Minnesotans For Sustainability©
Sustainable: A society that balances the environment, other life forms, and human interactions over an indefinite time period.
John Cairns, Jr.*
Management of Earth's resources will not attain sustainability unless tough questions are asked and the merits and disadvantages of conflicting paradigms are rigorously examined. Two major conflicting paradigms are: (1) economic growth will solve all problems, including environmental ones —the free market has negated the dire environmental forecasts and relegated them to the status of myths; and (2) human society is dependent upon the planet's life support system- it assumes that the present rate of biotic impoverishment (e.g., species extinction, loss of habitat) will so alter the biosphere that it will be less habitable for humans. Dominant, global practices are based on the first assumption, which, if invalid, will have dire consequences for human society. For example, anthropogenic greenhouse gases causing a modest rise of global temperatures could produce 20 million environmental refugees from Bangladesh alone as a consequence of a sea level rise that would inundate 17% of the country's habitable land. Implementing the second paradigm would require major, mostly unpalatable, changes in human behavior. Since, at present, humans occupy only 1 planet, the precautionary principle suggests acting more cautiously with regard to economic growth until its effects upon the planet's ecological life support system are better understood.
Hubris kills, as countless myths and folktales warn. During the 1999 football season, a traditional bonfire structure collapsed on the campus of Texas Agricultural and Mechanical University, killing 23 students.
Collapses had occurred 3 times previously, 1 as recently as 1994. Officials at Texas A&M were well aware of the dangers and after the 1994 collapse had produced a handbook of guidelines and regulations to be followed by the engineers in charge of the annual project. The ecological ethics involved in such a public display on the campus of a center for higher education deserves a separate disquisition. The important aspect for this discussion is that, as of early December 1999, Texas A&M administrators were still wondering what to do about a 90-year-old tradition before rearranging their priorities. This indecision is almost certainly due to an uncertainty about long-term public opinion on this issue.
In a similar vein, but on a larger scale, Murphy (1999) links population
growth and prosperity with densely populated Hong Kong as an example of hubris.
If Hong Kong had a plastic dome over it, the air would soon become far less
breathable, arguably fatal, unless human behavior changed dramatically. Hong
Kong is livable because it is embedded in a larger ecological life support
system-it is literally propped up by an ecological life support system several
orders of magnitude larger than itself. Weaken some of its props, and the area
becomes unstable. Hubris is assuming the system is inherently stable. Except for
the difference in scale, the ecological life support system is much like the
Texas A&M log pile, except that the latter has been demonstrably
unsustainable while the biosphere has not yet proven to be so as dramatically.
As Cohen (1995) notes, calculating Earth's carrying capacity for humans is virtually impossible. Uncertainties are too numerous, and all predictions are conditional. Still, population projections, such as Frejka's (1933), are worthwhile even if some are outdated. In one scenario, Frejka's estimate is about 15 billion people between 2040 and 2045. A United Nations (1992) projection has a high figure of about 28 billion. These projections, nearly 2 decades apart, have a difference far in excess of the 6 billion global total reached in 1999.
Some major considerations are related to these projections:
Evidence of belief in economic growth paradigms abounds, but the belief in science and rationality appears far lower. Even though the evidence for deteriorating ecosystem health (i.e., biotic impoverishment, global warming) comes almost entirely from science, much of the evidence is being disregarded, often even vilified, for reasons based on political expediency. With a frail national consensus (which appears to reflect the global view) about science, a prudent, rational approach toward ecosystem health seems unlikely. Severe deleterious consequences might shift this view, but then the options for remedial action will be severely restricted, possibly even nonexistent.
In this era of economic and technological dominance, the findings of science about global warming and other major environmental issues fall into the category of: 'I wouldn't believe it even if it were true.' Kuhn (1970) stated it more eloquently: 'A paradigm is a belief so strongly held that when contrary evidence appears, the evidence is rejected.' The present societal dilemma is that a significant body of scientific evidence indicates that global warming, resulting from anthropogenic greenhouse gases, should be taken seriously but would require a major shift in human behavior to abate. Accepting this evidence would require substantive changes in both economic and technological practices. Denial of the need to reject the dominant paradigms ('All economic growth is good'; 'There is a technological solution for every problem caused by technology') requires rejection of scientific evidence. If this assumption is correct, then still more confirming evidence will not alter the situation.
There is an alternative to exuberant optimism, however, which is based on
rationality and enables us to make wise judgments even in circumstances of
moderate to high uncertainty.
These illustrative examples show support for the concept of the PP, although implementation, if it ever occurs on a significant scale, will be a contentious, no-holds-barred battle because it is perceived as a deadly threat to many financial interests. However, persuasive contrary evidence (Hawken et al. 1999) provides examples of environmentally sensitive, profitable industries. Although Hawken and colleagues do not emphasize the PP, they do promote the protection and enhancement of natural capital, which is a primary goal of the PP.
Myers & Kent (1998) state that a number of goals of both the PP and
natural capitalism can be achieved merely by eliminating perverse subsidies.
