RIO+20, the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, is to be held this week on June 20-22 in Rio de Janeiro.
The term Sustainable Development seems to me to be almost a contradiction in terms. One dictionary gives the definition of “development” as “the act or process of developing; growth; progress”. In a finite world, how can growth be sustainable? Isn’t it possible that human population already passed the world’s carrying capacity, and world leaders should be talking about shrinking instead of growing?
The open access journal PLoS Biology is starting to raise questions in this area. According to a press release of the journal, “Coinciding with Rio+20, the open-access journal PLoS Biology is publishing three articles in the June 19 issue by leaders in ecology and conservation science who raise important concerns about physical limits on resource use that should be considered at the conference—but almost certainly won’t be, because sustainability has largely developed with little reference to the key ecological principles that govern life on Earth.”
I’d like to highlight one of these articles called, “The Macroecology of Sustainability“. The article is by Robbie Burger and Jim Brown at the University of New Mexico, plus several other authors. I mentioned this upcoming article in March in my post True Sustainability Solutions.
The “Macroecology of Sustainability” points out that the discipline of sustainability science, as it is usually practiced, tends to be a social science rather than a natural science. Studies are often at a local scale, rather than a global scale, and focus on efforts to improve standards or living and reduce environmental impacts, without consideration as to whether these so-called solutions would be feasible on a global scale. According to the researchers, “Any efforts to develop a science of sustainability or implement policy solutions are necessarily incomplete and will ultimately fail without considering the core ecological principles that govern all of life.”
This is a link to the entire current issue of PLoS Biology, including the three articles.
What is macroecology? According to the article
A macroecological approach to sustainability aims to understand how humans are integrated into and constrained by the Earth’s systems. . . The capacity of the environment to support the requirements of contemporary human societies is not just a matter of political and economic concern. It is also a central aspect of ecology — the study of the interactions between organisms, including humans, and their environments. These relationships always involve exchanges of energy, matter, or information. The scientific principles that govern the flows and transformations of these commodities are fundamental to ecology and directly relevant to sustainability and to the maintenance of ecosystem services, especially in times of energy scarcity.
The article gives several examples of how limits can be reached in three different areas:
Principle 1: Thermodynamics and the Zero-Sum Game. The laws of thermodynamics imply that increased rates of energy use are required to fuel economic growth and development, leading to formidable challenges in a time of growing energy scarcity and insecurity. Furthermore, planetary quantities of chemical elements are effectively finite.
Principle 2: Scale and Embeddedness. Solutions that work on a local scale may not be feasible on a global scale. Each local solution depends on the surrounding area for many of its inputs, and these must be considered as well in analyses.
Principle 3: Global Constraints. The question of whether the world can support even today’s level of human resource use and waste production needs to be central to analyses. Global constraints ultimately limit flows at smaller scales.
According to the article:
The bottom line is that the growing human population and economy are being fed by unsustainable use of finite resources of fossil fuel energy, fertilizers, and arable land and by unsustainable harvests of ‘‘renewable resources’’ such as fish, wood, and fresh water. Furthermore, attaining sustainability is additionally complicated by inevitable yet unpredictable changes in both human socioeconomic conditions and the extrinsic global environment. Sustainability will always be a moving target and there cannot be a single long-term stable solution.
Most sustainability science focuses on efforts to improve standards of living and reduce environmental impacts at local to regional scales. These efforts will ultimately and inevitably fail unless the global system is sustainable. There is increasing evidence that modern humans have already exceeded global limits on population and socioeconomic development, because essential resources are being consumed at unsustainable rates. Attaining sustainability at the global scale will require some combination of two things: a decrease in population and/or a decrease in per capita resource consumption. Neither will be easy to achieve. Whether population and resource use can be reduced sufficiently and in time to avoid socioeconomic collapse and attendant human suffering is an open question.
Critics will point out that our examination of sustainability from a macroecological and natural science perspective conveys a message of ‘‘doom and gloom’’ and does not offer ‘‘a way forward’’. It is true that humanity is faced with difficult choices, and there are no easy solutions. But the role of science is to understand how the world works, not to tell us what we want to hear.[Emphasis added.]
I applaud PLoS Biology for publishing this important article. I wish that the delegates at RIO+20 were brave enough to deal with the real issues at hand.