Sustainability Unpacked: Food, Energy, and Water for Resilient Environments and Societies, by Kristiina A. Vogt plus a conglomerate of authors, is a somewhat technical book that analyzes recent global data about the planet and its human population, and attempts to draw links between human activities and our planet’s stock of finite material resources to see if some populations can, will, or do attain “sustainability.”
This book delves into the sustainability data by national borders: in a given nation, how are they doing, proportionally, with regard to human population, forest area, agricultural land, fresh water availability and treatment, and energy resources? While there are problems with examining global sustainability by the politically-consensed-upon boxes of national borders (when, in reality, the Earth and her overlapping ecosystems have no such borders), one reason to do so is to examine how the political conditions of particular nations (especially, in comparing decision-making processes and histories of “developed” countries with “developing” nations) impact their consumption of natural resources.
“Natural resources…” I feel compelled to say that this term gives me the willies. I should note here, that my overall discomfort with this book (and others like it) is its assertions that continued heavy manipulation by humans of their natural ecosystems is the only methodology for achieving global sustainability; simply–and simplistically, in my opinion–because humans have heavily manipulated their landscapes up to this point in history, so we are just going to keep doing so. Thus we need to use science and governments respectively to develop formulas for global equilibrium (aka “sustainability”) and implement those formulas effectively. Since surviving my arrogant one-size-fits-all attempt to develop a universal method for 100% sustainable living in 2008, this attitude agitates and disturbs me, for reasons I will discuss elsewhere. However, I recognize how widespread is our society’s faith in science and government (over other methods of knowing), so I respect the weight of such publications in shaping future activity around sustainability. I also respect the authors’ expertises in their areas of study, and their urge to share what they know in the ways they know it.
Of the many socio-environmental-economic vertices studied, when comparing a country’s measure of sustainability to other factors affecting the country, the data proclaims one thing clearly: the two most pronounced trends globally, is that sustainability is contraindicated when a country suffers from (1) hunger issues, and (2) lack of education.
The point about hunger is somewhat intuitive: in an area where people are spending a huge proportion of their income on food, and/or food is unavailable, wars may break out (damaging the land), plus people will tend to hunt and forage for food even in ecologically sensitive areas where endangered plants or animals may live. When social instability occurs, agricultural (food) instability follows… and when people are hungry, they will fan out into the forests, into the untouched land, and eat whatever they can get their hands on. The problem with this is how much viable land we have already consumed, and currently consume, for our various human activities. The moral question of solving hunger is obvious, yet has sadly failed to compel effective action. In considering global sustainability, treating hunger becomes a strategic issue: how can we prioritize conservation and give time for recovery to endangered ecosystems, if hunger remains such a huge worldwide problem?
The education correlation is not as thoroughly explored in the book, but I would hypothesize that even a basic education, if it does nothing else, equips people with critical thinking skills, allowing them to make better decisions on a small scale, and analyze their government’s performance on a national scale. Of course, there are many benefits to education, but I believe the basic effect of it can be boiled down to how capable and willing a person is to seek new viewpoints, consider their own viewpoint from a critical angle, and actively engage with the broad issues that affect their lives. If your world is as small as your local village, then actions from outside of that that infringe upon your way of life may be disastrously bewildering. Education prepares us for navigating a world of many diverse experiences, for discerning complex patterns, and for raising awareness about complex issues that may go beyond our direct experiences.
Before reading Sustainability Unpacked, I came across the idea that poverty and education are themselves connected–through fertility rates. Raising the social status of women and educating them have been linked to lower birth rates in developing nations. Also, I learned in From Naked Ape to Superspecies that lowering infant mortality rates also lowers fertility rates. When women see children dying around them, they will tend to have more children than they desire in order to secure the actual number of children they want. Lower population in a region feeds back to the issue of a lower demand for food in the region (although when it comes to sustainability issues, not all babies are created equal–a First World person will consume many times more resources than a Third World person.) Lower human populations (more space for other species), and higher standards of education for all, intuitively affirm my understanding of how we might achieve sustainability. The strategy of increasing women’s social status–meaning more personal empowerment for them to make decisions regarding their own lives–I believe will have many beneficial, widespread and myriad impacts on society–impacts which include fewer humans, more education, and possibly, an improved chance at sustainability.
FreeRice.com–This wonderful website elegantly merges issues of hunger and education, by challenging you to correctly guess synonyms for words in exchange for rice donations in impoverished countries. They have now added multiple subjects, so you can study a foreign language, math, even history too, while donating rice! It is one small way to sharpen your mind while improving hunger issues. Share it with your children!
Can you think of other ways in which sustainability, hunger, and education overlap?