The following is an excerpt (and rough draft) of a chapter I’m working on about sustainability. I have a limit of 2000-4000 words. As usual I’m trying to cram as much as possible into that limit. Much of this rehashes (and in some cases pillages) other writing I’ve done on the blog, but hopefully the synthesis brings out something new. I will be posting excerpts here for feedback and your reading pleasure as they are finished. My working title is “Why Recycling Doesn’t Matter”.
One of the things that distinguishes homo sapiens from other species is the degree to which we are able to manipulate our environment. Other species also manipulate their environment. Beavers build dams. Birds build nests. However, beavers and birds are not capable of destroying the ecosystem on which they depend. There are cases where a species overruns their ecosystem. For example, when natural predators are absent a species might become overpopulated and eventually deplete their food source. The difference is that in the case of non-human species they quickly find themselves subject to the laws which govern ecosystems and face disastrous results with massive die-offs and possibly extinction. In other words, non-human species have a limited ability to manipulate their environment and generally are subject to the restraints that make healthy ecosystems function properly with give and take between species and a balance between predator and prey, plants, fungi, animals, bacteria, etc.
In the case of homo sapiens, however, we cleverly found ways to “free” ourselves from these constraints, at least so we believe. The first step to our “freedom” was agriculture. Once we were able to produce food from the land in excess of our immediate needs, we could then store it and be able to survive and not be subject to what nature provided hunter-gatherers in the form of foraged crops and wild game. The most important thing that agriculture made possible was the ability to support larger populations. Agriculture provided a more stable and abundant source of food which meant that homo sapiens were no longer subject to the limitations of other species. As populations grew, this quickly meant that villages and cities could no longer support their populations without expanding. This led to the impulse to expand and conquer territory through war, violence and coercion in order to support ever expanding populations.
A quick glance at a chart of the population growth from the beginning of agriculture to the present is revealing. Notice that the change happens on an exponential growth curve in which the population appears to grow relatively slow at first and then suddenly spikes. Industrialization in modern agricultural certainly plays a role in the continuation of exponential population growth in the 20th century. We also know that we reached 7 billion people almost two years earlier than predicted. It took from the beginning of agriculture until 1804 for global population to reach 1 billion. It only took 118 years for it to double at 2 billion in 1922 and only 52 years to double again in 1974. Current pace is adding another billion in population approximately every decade. Most, including the United Nations, predict that global population will likely level off around 9 billion.
Many claim that modern industrial agriculture will continue to be able to feed this many people. Current yields in industrial agricuture depend heavily on extracted hydrocarbons to provide everything from fertilizer and pesticides to fuel for tractors and transportation. Suffice it to say that the ability to feed so many people is the result of extracting finite resources and artificially inflating the carrying capacity of our natural systems. Global agricultural production currently produces 3,500 calories per person per day, 1,500 calories more than the recommended daily allowance, enough for the whole world to be obese.
The question is how many people can be fed sustainably using current or alternative practices. Remember that in order for something to be sustainable It must be able to continue indefinitely with little to no negative impact on our natural resources and the ability to replenish and support those natural systems on which it depends through its practices. The discussion around what kind of agriculture can feed the world and maintain a healthy ecosystem is complicated and beyond the scope of this chapter. The key point here is that population and its effect on ecosystems appears to be something that we are able to control. However the reality of overpopulation is that many people will eventually die in order to achieve balance. It’s possible that an adjustment in population will happen whether or not we are willing to face this uncomfortable topic. Regardless, population is a major factor in the sustainability of our continued existence on this planet.
Because agriculture and other technologies appear to free us from the constraints and limits placed on other creatures, we have come to believe that we are able to control nature. The trends of population growth, as well as the war and violence associated with the need to feed growing populations reveal the reality of this freedom. While there are things we can do to limit population growth to a certain extent, there are limitations and laws of physics that we do not have control over. The combination of the myth that we are somehow different and apart from nature coupled with the myth that we have the ability to control and manipulate nature in defiance of the laws of thermodynamics leads us to the next myth, that our ability to manipulate nature into technologies will continue to save us.