Sunday, 22 September 2013

Acts of Terrestrial and Extra-terrestrial Leadership

'Sustainability' arose from the concept of 'sustained yield' in the 1980s which describes agriculture and forestry practices which can be continued indefinitely. This idea has since been applied in many areas, and with less precise meaning, and has been adopted by political leaders to describe job creation goals, population increases, energy consumption and resource increases. Dr Albert Bartlett (pictured) teased out several flaws in our Western approach to growth from the 1970s to the 1990s. He first suggests that we start by putting a time frame around sustainability of 'an unspecified long period of time'.

That makes sense - if we really want something to be sustainable, it really does need to come back to that idea of long-term sustained yield.

But then Dr Bartlett faces us with a second, and far more difficult idea to swallow. Thinking about the mathematics around growth, we can get some very big increases in some fairly modest lengths of time. When considering fixed growth percentages, a "population of 10,000 people growing at 7% per year will become a population of 10,000,000 people in just 100 years" (Bartlett, 1978, as cited by Keiner, 2006).

Our New Zealand government is talking about 4% growth in New Zealand as attractive. How on earth do we sustain even that? The 'rule of 72' is R x T = 72, where R is the rate of growth, and T is time (WikiHow, n.d.). So a 4% growth rate is 4 x T = 72, with T being 18 years. For example, if you bought a house this year for $500,000, by 2031 it would be worth $1m. Wages will also have to more than double in that time, else the gap between rich and poor will continue to increase, as will poverty, the cost of health care and crime.

This means that we need to keep increasing what we each consume each year, we need to keep spending more, keep borrowing more and keep producing more. It is all feeling a bit like a rat race. It certainly makes me want to go bush.

The idea of sustainable growth implies that we can keep endlessly increasing, and that we have infinite space and ability to grow. However, there's a flaw in this idea. It looks more and more like we have a finite amount of resources, ecosystems and there's certainly a finite amount of planet. Thus, Dr Bartlett's first law states that population growth coupled with resource consumption growth are not sustainable.

But there's another glitch. Our 'population response time' or 'population momentum' is the length of an average human life; circa 70 years (Bartlett & Lytwak, 1995, as cited by Tverberg, 2009). This means that the turnaround speed for us to do anything constructive about growth and real sustainability is 70 years.

That is a seriously long time for the planetary population to harmonise on what we are going to do about sustainability, and to then stay focused ondoing the right thing for our environment. I seriously doubt our global political will, and I think our fragmentation will hamstring us.

But we might not have to worry. It is starting to look like life on earth may well have been seeded from space (Mendelsohn, 2013). If we muck it all up here and trash the planet, there will be more life along in a few billion years - a mere eyeblink in the universal cycle. Hopefully the next tenants of Sol #3 will get it right.


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