were conscious of our actions: no fair setting fire to the forests to make it easier to hunt. We would also have to somehow keep from increasing in number as our food supplies increased.

Lemonick continues: "Population experts agree that the best way to limit population is to educate women and raise the standard of living generally in developing countries. But that strategy cannot possibly happen quickly enough to put a dent in the population on any useful timescale. The U.N. projects that the planet will have to sustain another 2.6 billion people by 2050. But even at the current population level of 6.5 billion, we’re using up resources at an unsustainable rate. There is no way to reduce the population significantly without trampling egregiously on individual rights (as China has done with its one-child policy), encouraging mass suicide or worse. None of those proposals seems preferable to focusing directly on less wasteful use of resources."

Short version: The only two acceptable ways to improve population density are too slow, so let's ignore population and "focus directly on less wasteful use of resources."

First inadequate method: "educate women." This has been repeated so many times I doubt people think about what it means -- just nod in agreement.

It could mean that women are ignorant about ways to avoid pregnancy and need to be educated, which would be condescending and untrue in the vast majority of regions.

It could also be a remnant of the mentality generated by a historically male-dominated field: "Those baby-making machines -- women -- need to be controlled, or at least tinkered with, for desired demographic results." "Educating women" contains an element of control: it's something done to them.

Alternately, it could mean that because statistics show that the higher a woman's level of education, the smaller her family, education will improve birth rates. However, correlation doesn't prove causation.

If it were that easy, the UN could confer an honorary college degree on every woman on earth. Better yet, make it a doctorate because women with doctorates often don't have any offspring. Of course it wouldn't work because a degree is useless without opportunities to use it. Higher education can't lift all people out of poverty: it actually helps keep societies economically stratified.

Rather than education causing lower birth rates, they're both results of the same social improvement: increased status of women in a society. Gender equality allows opportunities for life choices beyond wife and mother, and subsequently brings the contraceptive services essential for taking advantage of those opportunities. When women's basic human right to determine how many offspring they produce is respected, they usually produce fewer.

Second inadequate method: "raise the standard of living generally in developing countries." It's reasoned that because regions with higher standards of living have lower birth rates than regions with lower standards of living, it must mean that higher standards of living, by our standards, automatically lead to lower birth rates. However, this Demographic Transition Theory doesn't hold true within a country -- just the opposite. Birth rates go up and down as couples' perception of their economic future goes up and down, relative to existing standards.

A couple billion people desperately need to raise their standards of living just to be on the level of livable. Another couple billion seek to improve theirs to a level that's merely modest by wealthy regions' standards. The rest of us simply want more even if we don't really need it. How many people want less than they have?

Nonetheless, according to Lemonick, it's preferable to reduce consumption than to reduce population density, and this can be achieved with "less wasteful use of resources."

This brings us to Lemonick's Myth 6: "Sustainability means lowering our standard of living. Not at all true. It does mean that we have to do more with less, but as Hawken argues, 'Once we start to organize ourselves and innovate within that mind-set, the breakthroughs are extraordinary. They will allow us to achieve greatly superior rates of resource productivity, which in turn allow us to be prosperous, fed, clad, secure.'"

All we have to do is start innovating ways to do more with less and we'll have "superior rates of resource productivity." I assume he's trying to say, "more efficient resource use." Then all seven billion humans will live well without increasing resource extraction. Make that eight billion. Oops, better innovate faster -- got another billion coming.

Actually, we're already 25% into overshoot of resource usage, so to be sustainable we have to figure out how to do much more with 75% of what we're using now. I propose sustainability myth number 11: We can raise everyone's standard of living without increasing resource use.

"Moreover, [Hawken] and others maintain that the innovation at the heart of sustainable living will be a powerful economic engine. 'Addressing climate change,' he says, 'is the biggest job creation program there is.'"

There's no shortage of work that needs to be done, but if it doesn't earn a profit, it's not going to happen significantly. "Addressing climate change" through alternative energy development could be the next "bubble" which investors work their pyramid scheme on, and that will create jobs with its "powerful economic engine," temporarily. We are to assume the people made prosperous by those jobs will breed less, and that this economic growth will be ecologically sustainable, unlike past growth.

This is the same cornucopian fantasy future promulgated by The Enlightenment which prompted Malthus to write An Essay on the Principle of Population. Thinkers of the day envisioned a world of plenty based on advances in technology and society. Not so fast, the Rev. cautioned. When life is good, people breed more and pretty soon we're right back where we started. His gloomy prediction has held true, although the scale is way beyond what he could have imagined. Today there are twice as many people living in poverty than the total world population in Malthus' time. We're always up against the limits of Earth's carrying capacity, though we've been able to temporarily increase it and even exceed it. This is not sustainable.

Times have changed since Malthus. We now have a wide-range of contraceptives potentially available, which allow couples to avoid creating more offspring than they want. Women's rights are more respected now in most regions, though progress has stalled in some. But, as Lemonick's article demonstrates, an obsolete mindset remains from Malthus' day: not much can be done about population growth.

Further, not much should be done about population growth: "There is no way to reduce the population significantly without trampling egregiously on individual rights (as China has done with its one-child policy), encouraging mass suicide or worse," Lemonick writes.

We are already "trampling egregiously on individual rights" by denying hundreds of millions of couples their right to not conceive. It's far worse to force couples to breed than to deny them their right to create as many offspring as they wish. By failing to address our unsustainable overshoot of carrying capacity, we are not just "encouraging mass suicide or worse," we are making it inevitable.

It's true that "every environmental problem is ultimately a population problem," so rather than shy away from that sacred cow, let's grab it by the horns. Reproductive freedom, increased status of women, and encouragement to refrain from procreation would go a long way toward achieving that mythical sustainability of human existence.