[Fwd: Rachel's #624: Sustainable Development, Part 1]
Thu, 12 Nov 1998 11:02:24 -0500
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> =======================Electronic Edition========================
> . .
> . RACHEL'S ENVIRONMENT & HEALTH WEEKLY #624 .
> . ---November 12, 1998--- .
> . HEADLINES: .
> . SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT, PART 1 .
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> SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT--PART 1
> The phrase "sustainable development" was coined by the World
> Commission on Environment and Development (the "Bruntland
> Commission") in 1987. The Commission defined "sustainable
> development" as material improvement to meet the needs of the
> present generation without compromising the ability of future
> generations to meet their own needs. This definition
> emphasizes an important aspect of our ethical relationship to the
> unborn, yet it remains too vague to be truly useful as a guide
> for human activity because we cannot agree on the meaning of
> "needs." We can't really know what the "needs" of future
> generations will be, and we can't even agree on what we ourselves
> "need" vs. what we merely want.
> Fortunately, more useful definitions of "sustainable development"
> are coming into focus. By "more useful" I mean definitions that
> will allow us to reach agreement, thus giving us a common basis
> for action. In his book BEYOND GROWTH, economist Herman Daly
> defines "sustainable development" as "development without growth
> --without growth in throughput beyond environmental regenerative
> and absorptive capacity."[2,pg.69] This is an important
> definition, worth examining.
> First, let's look at "throughput." Throughput is the flow of
> materials and energy through the human economy. It includes
> everything we make and do. When we speak of "growth" we are
> talking about growth in throughput --people making (and throwing
> away) more stuff and using more energy to do it. The totality of
> the human economy is throughput. It is calculated as the total
> number of people multiplied by their consumption.
> The "regenerative and absorptive capacity of the environment"
> refers to the ability of the environment to provide (a) materials
> for our use, and (b) places where we can throw our wastes. This
> gets a little more complicated. It refers to two things --(1)
> the ability of the environment to provide us with the
> high-quality raw materials we need to make things, and (2) the
> ability of the environment to break down our wastes and turn them
> back into raw materials, an essential service.
> Let's take waste first. When we throw things away, nature begins
> to take them apart and recycle them. For example, when we throw
> away wood, natural agents (called "decomposers"), such as
> termites, begin to eat our wood waste and break it down into raw
> materials --carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, sulfur, and so
> forth. Creatures such as earth worms use the termites' wastes as
> raw materials for soil, which provides nutrients for new trees to
> grow. This is called the "detritus food chain" and it is
> essential to life on earth, though largely invisible from a human
> perspective. The detritus food chain is made up of insects,
> bacteria, funguses, and other creatures that most of us know
> little about. But without their workings, the world would become
> overloaded with wastes and biological processes would become
> clogged and stop working. If you've ever visited a modern hog
> farm, you have an idea of what it means to exceed the capacity of
> the local environment to absorb waste. It is unpleasant and
> A second major benefit that nature provides for us is
> high-quality raw materials that we can use. Herman Daly calls
> these "natural capital," of which there are two kinds. The first
> kind of natural capital takes the form of a stock, a fixed
> quantity, such as oil or coal or rich deposits of copper. We can
> use these stocks of natural capital at any rate we choose, but
> when they are used up (dispersed into the environment as wastes),
> they will no longer be available for our use, or for the use of
> future generations. (The second law of thermodynamics guarantees
> that we can never take highly-dispersed atoms of, say, copper and
> gather them back into a highly-concentrated copper deposit. The
> energy requirements of such an operation are simply too great. If
> the second law didn't hold true, as Herman Daly says, we could
> make windmills out of beach sand and use them to power machines
> to extract gold from seawater. Unfortunately, the second law
> DOES hold true, and once we disperse highly-concentrated ores, we
> cannot afford to reconcentrate them.)
> The second kind of natural capital takes the form of a flow. In
> general these flows are continuous (though human bungling can
> interrupt some of them). Examples include sunlight, the capacity
> of green plants to create carbohydrates by photosynthesis,
> rainfall, and the production of fish in the oceans. These forms
> of natural capital are endlessly renewable but can only be used
> at a certain rate --the rate at which nature provides them.
> Example: So long as we cut trees at a certain rate, and no
> faster, then nature will produce new trees fast enough to
> maintain a constant supply of cuttable trees. If we cut trees
> faster than that, nature will not be able to keep up with us and
> then people in the future will have fewer trees to meet their
> needs. The capacity of the Earth to support life will have been
> diminished. This is an example of exceeding the capacity of the
> ecosystem to regenerate itself.
> Growth, then, means quantitative increase in physical size.
> Development, on the other hand, means qualitative change,
> realization of potentialities, transition to a fuller or better
> state. On a planet such as Earth, which is finite and not
> growing, there can be no such thing as "sustainable growth"
> because growth will inevitably hit physical limits. Because of
> physical limits, growth of throughput is simply not sustainable
> indefinitely. But development CAN continue endlessly as we seek
> to improve the quality of life for humans and for the other
> creatures with which we share the planet.
