Sustainability on Earth:

What Must We Change In Order to Survive?



“Sustainability” is essentially just a euphemism for “survival.” In plain everyday English, when our situation is “nonsustainable,” that means that we must change or die.

        What is it that the human race must change, in order to survive? After at least half a dozen large-scale global modeling projects – and, more important, deep analysis of what the models were really telling us – and after large-scale systematic, disciplined efforts to pool our knowledge in a  more qualitative way, there are a few major themes that have emerged. The chart on the left is a simplified version of what I have seen emerging from the far more complex analyses of the State of the Future effort, which is the most widely disseminated global effort in this area.

        In a way, the three main themes on this chart can be seen as a reflection of the three main requirements we get to by using sheer, simple-minded logic, when we ask “what must we do in order to have at least some chance of survival?”


Energy and Other Nonrenewable Resources


By sheer logic, we have to stop using up things that are in finite, limited supply – sooner or later. This includes fossil fuel – and it also includes the kinds of fuels used in the safer, more proven and less expensive forms of nuclear fission.

      Must we change sooner, or can we get away with later? In the case of energy, a relatively complete analysis suggests (briefly) that we should change as soon as possible, to minimize the risk to our very survival. More important, it charts out a path for changing much more quickly and at much lower cost (actually, a big net profit!) than most people now think possible. I have also written a two-page summary of what the US needs to do to get on that path, in more detail. Getting to a “win-win” solution is not always easy, when there are many many actors locked into the kind of awful equilibrium that John Nash has described (in game theory). The book “A Beautiful Mind” discusses the terrible disappointments that John Nash faced when he presented his ideas to Von Neumann, the father of game theory – but Von Neumann had good reason to believe that we need to work hard to find better solutions or strategies for these kind of many-player struggles. 

      But: are there other things in finite supply that we are in danger of running out of? Given enough energy, we can make almost anything we need, if we have the materials available. But the human economy is pretty much stuck with the existing supply of basic atomic elements, and some of them are a lot harder to recycle than others. There have been extensive studies of the life cycle and economics of almost all the elements (not just carbon!), by the Bureau of Mines and also by university researchers, including some supported by NSF’s MUSES research program. So far as I know, there is nothing on the horizon threatening to run out quickly in a way that demands truly global attention – but I hope this is not just a matter of my own ignorance and of cultural biases. At times, I have heard a few heated discussions about platinum, about rare earth elements, about phosphorus and about copper. It is good that some researchers are keeping a close eye on these issues, and that others are keeping a close eye on them. Platinum is available and accessible in large quantities in space.


Water, Food, Soil, Etc.


Again, by sheer logic, it is not enough just to stop draining our supplies of things that are running out. Even if we rely on renewable resources like rainwater, sunlight and plants, we have to make sure that our rate of consumption does not exceed what nature offers us here on earth. Roughly speaking, the second and third points on the slide above simply remind us that we must maintain or expand

what nature offers us (the second point), and that we must limit the demands that we place on that supply (the third point).

      The second cluster of concerns (water, food, soil, etc.) has engaged more and more high-level concern in most nations. In China, in particular, Dr. Rusong Wang of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and leader of the China Node of the State of the Future effort, has done very extensive studies both of the problems and of strategies for overcoming them. He tells me that better supplies of energy would make a huge difference in solving the problems – but the problems are important enough that many view them as the number one threat to China’s continued economic growth. There is also a study by the open-source intelligence community, showing how the vast majority of wars in the last decade or two have occurred in places where people have been arguing over scarce water supplies. Research on some key aspects of these issues has been supported by the CLEANER and MUSES activities at NSF.

