An Outdoor View: On keeping on

Posted: Friday, March 04, 2011

I'm an optimist by nature, but I'm also a realist. The optimist in me says the human race will somehow find a way to sustain a high quality of life on earth for hundreds of years into the future. The realist says that, the way we're going, we'll be killing each other over scraps in the next century, if not sooner.

Nothing about present trends cheers up my realist. In only the past 500 years, Earth's population has rocketed from about .5 billion to nearly 7 billion. Populations of undeveloped countries are expected to continue rising until 2050, when the world's population is expected to peak at 9 billion.

At the same time Earth's population is growing, developed countries are consuming resources like there's no tomorrow, and undeveloped countries are fast becoming developed. In "The World of Seven Billion" (National Geographic, March 2011), these alarming trends are presented as a challenge: "How to share and sustain the planet while lifting even more people into a better life."

Sharing is always problematic, and a concept as nebulous as sustaining is bound to be even more so. What does it mean to sustain?

In my simplistic view, "sustainable" means "being able to keep on keeping on." I like to hit the road and drive somewhere when the mood strikes me, but with gas prices as high as they are, unnecessary trips won't be sustainable for long. I'd like to be able to heat my house with trees grown on my 1.2-acre lot, but after three or four months, not a tree would be standing. I can understand sustaining on this level, but sustaining Earth is a bit more complicated.

In 1987, The Brundtland Commission of the United Nations defined "sustainable development" as "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." By that definition, you can't help but wonder if the Pebble Mine is a good idea.

Efforts to increase the sustainability of earth will require international cooperation, and are sure to be controversial. Conspiracy theorists will raise the specter of One World Government. Consider the hubbub over the effort to reduce greenhouse gas.

Another example is free trade.

Free trade and "globalization" have increased concerns about sustainability. According to data from the U.S. International Trade Commission, scrap imports to China increased by 916 percent in the 2000-2008 period. The bizarre result is that scrap, mostly metal and waste paper, is now the No. 1 U.S. export. What becomes of it? It's turned into home appliances, electronic hardware and other goods -- pretty much everything -- and shipped back to us. The upside is a higher standard of living -- cheaper goods for the U.S. and better-paying jobs in China. The downside is that a higher standard of living invariably comes at a cost of less sustainability.

There are ways to make human life on Earth sustainable for a longer period of time, but they come at a cost. For example, home appliances could be manufactured that would last at least 20 years. The way these are made now, they barely last until the warranty expires. A refrigerator might cost $100 more, but it wouldn't end up in a landfill after only three years of service.

It comes down to how much we're willing to pay and do to improve life for Earth's future inhabitants. In times of economic uncertainty, people tend to focus on "No. 1." When economies are thriving, people might be willing to toss some change into the hat and make a few sacrifices, such as using CFL light bulbs. Trouble is, in a thriving economy, they'll be burning up resources at a less sustainable rate, bringing the future closer to tomorrow.

I suppose we're fortunate to have enough time and energy to even consider such complex subjects as a sustainable world. Five hundred years ago, most of us would've been more concerned about having a roof over our heads and enough food to make it through the winter.

Come to think of it, maybe times haven't changed all that much.

Les Palmer lives in Sterling.

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