The Meaning of Sustainability

Sustainability: Living Solely on Solar Energy

Here are some scattered thoughts on the central challenge of sustainability: Living solely on solar energy. To understand the challenge of sustainability we might first ask what societies in this world today are closest to sustainability? I think we would have to answer that the most sustainable societies today are the primitive societies such as those in remote regions in Africa, Asia, Australia, etc. If our society crumbles, these primitive societies will probably go on living their hard and difficult lives being little touched by the collapse of the civilized world.

But as we strive for sustainability, our goal can’t be to go back to a primitive way of life. People would simply not accept this. But there is an important lesson here; increasing the technological complexity of our society is probably not the path to follow if we want to move to a more sustainable society. So let’s not go back thousands of years; let’s look at things 200 years ago. The North American society of 200 years ago got along using mainly solar energy. First, and most important, the population was much, much smaller than today’s population. Second, the society was an agrarian society with most of the population employed directly or indirectly in agriculture. Draft animals, windmills, and small amounts of water power provided essentially all of the non-human energy used on the farm. The draft animals provided most of the fertilizers that were used. We can see approximately this sort of living today in the Amish communities of western Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio. I suspect that the Amish communities are the closest to sustainability of any of today’s American communities.

The Amish communities are mainly agrarian. The people are guided by religious beliefs: in general they use little or no electricity or petroleum and they use little in the way of engineering and technology. Their children are educated perhaps through the 8th grade, which is sufficient for their agricultural work and for their interactions with the world around them. They are very successful in their agricultural pursuits. Their life is simple and austere and their communities contribute very little in the way of global warming gases. As individuals, they have a very small ecological footprint. On the other side of the sustainability ledger, they tend to have a high fertility rate, which is certainly unsustainable.

Now we can see the fundamental question of sustainability:

Can we transform our society to a solar-based society which will probably have to be mainly an agrarian society, while keeping and sharing throughout the world the benefits of modern medicine and technology?

The first observation is that to do this we will have to have a much smaller population than the 7 billion plus that we have today (2012).

Sustainability and Science, Engineering, and Technology

A major consequence of our much heralded science, engineering and technology has been to allow more people to live in regions that once supported only smaller populations. Ever since the age of hunters and gatherers, the population has grown slowly and humans have gradually invented science, engineering and technology to meet the needs of the growing populations. When the needs were not met, growing populations and civilizations were in trouble. Archaeologists today study the ruins of societies that failed and disappeared. A factor of the demise of these failed societies was the inability of the societies to provide sufficient food for their populations. The societies that persisted did so because they used science and technology to increase agricultural production and to allow urbanization and the rise of cities.

Science, engineering and technology have made today’s big cities possible, so that in 2012 something like 82% of Americans live in cities. All over the world people are leaving their poor but marginally sustainable rural agricultural life to crowd into the world’s massive and increasingly unmanageable cities.

Cities have near zero ecological productivity. In the ecological sense, our cities are deserts and wastelands! They are the human equivalent of the cattle feedlots (and other “high efficiency” facilities for the production of pigs and chickens) that one sees throughout America. In the feedlots the animals are confined: Petroleum is used to haul food to the animals and then more petroleum is used to haul away the waste products. So it is in our cities. The people are confined. Petroleum is used to haul in food and energy and to haul out waste. The human cities and the cattle feedlots are both made possible by science, engineering, technology and by abundant low-cost energy. By making cities possible, science, engineering and technology have supported and encouraged population growth, and the movement of people away from agriculture, which is the exactly the opposite of what is required for sustainability.

Sustainability and Scientists, Engineers, and Technologists

As we contemplate how we should deal with the threat of global warming, it is distressing to read a statement by “a professor…who studies international climate policy” saying that “The way we reduce emissions is through technology.”19 Why is it that engineers, scientists and technologists almost never recommend stopping population growth as the solution to the problems of reducing global greenhouse gas emissions? Is this solution too obvious?

By ignoring overpopulation, scientists, engineers and technologists put society in a deep hole, yet they seem to forget the old adage:

When you find yourself in a hole – stop digging!

Throughout the world, our mega-technologists (albeit with a deep sense of responsibility and public service) recommend that we work hard to use science, engineering and technology to accommodate the growth of populations. Providing food for the expected population increase is presented as a great challenge, even though meeting the challenge will make the population problems worse. Here is a popular national newspaper columnist writing on the problems of overpopulation in the U.S.20:

The united States has its population challenges at home – building the infrastructure from schools to roads to food supply – for a predicted 100 million more people [in the U.S.] by 2040.

The prevailing reaction of our leaders seems to be to speed up our digging. If we raise taxes and spend heavily and build the public infrastructure needed to accommodate the predicted population growth, then the people will appear. We have trapped ourselves in a self-fulfilling prediction.

Can it be that scientists, engineers and technologists are impeding the movement of our society toward sustainability?

Science, engineering and technology have made it possible for populations to grow so large that by our largeness we are threatening the global ecosphere. Is this what we want from our science and technology?

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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