I received this from a colleague and am reprinting it in its entirety because I think it's essential for us to come to grips with the concept of 'sustainability'. The discussion topic, after reading this, are how do we shape our future without falling into the 'sustainability is easy' trap. Because, if you really buy into what they suggest, developing a truly sustainable future will require quite a bit of work and requires a sea-change in our attitudes and desires about our lifestyles.
On the Use and Misuse of the Concept of Sustainability: Including
Population and Resource Macro-Balancing in the Sustainability Dialog.
A paper for the 8th International Conference on Environmental,
Cultural, Economic, and Social Sustainability
Mr. Ed Barry - The Population Institute, Washington D.C., USA
Dr. William Rees - University of British Columbia, Vancouver, B.C., Canada
I. Resource overshoot - today's global reality:
A. The current scale of human economic activity on Earth is already
excessive; the human enterprise is in a state of unsustainable
'overshoot.' By this we mean that the consumption and dissipation of
energy and material resources exceed the regenerative and
assimilative capacity of supportive ecosystems. Many critical stocks
of 'natural capital' are in decline and global waste sinks are filled
to overflowing. Business as usual for today's global human enterprise
is clearly unsustainable. Any society that is living by depleting its
capital assets is unsustainable by definition.
Resource overshoot can be demonstrated empirically in at least four ways:
1. Direct observation of the degradation of resource ecosystems
(e.g., marine fisheries and tropical rain forests) and the depletion
of non-renewable resources (e.g., conventional petroleum and various
industrial minerals and metals);
2. Direct observation of the gross pollution of major ecosystems and
the global commons (e.g., expanding ocean anoxic zones and the
accumulation of atmospheric green-house gases [carbon dioxide is the
largest waste product of industrial economies]);
3. Macro-economic analysis that compares traditional GDP with
indicators that incorporate physical assessments and appropriate
valuation of natural capital stocks and pollution damage costs (e.g.,
the 'Genuine Progress Indicator' or the 'Index of Sustainable
4. Ecological footprint analysis, a quantitative method that compares
human demand for bio-capacity (ecosystem services) with sustainably
available supply. The aggregate human eco-footprint is already
approximately 50% larger than the available bio-capacity. Moreover,
demand is increasing and supply is in decline. How is this possible?
Remember, at present, the growth of the human enterprise is being
unsustainably funded by permanently depleting critical natural capital stocks.
B. Climate change, fresh water shortfalls, biodiversity loss, food
shortages (and price increases), and global oil supply 'peaking'
along with increasing energy costs are all additional symptoms of
C. Achieving a positive balance between production in nature and
consumption by humans is not merely one of many 'options,' it is an
obligatory requirement for sustainability. We must eliminate
overshoot as a prerequisite to preserving social justice, creating
intergenerational equity and securing a future for global
civilization. Otherwise we will continue to undermine the Earth's
natural resource assets, which will cause hardships and suffering for
future generations of life on the planet.
D. All nations are responsible for integrating physical assessments
of their natural capital assets (renewable, replenishable and
non-renewable 'resources') into their systems of national accounts
for policy and management purposes. Overcoming overshoot and
adherence to the strong sustainability criterion requires that we
maintain sufficient supplies of natural capital per capita to ensure
an adequate flow of 'natural income' (consumption) and life-support
services indefinitely into the future. Note that if populations are
increasing, either natural capital stocks must also increase or
average quality of life will decline.
Bio-physical resource sustainability must be evaluated in an
integrated manner, and periodic national resource 'balance sheet'
evaluations should be used to inform policy decision making. Resource
Sustainability Evaluation and Reporting (SER) must be adopted by
national governments and supported by international institutions, as
an appropriate response to today's fundamental reality of global
E. Technological optimism and techno-fixes do not provide viable
solutions to the challenge of global resource overshoot. On the
contrary, historical data show that technological gains stimulate
economic growth and enable further exploitation of resources rather
than induce conservation.
F. Any sustainability assessment and corrective policies must include
consideration of all factors contributing to overshoot, including
population numbers and growth, our socially-constructed consumer
life-styles, and gross social inequity. For example, empowering women
and expanding access to family planning services, being essential to
preventing unwanted pregnancies and achieving sustainability, must be
part of the global sustainable development dialogs and solution.