This elimination will doubtless be fiercely resisted by special interests
benefiting from the subsidies. Even so, Myers & Kent (1998) include a number
of case histories where perverse subsidies have already been eliminated,
although, in some cases, saving money was arguably more important than
protecting natural capital.
Nowhere are the fatal consequences of exuberant optimism for endless economic growth on a finite planet more evident than in the extinction rates of both plant and animal species. In August 1999, over 4000 scientists from 100 countries convened in St. Louis, Missouri for the International Botanical Congress (IBC) to discuss a variety of topics, including extinction rates. Dr. Peter Raven, President of IBC, predicted that between one-third and two-thirds of all plant and animal species, most in the tropics, will be lost in the 21st century. As for Internet data on plants in jeopardy, the following are useful:
An older but highly regarded source (Wilson 1988) with abundant references on both plants and animals is also useful.
Ironically, many —arguably most— of the status quo economic growth
advocates claim to be environmentalists and lovers of nature. At least some of
them actually believe this. Whether the love of nature is a facade or a denial
of the consequences of their actions is of little importance to the species
already gone or those that will soon be driven to extinction by anthropogenic
activities. An even greater irony is that the exuberant optimists are probably
destroying the planet's ecological life support system, which will cause much
human suffering and possibly extinction of their own species. Homo sapiens might
have only a minor role, in geological time, in the ecological play in the
planetary theater. Fossil records suggest that most species had 1 or more fatal
flaws that resulted in their extinction. Perhaps the fatal flaw of the human
species is exuberant optimism for economic growth.
Hawken et al. (1999) advocate another form of economic growth termed "natural capitalism". This concept is based on growth in quality that is environmentally sensitive. Hawken et al. (1999) believe that the traditional definition of capital as 'accumulated wealth in the form of investments, factories, and equipment' is inadequate and that an economy should be based on four types of capital to function properly: (a) human capital, in the form of labor, intelligence, culture, and organization, (b) financial capital, consisting of cash, investments, and monetary instruments, (c) manufactured capital, including infrastructure, machines, tools, and factories, and (d) natural capital, consisting of resources, living systems, and ecosystem services.
Natural capital envisions the use of natural systems without abusing them,
which is the essence of sustainable use of the planet. The trials for this idea
have been both temporally and spatially small, but they provide persuasive
evidence that humans need not drive other species to extinction, at least not at
the present rate. There are no conflicts between the tenets of natural
capitalism and the commonly occurring themes of the PP (Raffensperger &
Tickner 1999, p. 24). Natural capitalism seems worth a try, since it is far more
defensible ethically than present practices. Any system that is based on
practices that drive other species to extinction at rates unprecedented in human
history is not sustainable.
I remain optimistic about what can be done and pessimistic about what will be
done. The gap between 'could' and 'will' appears to be the result of what Hardin
(1999) terms 'the ostrich factor', based on the well-known tale attributed to
Pliny the Elder around AD 1 (as quoted in Bierens de Haan 1943). Is the refusal
to acknowledge the existence of things unseen (e.g., global warming, species
extinction) the fatal flaw of human society? Can humans morally and ethically
not accept the fate they have meted out to countless other species in the name
of progress? Such reflections as this question are usually brushed off as 'gloom
and doom'. This denial has been true from Malthus (1798) to Carson's (1962) 'The
Silent Spring' to Colborn's research with endocrine disrupters (Colburn et al.
As Ehrlich (2000) notes,
Those favoring economic growth are very cautious about inflation,
productivity, profitability, and the like. They often optimistically believe
that the ecological life support system will not be irreparably degraded by
economic growth. Those favoring the environment would like to see more concern
about possibly or probably adverse effects of economic growth upon natural
systems. They optimistically believe that sustainable use of the planet is
possible, although there is no robust, validated working model fairly certain to
achieve this result.
Clearly, further alienation of these groups from each other will not result in sustainable practices. Claims of each side to be rational and attributing irrationality to the other side are not likely to result in a viable new paradigm either. However, moderation in both optimism and caution by both sides just might result in a workable paradigm. The possibility is certainly worth exploring, if only because the alternatives appear so dismal.
Optimism is a blessing if tempered by reason. A reasoned approach requires a free and open exchange of ideas in an atmosphere of civility. Demonizing those with opposing views impedes a free and open exchange of ideas and, worse yet, gives zealots power far beyond that justified solely by merit. Paradigms can be valuable steps on the path toward enlightenment, but should never be regarded as the ultimate truth, because this implies a climax to the process of reasoning. We should celebrate the multiplicity of human natures and the diversity of paradigms, because we inhabit a dynamic world where making judgments is a continuing requirement.
I am indebted to Amy Ostroth for putting the handwritten draft on the word
processor and for helping with several revisions. Darla Donald, as usual,
provided superb editorial assistance. Alan Heath and Charles A. Kennedy provided
useful comments on the first draft. The Cairns Foundation paid for the
processing of this manuscript.
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