WHAT IS SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT?
Most of the pronouncements made about "Ecologically Sustainable Development" are nonsensical, because they are based on the mistaken assumption that the task is to find ways that will enable us to continue with affluent industrial-consumer lifestyles and to continue pursuing economic growth, without depleting resources or damaging the environment.
But this is not remotely possible.
A sustainable society can only be achieved if there is enormous reduction in the aggregate amount of producing and consuming going on in the world; i.e., the present volume s of trade, business turnover, exports, investment, purchasing, work etc., going on must be cut to a small proportion of their current levels. This means phasing out vast quantities of production and economic activity, and implementing a zero-growth or steady state economy. Hardly anyone within government, academia, the media, educational institutions or the general public is willing to face up to this.
What "Ecologically Sustainable Development" really has to mean cannot be grasped unless we begin with the "limits to growth" analysis of the global situation. Rich countries like Australia are already far beyond levels of production and consumption that are sustainable, or that could be shared by all the world's people. Yet our supreme goal is to increase levels of production and consumption all the time and without any limit.
Consider the following lines of argument from the large "limits" literature:
1. If the 9 billion people expected to be living on earth soon after 2070 were each to consume minerals and energy at the present rich world per capita rate world annual output of these items would have to increase to about 8 times their present levels. For about 1/3 of the basic list of 35 mineral items all potentially recoverable resources would probably be exhausted in under 40 years (Trainer 1995). All potentially recoverable oil, gas, shale oil, and coal (assuming 2000 billion tonnes) and uranium (via burner reactors) would be exhausted in about the same time span. To produce the required amount of energy from nuclear sources would require approximately 700 times the world's present nuclear capacity, all in the form of breeder reactors, given that fusion power is not likely to be available on the necessary scale for many decades, if ever. This would mean that at any one time approximately three quarters of a million tonnes of plutonium would be in use.
2. Although a sustainable society must eventually be based on renewable energy sources it is not plausible that these could meet present world energy demand for electricity and liquid fuels, let alone any multiple of it. (Trainer, 1995 Chapter 9.)
3. To produce the average North American diet requires .5 ha of crop land per person. If 9 billion people were to have such a diet 4.5 billion ha would be needed, but that is about 3.5 times all the crop land on the planet.
4. It takes about 12 ha of productive land to provide one person in North America with their current "living standard". If 9 billion were to live that way we would require 108 billion ha of productive land, but that is about 15 times all the productive land on the planet!
5. Since the early1990s the UNs Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Control has been telling us that if we are to prevent the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere from increasing we must reduce carbon release by 60-80%. If we reduced it by 60% and shared the available fossil fuels equally among all 9 billion people, you and I would have to get by on one-eighteenth of the quantity we now use.
6. One of the most worrying resource scarcities looming is to do with water. We are using water much faster than it falls as rain; i.e., we are reducing the water stored in the ground. The difference is huge; in fact if we reduced water use in agriculture to the rate at which we can get it from rainfall we could feed 480 million people less than we do now.
Most people have little idea of the magnitude of these figures. We are not just a little bit unsustainable; we are far beyond levels of resource use, production and consumption that are sustainable.
Now add the absurd implications of our fundamental, fierce and never-questioned obsession with economic growth. Nothing is more important in consumer society than increasing the volume of producing and consumption, i.e., economic activity, all the time, rapidly and without limit. If we have a mere 3% pa growth in economic activity and by 2070 the expected 9 billion people will all have risen to the per capita living standards" we in rich countries would then have, total world economic output would be 60 times as great as it is now. The present levels of production and consumption and resource use and environmental impact are grossly unsustainable, but we are committed to an economic system that will multiply the present impacts by 60 in 70 years, and if 3% growth continued they would double every 23 years thereafter.
The conventional assumption is that these multiples will be avoided through technical advance. It is assumed that better technologies will make it possible for us to go on pursuing ever rising "living standards" and economic growth while actually getting the resource and ecological impacts down to sustainable levels. But the multiples are far too great for this to be remotely plausible. The best known tech-fix advocate is Amory Lovins. He argues that resource and environmental costs per unit of production could be cut to one-quarter, and maybe less, or present amounts. But this is far from sufficient.
If all the world's people were to have the present rich world "living standard" resource demand would be at least 5 times as great. If global population rises to 9 billion as expected the multiple becomes 7.5. If we in rich countries have 3% p.a. growth in "living standards" then the volume of production and consumption in 2070 will be 8 times as great as it is today, so if 9 billion were to live as we would, total world production would be 60 times as great as it is today. But right now it is probably two to three times a sustainable volume; remember carbon emissions should be cut by at least two-thirds. So to enable us to go on with the pursuit of affluence and growth, by 2070 technical advance would have to enable 60 times as much producing and consuming while generating only one half to one third of the present resource and environ mental cost. This is far beyond what could be achieved.
Implications for a sustainable society.
If the limits to growth analysis of our predicament is valid then a number of very clear and inescapable implications are evident for the nature of a sustainable society that all could share. Given that it must be a society in which per capita resource use and environmental impact are a small fraction of their current rich world rates, there must be, a) much simpler lifestyles, based on acceptance of frugality and material sufficiency, b) a high level of self-sufficiency, within household, national and especially local areas, c) more cooperative ways, e.g enabling sharing of resources, and d) a zero-growth or steady state economy, achieved after a long period of negative growth, i.e., large scale reduction in unnecessary production and consumption. That means many factories must be closed down and large volumes of capital currently being invested must cease to be invested.
Needless to say nothing like this is possible in the present consumer/capitalist economy. Even more problematic, such a society cannot be achieved unless there is enormous value change, from the individualistic, competitive and acquisitive ways central in Western society. (For a detailed discussion click on The Simpler Way ...) It would be easy to design and build communities and local economies of the required kind if enough people wanted to do so. Indeed thousands of people are presently developing these within the Global Eco-village movement. Nevertheless the change from consumer society is so great that we are unlikely to make the transition.
Thus most references to "ecologically sustainable development" made within mainstream discourse only point to small improvements in the rate of resource or environmental impact resulting from some activity and imply that all is well because gains of this sort can be kept up until the aggregate impacts are reduced to sustainable levels. This is totally mistaken. When the magnitude of the present overshoot is understood, along with the fact that only a few of the worlds people are presently consuming as much as we do in rich countries, and when the implications of the growth commitment are understood, it is obvious that achieving a sustainable society will require enormous change in lifestyles and patterns of settlement, the almost total scapping of the consumer-capitalist economy, and unprecedented change in some of the fundamental values driving Western culture, especially greed.
For detailed evidence and argument in support of the points made above see http://www.arts.unsw.edu.au/tsw/
For the case against renewable energy sources being capable of sustaining present Australian energy demand, see, "Renewable Energy; What are the limits?",
For a radical critique of Amory Lovins see Trainer, F. E. (T), (In press), "Natural capitalism cannot overcome resource limits", Environment, Development, Sustainability., or