      Yet even so, there is still a lot more work to be done, and a lot which has yet to be understood. For example, if we compare the early, half-way started efforts to bring real intelligence and cyberinfrastructure to the electric power grid, versus the present state of water and soil management, it seems to me that the latter areas are not so far along. They have yet to do the work required as a prerequisite to more sustainable and optimal management. In the 1980’s, when I was at the Office of Energy Information Validation of DOE, I read extensive literature on biomass fuel potential, including what was available on the sustainability question. I still remember a thick report specifying the complex planning model used by one of the big bioproduct companies, which was widely hailed as the leader in foresight, in taking care to maintain its assets looking ahead a full century, and so on. But deep in the middle of this very complex model, it was noted that the term “soil fertility” (which means just what it sounds like) was treated as a hard-wired constant, unaffected by any human actions or choices. Qualitative studies by sources like the Worldwatch Institute and even the Friends of the Earth have made it clear that we could lose a lot if we do not learn how to better understand these variables, and learn how to act on that understanding.

      The extinction of species on earth is another major concern now. An extinction or two here or there would be nothing new in the story of evolution on earth, but the possible loss of half the species on earth is a far more serious matter. Edward O. Wilson, working with the World Wildlife Fund and others, has argued that we could dramatically reduce the rate of extinctions at a relatively low cost, if we use clever strategies and exploit more precise scientific understanding. Certainly there are unmet opportunities to follow through on his insights.


Population and “Yin Sustainability”


Many have said that all of our efforts to achieve sustainability and a prosperous world will go for naught, if we do not have the will to put a complete stop to the exponential growth of population.

This has not yet been achieved and it may never be achieved if we do not pay more attention to this variable. Stress on water, fuel, land, real estate and other limited resources grows in direct proportion        to population, for any given standard of living and level of technology.

        During the past decade or two, great progress has been made – but not enough. In essence, average world population growth has been slowed from something like 2 percent to something like 1.4 percent. See Ehrlich, P. R., and A. H. Ehrlich. 2002. Population, development, and human natures. Environment and Development Economics 7: 158-170.

     Many analysts take comfort from the fact that “official UN projections” show a gradual slowing in birth rates, eventually reaching break-even. The UN numbers showed the same thing in the 1980’s, when there was no trend towards lower fertility at all in the empirical data when the special case of China was excluded. Yet when we studied the UN book itself, it said clearly that these were really targets, not projections – a description of a more-or-less plausible path that we should all agree to make true. These targets required substantial improvements in fertility – but the fertility assumptions were not based at all on empirically based models of what was actually happening. A recent review of population projections suggests that the same remains true today. (See page 32 of the pdf file, numbered as page 234 in the document itself.)

        As Ehrlich says, much of the progress in reducing birth rates in poor nations since the 1980’s can be traced back to more serious empirical research into the determinants of fertility, and to action by groups like the United Nations Fund for Population Assistance to act on that research. Empirical research stressed the importance of female education, especially, along with urbanization and healthcare availability, in reducing fertility. (Shaw of the UNFPA organized a key meeting in New York where this new strategy gained momentum, though the World Bank had been leading the way before that.)

        For me, India provides a very vivid example of the mixed picture today of progress and stagnation, and a continued serious threat to world economic growth and to the “demographic transition” which many are praying for. States like Tamil Nadu in southern India made an especially vigorous effort to upgrade female education and empowerment; the benefits both to economic growth and to population stability have been very vivid. But more fundamentalist areas like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar have lagged far beyond, creating growing population pressures, which are now being exported to the rest of India and seriously threatening the fragile new economic boom. Growth may stall and fall apart, if more intensive efforts are not made to reach the entire nation, and not just a few provinces. If major policy decisions do not put these goals right at the top of the agenda, we risk losing everything else.

        Of course, India is just one example. The problem is worldwide.

        I recall a conversation years ago with a well-meaning old member of the Club of Rome. “Why,” he asked, “can’t we just slow down all these crazy changes we are making in this world?” But there are times, when we are riding on a wobbly bicycle, that our only hope to achieve true stability is to move much faster (while still trying to avoid potholes). Gross instability in population growth is something we cannot afford. One way or another, the world must change or die.

        There is a connection here to the deeper and more difficult issues of ethics and human potential. “Human potential” certainly involves fostering the full potential both of males and of females.

        Also, while money is really only just a means to an end both for human individuals and for humanity in general, issues about fiscal and political sustainability certainly play a role as part of how we address the more fundamental goals.