The # of Humans Problem! Or, the Ongoing Framing of Sustainability through Implicit Mainstream Premises

“The question must be raised: how many humans can the Earth sustain under the unavoidable constraints of climates and soils?” –Preface to Sustainability Unpacked

When researching formal literature on sustainability, I often encounter questions and statements like this one.  From this mainstream framing, “sustainability” is viewed as being an issue of finding a way to manageably “fit” together the puzzle pieces of the natural environment and our human aspirations.  It is no wonder to me that my original design for the Sust Enable episode series in 2008 consisted of seeking a universal “one-size-fits-all” system for balancing that finicky ratio of existing humans to natural resources.  I bought the premise that we humans have managed to transgress our niches in the global self-regulating ecosystem, and thus we desperately need to speed up our efforts–whether through advanced technology or massive consensual behavior change–to “fit” on planet Earth.  This attitude is, to put it mildly, twisted.

Within this question, posed so early on in Sustainability Unpacked, there are several premises I’d like to, myself, unpack.

1. Your question is too narrow.  Here’s my suggestion for a better question:
“Given almost 7 billion humans at the time of writing, and one planet Earth, what kinds of people would be able to sustain themselves here?  What kinds of systems would allow for the maximization of life potential (recognizing that human potential is usually enhanced through enhancing overall living systems)?”

2. “How many humans” is lazy wording.  It’s how we choose to live, not how many we are.  A huge proportion of the human population today lives within a sustainable environmental footprint–it is the consumption behaviors of just a small percentage of humans that are responsible for sucking up resources at an unsustainable rate.  The quantity of humans on the planet right now is a result of how we have chosen to live and conceptualize the world.  The number of humans we have today is representative of belief and value systems that are and have been in operation lately, not of some unavoidable “natural” imbalance.

However, “how many humans” plus the language of “the unavoidable constraints of climate and soil” (see below), implies that humans will continuously multiply, out-of-control, naturally, until some external “constraint” hampers them.  This is not really true–it is just a popular assumption.  Note that this assumption implicitly elevates humanity’s privilege to procreate infinitely, over the planet’s longstanding capacity to provide for a diverse living ecosystem.  (When actually, the former is dependent on the latter… but that’s another blog post.)

3. “The unavoidable constraints of climate & soil.”  Here, and elsewhere in this book and many others like it, emphasis is placed on limitations, on what cannot be done.  On page 8 in Sustainability Unpacked, the authors assert “[w]e have no models for humans living sustainably” and, later, that we have no models for intentionally reducing consumption–which are, in my view, dubious assertions.

Here’s the issue with talking about so-called “unavoidable constraints”: soil health, oceans, components of the atmosphere, people, etc.–none of these things can be effectively quantified.  Each of these things is not a hard object to be counted and divided, but a transitory state of being.  Thus each of these types of phenomena are best measured qualifiably–that is, they are accurately measurable on the basis of their relationships.

The book somewhat reflects this point by clarifying the difference between value-generation that is “renewable” (solar, wind, human creative, some kinds of natural resources) versus depleting (fossil fuel, mining/extractive, some kinds of natural resources).  The inclusion of “natural resources” in both categories of value-generation hints that quantity does count–there is a significant difference between sustainably fishing the oceans, and overfishing them.  Yet even the seemingly quantifiable phenomena, like daily joules of sunlight, are completely open-ended in terms of how we interpret them.  Literally, in the sunlight example, sunlight as energy gets “interpreted” (metabolized) by plants, humans in the form of electricity, humans in the form of vitamin D, absorbed into oceans, and so many other forms–and this is all variable.  This resource-interpreting process is dynamic and can change, from one instant to the next.  Assuming for a moment that humans don’t touch them, the square footage of the world’s forests may seem like a static amount, and may seem like fixed “constraints,” but that’s a myth: well before humans appeared on Earth, forests have moved, expanded, and contracted, all over the world.  Thus, articulating the square footage of the world’s forests is a pretty weak expression of what the existence of forests actually mean.  (And why does every last ounce of fresh water, every last joule of sunlight, have to be quantified–and thus, potentially claimed–for serving human needs?!?  But that’s another blog post.)

4. This question, to me, implies some kind of functional “stasis”–some perfectly balanced equation between number of humans and full account of planetary resources.  But, despite the fact that humans live as though the planet is in stasis, our planet is never in stasis.  Except relatively–depending on the parameters you define, it might appear in stasis, but it never really is.  The world, including humans, is profoundly dynamic.  Let’s stop looking for a mythical “homeostasis,” and let’s just dynamically engage with our world as it is right now.  Trying to artificially maintain a state of human-centered environmental stasis is, from this anarchist’s perspective, just another state to maintain.  Thinking about today’s global challenges in terms of maintaining a self-serving state of affairs is off-the-mark, and contains subtle dangers.  Engaging dynamically from our unique experiences, rather than seeking to maintain a state of stasis, may come closer to achieving sustainability, in the sense that engaging dynamically better imitates an ecosystem than the planning/plotting/accounting/governing “sustainability”-minded efforts currently spearheaded by the already-powerful members of society.  An ecosystem may achieve a relative measure of stasis, but as the living things embedded within it know, from their vantage point, it sure doesn’t feel anything less than dynamic at any moment, as we actively compete for territory, seek food, have sex, take a rest, cultivate the relationships that support us, and in every way actively and qualifiably create the conditions for life to arise in the next moment.  So let’s throw out the illusion of stasis, and throw ourselves all into this process–what else is there to live for?

It’s funny to realize that I probably wouldn’t have read the straightforward question that opens this blog post twice in 2008, nodding with earnest anxious concern along with the authors about our imbalanced predicament… whereas now, I feel that these premises are juicily problematic.  However, I wonder if the ways in which I see them as problematic might be invisible to the authors, as my current perspective was invisible to me in 2008.  Thus I don’t suppose the reason they quickly pass through their premises in the book is to intentionally mislead the readers.  Yet this narrow framing of the issues, in terms of “survival necessities” and the fault of “irrational” human activity in throwing off possible rational frameworks for solving the problems presented by sustainability, are, at best, a pretty neurotic way to frame our situational issues.  In what ways would sustainability be best pursued by relaxing the neurotic anxieties that plague our modernized lifestyle… and accepting the evolving reality as our knowledge develops, resting in our sense of who we are, why we are alive, and what we each must do?  To quote Ram Dass quoting Timothy Leary:

“Richard, how many times do I have to tell you: we don’t have a ‘problem’–we need a plan.”

Today, we don’t have a problem with global unsustainability.  We need to believe we can change our premises, and thus, change our material reality.  We need plans, we need experiments, and we need dreams.


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  1. Pingback: "Constraints to Human Capital": Unpacking "Sustainability Unpacked" | Sust Enable: The Metamentary

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