RIO+20 Talks Need to Consider Physical Limits

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.

About Gail Tverberg

My name is Gail Tverberg. I am an actuary interested in finite world issues - oil depletion, natural gas depletion, water shortages, and climate change. Oil limits look very different from what most expect, with high prices leading to recession, and low prices leading to inadequate supply.
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42 Responses to RIO+20 Talks Need to Consider Physical Limits

  1. “It seems like there are a lot of people with different agendas out there. Perhaps I need to find a quiet place to hide.”-Gail

    Hiding out right now is about the best strategy to undertake. If you are going to depend on a UN Commission to resolve Global issues of resource utilization, you are going to get seriously screwed here.

    On the local level you can make some plans which are reasonable and Human Scale, on the Global Level any plans made will have so much hellacious BLOWBACK it is not even funny, and if you are going to entrust such decisions to the Scum Sucking Bottom Feeders who run organizations like the UN, the IMF and the Wrold Bank, you are going to get the short end of the stick here for sure.

    The very FIRST thing we have to do is get RID of these Global Organizations and those in charge of them. Giving them creedence as arbiters of our fate on Our Finite World only insures our Extinction as a Species. The ROOT of the problem is the UN and organizations like it that attempt to make decisions for all mankind, but which in the end really only benefit those who run those organizations.

    I love your Blog Gail because you do a real nice tabular style analysis, but man you just pull your punches here too much. In Commentary on the blog you are a bit more forthright, but your articles are too often couched in puffery. JMHO.


    • If I want my articles to be read by an audience that is seeking the truth, I need to make a strong case why they organizations are causing problems before I criticize them. That probably is not very hard for the IMF — loans to “developing” countries have been a problem, according to many people. The UN does a variety of things, so looking at it is trickier. But unless I have done a careful analysis of benefits and drawbacks, and weighed the two, I don’t want to say such-and-such organization is bad, or even that such and such a program is bad.

      I think that as a practical matter international organizations are going to shrink, and international travel becomes more difficult and as economies contract. Countries that have to cut their budgets won’t budget much to try to bail out other countries or to help them “develop”. We are probably reaching peak international agency funding right about now–it would be interesting to track.

  2. robindatta says:

    Plain and simple, the Rio delegates should all have their heads examined.

  3. Don Stewart says:

    This will respond to both the Rentier question and also some of the issues raised in this post and various comments.

    Peter Bane, a well-known Permaculturist, has just published Garden Farming for Town and Country. It’s a wonderful book, endorsed by many famous people (famous, at least, among the serious).

    On page 58 he states that North American metropolitan regions contain 2 acres per person–more than enough to provide food and fuel. I would add ‘if the excellent suggestions in this book are followed for the production of the food and fuel’.

    He states on page 63 that ‘gardening produces 2 to 7 times the yield of conventional farming’. (So much for Monsanto’s claims that only they can save the world from starvation).

    FH King states on page 160 of the current paperback version of his book: each cultivated acre of food producing land (in 1905 Japan) is supporting more than 5 people (in a particular province).

    So…let’s do a little back of the envelope calculation. Assume that half the land in the metropolitan region is capable of producing food (such as golf courses and lawns and backyards and patios). That gives us one acre per person. Now assume that we are as smart as a 1905 Japanese gardener. We can support 5 people (food and fuel and other necessities) on each acre. So we can support 5 times the current population with 1905 technology.

    But there are a couple of subtractions we have to make. The first is the degradation of the soil. The second is the rent we have to pay. Soil degradation can be reversed in a decade with diligent and intelligent work. The rent is more complicated. We have reached, in the US and around the world, an intense concentration of money among the wealthy few. If the One Percent own all the land, they will, of course, extract the maximum amount of rent from it. Which will reduce the people growing the food and fiber to subsistence level. Bane notes that we urgently need to get rid of the Rentier Class to prevent this catastrophe.

    So…what are the major obstacles in our way? They are clearly in the realm of psychology and sociology and politics. So the Limits to Growth apply with a vengeance to Business as Usual, but do not necessarily apply if we consider the most intelligent use of our resources to support a pretty large population (at North American densities).

    I don’t know what the numbers would be like for a huge city such as Mexico City or Mumbai or Jakarta. I do know that Hong Kong, with the New Territories, was largely feeding itself at the time it was returned to China. A decade ago, Shanghai was largely feeding itself.