> To repeat, then, sustainable development means development
> without growth in throughpout that exceeds the regenerative and
> absorptive capacity of the environment. Sustainable development
> and the standard ideology of growth stand in contrast to each
> other and, in fact, are incompatible with each other.
> Thus to be sustainable, the human economy (our throughput) must
> not exceed a certain size in relation to the global ecosystem
> because it will start to diminish the capacity of the planet to
> support humans (and other creatures). If the human economy grows
> too large, it begins to interfere with the natural services that
> support all life --services such as photosynthesis, pollination,
> purification of air and water, maintenance of climate, filtering
> of excessive ultraviolet radiation, recycling of wastes, and so
> forth. Growth beyond that point will produce negative
> consequences that exceed the benefits of increased throughput.
> There is considerable evidence that the throughput of some parts
> of the human economy has already exceeded the regenerative and
> absorptive capacity of the environment. The problem of climate
> change and global warming is an example; it provides evidence
> that we have exceeded the capacity of the atmosphere to absorb
> our carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrogen oxide wastes. Many of
> the fresh water fish of the world now contain dangerously
> elevated levels of toxic mercury because we humans have doubled
> the amount of mercury normally present in the atmosphere
> --evidence that we have exceeded earth's capacity to absorb our
> mercury wastes. Depletion of the ozone layer is evidence
> that we have exceeded the atmosphere's capacity to absorb our
> chlorinated fluorocarbon (CFC) wastes. This list can readily be
> There is also considerable evidence that we have already
> diminished several important stocks and flows of natural capital.
> The U.S. economy, for example, is now dependent upon oil
> imported from the Middle East because we have depleted our own
> stocks of oil. Most of the world's seventeen marine fisheries
> are badly depleted --a flow of natural capital that we have
> overharvested, in some cases nearly to the point of extinction.
> (See REHW #587.) This list, too, can readily be extended.
> One particular limit seems worth noting at this point. In 1986,
> a group of biologists at Stanford University analyzed the total
> amount of photosynthetic activity on all the available land on
> Earth, and asked what proportion of it have humans now
> appropriated for their own use (mainly through agriculture)?
> The answer is 40%. This leaves 60% for the use of non-humans.
> But the human population is presently doubling every 35 or 40
> years. After one more doubling, humans will be using 80% of all
> the products of sunlight, and shortly after that, 100%. Don't
> get me wrong --humans are important. But I don't know very many
> people who think it would be smart to deny every wild creature
> access to the basic food and habitat resources of the planet just
> to keep the human economy expanding. Even if we thought we had
> the right to use 100% of the green products of sunlight for our
> own purposes, the human population would have to stop growing at
> that point because there wouldn't be any more sunlight to
> appropriate. That time is less than one human lifetime (70
> years) away.
> Thus we soon will reach --or more likely have already reached
> --the point at which growth of the human economy does more harm
> than good. What is needed under these circumstances is to
> stabilize total consumption, total throughput.
> There are two basic rationales for doing this, one based in
> science and one in religion. Herman Daly offers both. We have
> heard the scientific argument, above, which says that the
> capacity of the Earth to support life is being --or soon will be
> --diminished by growth of throughput and that sooner or later we
> can only hurt ourselves and our children if we persistt on this
> path of unsustainability. The religious argument goes like this:
> "I believe that God the Creator exists now, as well as in the
> past and future, and is the source of our obligation to Creation,
> including other creatures, and especially including members of
> our own species who are suffering. Our ability and inclination
> to enrich the present at the expense of the future, and of other
> species, is as real and as sinful as our tendency to further
> enrich the wealthy at the expense of the poor. To hand back to
> God the gift of Creation in a degraded state capable of
> supporting less life, less abundantly, and for a shorter future,
> is surely a sin. If it is a sin to kill and to steal, then
> surely it is a sin to destroy carrying capacity --the capacity of
> the earth to support life now and in the future. Sometimes we
> find ourselves in an impasse in which sins are unavoidable. We
> may sometimes have to sacrifice future life in order to preserve
> present life --but to sacrifice future life to protect present
> luxury and extravagance is a very different
> --Peter Montague
> (National Writers Union, UAW Local 1981/AFL-CIO)
>  Gro Harlem Brundtland and others, OUR COMMON FUTURE (New
> York: Oxford University Press, 1987).
>  Herman E. Daly, BEYOND GROWTH (Boston: Beacon Press, 1996).
>  See any ecology textbook; for example, G. Tyler Miller, Jr.,
> LIVING IN THE ENVIRONMENT Ninth Edition (Belmont, California:
> Wadsworth Publishing, 1996), chapter 5, "Ecosystems and How They
>  F. Slemr and E. Langer, "Increase in global atmospheric
> concentrations of mercury inferred from measurements over the
> Atlantic Ocean," NATURE Vol. 355 (January 30, 1992), pgs. 434-437.
>  Peter M. Vitousek and others, "Human Appropriation of the
> Products of Photosynthesis," BIOSCIENCE Vol. 34, No. 6 (1986),
> pgs. 368-373.
> Descriptor terms: growth; sustainable development; brundtland
> commission; world commission on environment and development;
> throughput; economics; herman daly; beyond growth; ecosystem
> functioning; detritus food chain; natural capital; development
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