The Meaning of Sustainability

The Brundtland Definition of Sustainability

The Brundtland definition of sustainability is appealing because it has both virtue and vagueness. It is virtuous to give the impression that one is thinking of the well-being of future generations, but the definition itself is vague; it gives no specifics or hints about the nature of a sustainable society or about how we must conduct our society in order to become sustainable. This vagueness of definition opens the door for people to use the term “sustainability” to mean anything they want it to mean. It’s straight from Alice in Wonderland where Humpty Dumpty proclaims7, “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less.” With the freedom supplied by the vagueness, anyone can become an expert on sustainability.

Unfortunately, the Brundtland definition contains a flaw. It focuses first on the needs of the present, which have nothing to do with sustainability, and secondarily it mentions the needs of future generations which are vital for sustainability. This sets the stage for intergenerational conflict in which the present generation wins and future generations lose. We need to rephrase the Brundtland definition as follows:

Sustainable development is development that does not compromise the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

Peak Petroleum Production and Global Climate change

Today we face two major global threats to our way of life: the two threats are related and both are predictable consequences of a single cause; overpopulation. The first threat is the peaking of the production (tons per year) of fossil fuels, particularly petroleum. The second threat is the rapidly developing global climate change. As these threats develop, each will have a profound effect on life as we know it. To understand the first threat we need to know about the Hubbert Curve.

The Hubbert Curve

Back in the 1950s the geophysicist M. King Hubbert noted that a couple of centuries ago the production (in tons per year) of a finite non-renewable resource, such as petroleum, was essentially zero. He reasoned that production would rise to one or more maxima after which it would decline back to zero in another century or two. No matter how erratic the production turns out to be, the curve of production (tons per year) vs. time (years) can be approximated by the Gaussian Error Curve which starts at zero, rises to a maximum and then returns to zero. The area under the curve from zero to infinity is equal to the ultimate size R of the recoverable resource measured in tons. This curve is known at the Hubbert Curve. The important parameter of the curve is the date of the maximum. In the case of petroleum production in the U.S., the peak occurred in 1971, just as Hubbert had predicted years earlier.

The mathematical exercise of fitting a Gaussian Curve to the world petroleum production data shows that if the world’s ultimate recoverable quantity of conventional petroleum is 2000 billion barrels, then the peak of world petroleum production could be expected around the year 2004 and the peak moves to a later date at the rate of 5.5 days for every billion barrels that is added to the estimated world supply.8,9 In the case of world petroleum today (2012), there is debate among petroleum experts as to whether or not the world peak may have already passed.10

The passing of the world peak of petroleum production will be a major milestone for human life on Earth because it will mean that the tons per year of petroleum being produced world-wide will start to decline in its inevitable but erratic descent toward zero. At the same time the world population is projected to be increasing and the world per capita demand for petroleum can also be expected to be increasing. Supplies are decreasing but demand is increasing.

Almost all aspects of our industrial society depend on petroleum, so that, as Richard Heinberg has pointed out, peak petroleum will be quickly followed by Peak Everything.11 In particular, modern agriculture is completely dependent on petroleum, so the peak of world petroleum production will be followed by the peak of world food production. We will then be facing the specter of declining world food production while at the same time the world population is expected to continue to grow. This is a recipe for famine and conflict.

The Transition from Production Controlled by Demand to Production Controlled by Supply

Most discussions of sustainability, especially scientific discussions, tell repeatedly of experts who advocate major programs to increase supplies (“Drill baby, drill!”) to meet the demands of growing populations. In this scenario, production is governed largely by demand. The more you need, the more you can have. But now, as the peak of global production of petroleum is near, the world is making the transition from the left side of the Hubbert Curve to the right side. On the left side the quantity produced each year is determined largely by demand while on the right side the quantity produced each year is falling so that the quantity produced will be governed mainly by the availability of supplies. As we pass the peak, Nature changes the game. On the left side of the peak, resource shortages are met by increasing production, so the cost of a barrel of petroleum tends over time to rise only slowly. On the right side of the peak, production (barrels per year) is constrained by the availability of supplies of petroleum so that shortages develop and prices rise rapidly.

The discipline of economics has long been accustomed to dealing with life on the rising left side of the Hubbert Curve for most critical resources. On the rising left side we have worked hard to increase resource production in order to meet the growing demand. The big question is, will economics be able to adapt to the completely changed conditions on the right side of the Hubbert Curve where production is determined, not by what we want, but rather by what is available? Will we continue to try to apply left side economics to the right side of the Hubbert Curve?

Albert Bartlett

Albert A. Bartlett (1923-2013) was Professor Emeritus in Nuclear Physics at University of Colorado at Boulder.Dr. Bartlett received a BA degree from Colgate University and MA and PhD degrees in Nuclear Physics from Harvard University in 1948 and 1951, respectively. He was a faculty member at the University of Colorado since 1950. He was President of the American Association of Physics Teachers in 1978. In 1981 he received the Association's Robert A. Millikan Award for his outstanding scholarly contributions to physics education.
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