II. SUSTAINABILITY - Conceptual ambiguities:
"Sustainable economic growth" is an oxymoron. Historically, rising
incomes have invariably been accompanied by rising material
consumption despite (or because of) technological advances. Clearly,
since the world is already in 'overshoot' further increases in energy
and material throughput will only exacerbate the situation. Can we
realistically expect to continue growing the material economy without
compromising both our own future prospects and those of future generations?
"Sustainable development" is not necessarily an oxymoron as long as
development is not equated with growth. 'Development' means
qualitative improvement or 'getting better' whereas growth means
quantitative accretion or 'getting bigger'. Development can obviously
proceed without growth but it is possible to have growth without
development. Indicators of development include improving
opportunities for personal development, falling unemployment rates,
decreasing poverty, greater income security, a narrowing income gap
(greater social equity), falling rates of alcohol and drug addiction,
improving mental health indicators, etc. By such measures as these,
the considerable GDP growth of the past few decades in the US, Canada
and other rich countries has been accompanied by regressive de-development.
"Sustainable city;" what does this wide-spread phrase mean? We assert
that it is, in fact, meaningless as currently employed. In an
integrated globalizing world, no sub-system-no individual, no city no
country-can achieve sustainability on its own. Even a city with
minimal auto use, exemplary public transit, renewable energy supplies
and life-styles that require only an equitable share of global
bio-capacity will not be unscathed if the rest of the world maintains
its unsustainable tack. Despite its best efforts, this exemplary city
will eventually succumb to climate change, rising prices, resource
scarcity, civil unrest and geopolitical instability. This reality
underscores that (un)sustainability is a collective problem demanding
collective solutions and therefore an unprecedented level of
international cooperation in the implementation of difficult policy
choices for sustainability. In short, we have entered an era in which
the future of global civilization can be assured only through "mutual
coercion mutually agreed upon" (to use Garrett Hardin's classic phrasing).
"Sustainable growth in businesses, jobs, and the economy;" this
politically correct mantra continues to ignore the reality that
resource goods and services are required for all human societal and
economic activity, and that the Earth's capacity to supply these
resources is finite. The political response to this criticism is
technology advancement and the "decoupling" of our economic activity
from resource demands. But technology optimism is, in itself, a
"Technology advancement" is the means that humanity can deploy to
continue economic growth, and thus improve overall global
prosperity. Yet the historical record does not bear this out (see above).
"There is no conflict between economic growth and environmental
quality" or "there is no conflict between a growing economy and
nature." This is an obligatory mantra uttered by almost all
politicians in their efforts to reconcile the irreconcilable; it is
patently untrue. As previously noted, economic growth (rising
disposable income) has historically stimulated increased personal
consumption. This results in increased energy and material throughput
and consequent ecological damage. The reason is simple: the human
enterprise is a growing sub-system of a non-growing finite ecosphere.
Any diversion of energy and material resources to maintain and grow
more humans and their 'furniture' is irreversibly unavailable to
non-human species (what we get, they don't). Biodiversity declines as
humans displace other species from their habitats and appropriate
'primary production' (nature's goods and services) that would
otherwise support other species. Meanwhile, the increased
production/consumption for humans adds to the pollution load on
natural ecosystems. As noted, these trends can actually be
accelerated by technological improvements that increase access to
resources or improve efficiency (both of which tend to lower costs and prices).
"Shifting to a knowledge-based or service-based economy will reduce
environmental impacts." This is a common illusion voiced to support
structural economic change and continued economic growth; it is
patently untrue. The reasons are simple. By 'knowledge-based economy'
people generally mean an economy driven by high-end services such as
engineering, information technology, financial services, etc. These
activities are often seen as having less direct ecological impact
than primary and secondary sector activities such as logging, mining
and manufacturing. Herein lies the illusion. High-end service jobs
pay much higher incomes than employment in the low-end material
economy. Participants in the knowledge-based economy therefore have
bigger houses, cars, flat-screen TVs and generally consume more than
primary and secondary sector employees (see previous point). They
therefore have much larger per capita ecological footprints than
workers in the basic economy; those countries with the largest
high-end service sectors have the largest national eco-footprints.
There is another dimension to the illusion. The structural
shift to a knowledge/service-based economy is invariably accompanied
by the migration of manufacturing to low-wage developing countries
that generally have lower environmental standards (or good standards
that are not enforced). These countries (e.g., China) then sell much
of their manufacturing output to wealthier consumer societies. Hence,
the ecological impact per unit consumption in knowledge-based
economies may increase with the total volume of consumption.