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.  Continue reading

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Hunger and Education are the Two Biggest Factors Affecting a Place’s Sustainability, according to “Sustainability Unpacked”

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.

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