The Meaning of Sustainability

Sustainability and Localization

“Peak Petroleum” will cause rapid increases of transportation costs and thus make it more difficult to move fresh food half way around the world to the shelves in our supermarkets. Sustainability will require that the bulk of our food be produced locally near its point of consumption. We have the opposite of this in the world today in which items of food are transported to the wealthy countries from all parts of the world. World trade agreements will be reduced in importance because of a reduction of international trade.

Sustainability and Education

Throughout the country, colleges and universities are introducing courses and educational programs in topics such as “Sustainability Studies.”26 It would be interesting to know how many, if any, of these programs stress the fundamental requirement of the First Law of Sustainability and point out that stopping population growth is a necessary (but not a sufficient) condition for sustainability.

Academic research proposals that contain the word “sustainability” abound and many receive generous support. But do these programs actually advance significantly the cause of sustainability or do they serve mainly to advance narrower goals? A simple test will answer this question for any particular program: Does the program acknowledge that overpopulation is the root cause of our present problems and then go on to address overpopulation in a significant way? If the answer is “No,” then, no matter what the proponents of the program may say,the program is not likely to contribute in a significant way to the achievement of sustainability. There’s more money and glamour in the high-tech research programs than there is in working to make family planning assistance available to all who want it so that population sizes can be reduced to sustainable levels.

Sustainability And War

Modern warfare is extremely dependent on fossil fuels and minerals; hence, war can’t be a part of a sustainable society. The world in 2012 seems to have a deep commitment to perpetual war. In today’s wasteful and destructive environment of unceasing hostility we can have little or no hope of achieving global sustainability. In seeking to abolish war we must remember that overpopulation is a major factor that drives people to make war.

The Gift That Keeps On Giving

Fertility reduction is the gift that keeps on giving. One avoided birth today will result in many more avoided births in the succession of future generations. The People’s Republic of China has boasted that its (very coercive) “One child per family” policy has avoided over 300 million births27 and that as a consequence, China claims that it has done more to reduce its emission of global greenhouse gases than any other country has done.

What We Need To Do

As a start, here are twelve things that are urgent: In our classrooms and in our lives as scientists,

  1. We must acknowledge that overpopulation is the world’s most serious and threatening problem and that this problem requires immediate and urgent attention.
  2. We must teach about the arithmetic and consequences of growth as they apply to our present rates of consumption of resources and to our current national and global conditions of overpopulation.
  3. We must seek to educate elected officials at all governmental levels about the severe present problems of overpopulation in our own local communities, in the United States and the world. We treasure our democracy but we must remember the words of Isaac Asimov28: “Democracy cannot survive overpopulation.”
  4. We must break down the mental and other blocks that keep most of our environmental organizations, large and small, from addressing overpopulation on the local and national levels.
  5. We need to get all of our mainline scientific associations and societies to act on the recognition that overpopulation is a threat to the stable societies. Science can thrive only in a stable society. The long-term survival of science is threatened by overpopulation.
  6. We should seek to get the U.S. and other governments to support major programs of family planning in the U.S. and throughout the world. These programs should make high quality family planning assistance available worldwide at no cost to all individuals who request it. The goal of the family planning program should be that “Every child is a wanted child.” Rapid population decrease is essential to achieving sustainability.
  7. We must expend great efforts worldwide in the education and emancipation of women, giving women freedom to make their own health, reproductive, economic and political decisions.
  8. We should work to guide production of fossil fuels and mineral resources in accord with the concept of “Sustained Availability,” (The Uppsala Protocol) thinking of it as a program of Equal Opportunity for Future Generations.
  9. We must continue our efforts to use science and technology to greatly improve the efficiency with which we use energy and mineral resources within the framework of Sustained Availability.
  10. We must continue research on the development of alternative fuels, being careful to see that these alternative fuels are not competing with the development of food supplies as is the case in 2012 with production of ethanol in the U.S.
  11. We must encourage the transition from our present inefficient mega-agriculture29 to localized agriculture that operates solely from solar power and from human and animal labor.
  12. We must seek to re-orient science, technology and engineering away from their present roles that support population growth and redirect them to work for more modest, less glamorous and less complex roles that can improve the quality of life for human beings. The model might be that which is found in the book Small is Beautiful by E.F. Schumacher.30

As one can see, the creation of a sustainable society will be both difficult and challenging.

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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