I speak regularly on sustainability and sustainability issues. Today being Earthday, I thought I would break it down.
Sustainability basically means doing things in a way that can be carried on indefinitely. Most of the time, we can think of this in terms of using resources or generating waste. Each system can generate a certain amount of new resources in a given time period. Each system can clean itself of a certain amount of waste. So naturally, if we make more waste than the system can remove, it will become polluted. This may decrease how much resources it can make. If we consume more resources than can be generated, the consumers will eventually not have those resources and starve.
Simple right? Well, let us look at the math. Imagine a system with edible plants as a resource. We eat the plants and they will grow by ten percent each season. If we start with 100 and we eat ten, the remaining 90 will grow by 9. So next season, we will have 99. We eat ten. The next season we will have 98.9, but there is no such thing as 0.9 of a plant so…98. Eat ten. 88+10%=96. So if we take all we can, we actually deplete the system.
So we need to take less than it generates. So starting over, perhaps we could take 9. The remaining 91 would generate 9 whole plants. 100! Awesome.
Unfortunately, accidents happen. Storms, disease, invasive species etc. may change our system periodically in intense ways. So even if we continue in this way, a disease that destroys just one of our crop plants may destroy the system we had created. So we need to take in a way that allows the system to actually grow. 100-8=92. 92+9=101. Better.101-8=93. 93+9=102. This is progress, but then we realize that the human population is growing and as takers, we cannot use the same eight plants as our population grows larger and larger.
All in all, it will take considerable restraint to take so little that the world does not suffer. To be fair, much of the world exists on far less than what is sustainable. A small portion of consumers impact the world in greater ways than the majority.
For example, imagine a 154 lb man would need about 1000ml (32 oz) of water per day to survive. Now look at your friends, family and yourself. How many times did you flush a toilet today? One flush of an older toilet may use 3.5 gallons (447 oz) give or take and up to 7 gallons. How long did you shower? Did you leave the water running while you brushed your teeth?
Have you ever heard of people suffering from a drought, without access to clean water? Now consider this. Water, when naturally free, cools our planet, cleans our air and soil and transports nutrients and organisms vital to the functioning of life on earth. Now consider, more drinkable water on our planet is in pipes and toilet tanks in industrialized nations than is available to some of the poorest countries.
Socially, we have taught generations that passing waste is shameful and should be done in hiding, but pooping in drinkable water is not. This goes for many waste streams and resources. Economically, we have learned to charge one another for access to basic human rights like clean water and this includes destroying the fresh water resources in other countries. Environmentally, we have learned to partition the environment in a way that we can export our pollution or hide it so it is easier to deny, until it leaks over into our lives.
We need to see sustainability. S.E.E. Sustainability. Social, Economic and Environmental Sustainability.
Happy Earth Day.