    The life style that Bane describes has many positives–but it sure ain’t Business As Usual.

    Don Stewart

    • I think the devil is in the details in this. There is some truth to it, but to see how well it really would work, we need to look at more particulars.

      If we can water local gardens, fertilize them properly, put fences around them, use pesticides that keep insects away, have proper top soil, not too much shade by trees, and live in a good climate, then no doubt what you say is true. But it is probably not true in general.

      The cities that are above the average of two acres a person could theoretically produce more food, but I suspect that they are like Atlanta–hilly and covered with trees. It is well established that hilly sites on which the trees are cut down, and cultivated without terracing, erode quickly (this may be 100 or 500 years, but is certainly quickly in the whole scheme of things). They very often do not have soil that is conducive to gardening–rocky clay).

      • Don Stewart says:

        I don’t know if Phoenix or Las Vegas could support their populations. They may just be a huge mistake. Same might be true of Atlanta…but clay has some advantages in terms of nutrient and water retention when it is well treated. As I say, allow a decade to rebuild the fertility which was there in 1750 and Atlanta might look quite different.

        Peter Bane lays out a good, omnivorous diet in his book Garden Farming in Town and Country. His notes:
        ‘Thus we have a 30-fold range of land efficiency between the industrial farm system (with its high inputs of energy and capital and high output per hour of labor) at the low end and the biointensive garden model (requiring high inputs of labor and yielding higher outputs of food per square foot) at the high end….Somewhere in between these two poles, I hope to describe a system that can become a net energy producer. It will also show greater ecological stability and diversity, while providing a modest, healthy, omnivorous diet and net gains in soil fertility from season to season. This is the hope of a regenerative or permanent agriculture and the imperative for our survival.’

        Then he discusses the 3 acres of land currently required to produce our food for every person. Under his system, we are talking more like a quarter of an acre. With half an acre, things get easier. So we have the ability to grow at least six times more food–just not with Business as Usual. And if we use urban garden farming, we can grow most all of the transportation critical things like fresh fruit and vegetables. Dry products such as beans and grains can be grown in rural areas.

        In short, we have a shortage of land and we are dependent on toxins and massive irrigation projects because we have taken the substitution of land, capital, fossil fuels, chemical inputs, and the mining of soil fertility in place of human labor and intelligence to an extreme which has led us to be quite inefficient in terms of land usage. Why not reverse the trend? Psychology, sociology, and politics is my answer. But to lean on the crutch of Limits To Growth is, I think, just a big mistake.

        Don Stewart

        • You are right: we could do better than what we are doing now, but it is hard to get the government behind making changes when our current system produces a lot of food cheaply, and the government is in poor financial shape to begin with.

  4. Jerry McManus says:

    Another great post Gail! The word “sustainable” is so badly over-used and abused, often with little thought to the actual meaning of the word, it’s practically a running joke. All the more reason I was pleased to see the article put the emphasis on the ecological context of the word. Far too often the issue is confused by conflating the word with social justice issues, which is a mistake IMO.

    I think the best definition I’ve seen was the one I read in “Limits to Growth: 30 year update”:

    – Renewable resources should not be used at a rate greater than they can be replenished.
    – Non-renewable resources should only be used for creating renewable alternatives.
    – Wastes should not be produced at a rate greater than they can be absorbed.

    Beautiful in their simplicity, but how to apply at a global level? The solution is obvious, really, as stated in the article “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. ”

    Exactly. I would go even further and suggest that both those things will be impossible to achieve, at least not voluntarily. Who will be first in line for either of those things? And what is to stop one or more countries from grabbing the resources not used by the “sustainable’ folks?

    A totalitarian world government might be able to achieve those goals, but it would of necessity be through fear and coercion. The “killing fields” of Cambodia writ large.

    What then is the answer? I think it’s quite simple, really. All complex systems self-organize to maximize available energy and resources, this “maximum power principle” is universal and we are clearly no exception. Our short-term carrying capacity was greatly enlarged by the use of fossil fuels and when those resources are depleted then so too will our numbers naturally die back to levels that can be supported by long term carrying capacity.

    Those of our species who can adapt to that new reality will survive, those who cannot will die. Just as it always has been for the last 3 or 4 billion years on this lovely little speck of a planet, and always will be long after we are gone.

  5. robindatta says:

    Must watching for the Roi-20:

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