Monday, November 23, 2009

Sustainability and Social Justice: Do the Math

At the core of everything we might discuss about the future of the planet is population. If you find yourself automatically dismissing the idea of managing population, I have previously discussed population and introduced Dr. Albert Bartlett's excellent presentation on this topic. You can find a link to his work in the sidebar to the right.

Put simply, sustainable populations have always practiced population control. People try to twist this into a huge morality and governmental intervention issue, but it need not be. There are simple solutions that don't require a demagogue or dictator to tell you what you can and can't do. Part of it is education. Part of it is economic stability. Part of it is empowering women to be equals in society.

Part of it is just pulling our collective heads out of our rear ends and/or the sand. I found a pretty simple solution: one child. By choice. No governmental intervention needed. All it took to make that decision was realizing we are in overshoot. It's not complicated. Read on.

(The original source and the writer will hopefully forgive the extensive quoting, but this is worth reviewing. Please do visit the original, linked in the title below.)

Sustainability and Social Justice: Do the Math

Most people I talk to support 'sustainability' and 'social justice' goals.

...we face two serious challenges. Firstly, humanity already over-consumes the biological capacity of the planet. And secondly, humanity suffers from a vast gap between rich and poor.

Free-market fundamentalists... business-as-usual approach fails to account for ecological reality.

Do the math

...Earth's capacity by 30 per cent. This is known as biological 'overshoot'. The UN estimates that most natural services to human societies - forests, fish, fresh water and clean air - decline annually. As human population and consumption grow, our collective overshoot increases.

...the wealthy 15 per cent use about 85 per cent of the resources...

Nature's rules

Start with these facts:

1. Total human consumption = 130% of the Earth's capacity
2. The rich 15% use 85% of the stuff, and the poor 85% use 15% of the stuff

...since the rich 15 use 85% of everything, they use 110 units (130 X 85%). The poor 85, meanwhile, use the other 20 units of stuff.


The average rich person uses 110/15 = 7.333 units of stuff
The average poor person uses 20/85 = 0.235 units of stuff

Dysfunctional? Yes.

Sustainable? No.

Reality bites achieve sustainability and social justice, the rich would have to consume about 1/7 of what they currently consume... the world's poor could increase their consumption by about 4 times.

...we labour under the delusion that we'll make the world 'equitable' by growing... achieve greater wealth. We'll make our economies 'sustainable' by creating 'green' products, hybrid cars, and renewable energy.

If the Earth was an infinite... But the Earth is not infinite.

...if the rich simply cut their consumption in half and the poor could then double their current consumption...:

The average rich person would use 3.67 units of stuff, instead of 7.33. And then, the average poor person could use 0.53 units of stuff (slightly more than double), instead of 0.235. This equation alone would feed the 1 billion starving, and end world hunger.

Our equation for 100 average people would then look like this:

Rich consumption: 15 X 3.67 units of stuff = 55 units of stuff
Poor consumption: 85 X 0.53 units of stuff = 45 units of stuff

Total = 100 units of stuff for 100 average people.

The ratio between the average rich and poor would then be about 7-to-1, far more equitable than the current 30-to-1 ratio...

Growth fundamentalists will grumble... but... We do not get to rewrite the laws of biology and physics for our own convenience...

Two problems remain

...First of all, we currently add 75 million new people to the planet every year... equal to a nation such as France, Germany or Egypt. And then again, every year.

...human population growth pushes us further out over the cliff.

We now face declining oil and fish yields, but few people realise that oil and fish yields per capita peaked in the 1970s, 30 years ago.

...we must stabilise human population.

The second challenge we face is that we share this planet with millions of other species...

We cannot design human culture to devour every last niche of the planet...

Living with natural growth

Growth is not evil, it just isn't permanent. In nature, all growth stops. New organisms may replace the old, but there exist no cases in nature of endless growth. As Dr. Albert Bartlett at the University of Colorado points out, "After maturity, continued growth is either obesity or cancer." In a finite world, we cannot grow ourselves out of overshoot.

...Canadian master selection logger, Merv Wilkinson, ...managed to earn a living for over 50 years selectively logging the forest he grew up in... with more standing timber than the day he started logging...

..."It's simple really: Just cut below the annual growth rate."

- Rex Weyler

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