Before we can address sustainable development we must first look at what is driving change. Just what are the powerful, interconnected trends that transform how we are altering the natural systems that sustain life on Earth? In the most general terms they are the following:
- Our exploding population that is already exceeding Earth’s carrying capacity.
- Water consumption.
- A Capitalist economy based upon unregulated expansion and ignoring natural capital.
- Cities replacing natural habitat.
- Energy and efficiency technology.
- Escalating appetite for food and soil resources.
- Innate human passions.
Of all the trends, our exploding human population is perhaps the most overwhelming. Essentially, more people translates to a multiplying effect on all other trends. The population of the U.S. is about 321,000,000, or more than double what it was at the end of WWII. The global population tripled in the same period. Depending upon war, disease, or starvation, the global population is expected to reach between 9 and 11 billion by the end of this century.
Now let’s look at how these numbers reflect on the other six driving forces.
No water, no life. We are wasting water at an alarming rate. Our planet’s surface is 71.2 percent covered with water. A tiny 2.5 percent is fresh water. Only 0.3 percent of fresh water is in liquid form as rivers, lakes and swamps. The rest is groundwater or frozen. Nearly 70 percent of fresh water is trapped in glacier ice. Many of the largest groundwater sources are being drawn down faster than they can recharge. Corporations are gaining control of many groundwater sources and charging several thousand percent in profits for human consumption as bottled water. These corporations include Nestle and Coca Cola to name a few. In many cases, fresh bottled water is more expensive than flavored drinks that use the same water.
Most freshwater consumption is not for domestic use, but for growing food, producing goods, and to generate energy. For comparison, a single hamburger requires approximately 634 gallons of water. A pair of leather shoes takes 2113 gallons to create.
A consumer economy is not necessarily unsustainable. Unsustainable consumption is defined by the lack of consideration for the depletion of “natural capital.” Natural capital refers to finite and renewable resources that are linked to primary planetary energy systems. Growth of most of the largest world economies is measured by Gross Domestic Product (GDP). GDP does not include “natural capital” in that calculus. A country like the U.S. may appear to be prospering with an expanding GDP while exponentially depleting the “natural capital” that forms the bedrock of human civilization.
Unregulated capitalism takes this one step further in the wrong direction by removing many of the oversight systems that monitor and prevent even greater pillaging of resources.
The global human population is rapidly migrating from the country to the city. Cities have great potential for efficient, sustainable living but very few achieve that goal. Unstructured development has led to strained infrastructure (housing, water, sewage, transportation, energy, etc.) and a stratified and too often diminished quality of life for many who live there.
Urbanization is taking place in developing countries much faster than in industrialized nations. By mid century, most mega-cities (cities over 10 million) will be in Asia, Africa and South America. This will dramatically change the global economic structure of trade and transportation.
As mega-cities proliferate so do problems with trade, infrastructure, energy consumption, security and disease. Where populations are concentrated, the probability rather than possibility of pandemic disease increases exponentially.
Where a nation’s population becomes concentrated in cities, rural political representation diminishes. Cities consume 75 percent of natural resources but occupy only 2 percent of the land. This leads to conflict between resource supplier (i.e. food grower) and resource consumer. Nations eventually become defined by their urban economic and political regions or city states.
Throughout history city states have not tended to be secure for long.
Energy and Efficiency Technology
On our present path, the U.S. will soon be surpassed in energy efficiency and technology. Dropping out of the Paris Agreement was economically and strategically foolish. The U.S. DOES NOT lead the world in high speed rail, wind, solar, or passive heating technology. The U.S. DOES NOT lead the world in transitioning from fossil fuel to sustainable energy.
Frugal Scotland announced it would phase out gas and diesel cars by 2032. France will end sales of gas and diesel cars by 2040, Britain by 2040, the Dutch by 2025, Norway by 2025 and German Chancellor Angela Merkel has hinted that she intends similar action. The two most populous countries in the world have announced they will cease sales of petroleum powered vehicles by 2030. Mercedes, Volkswagon, Toyota and Mazda have all announced that they will cease the manufacture of petroleum powered vehicles before 2030. Volvo announced that all its models introduced in 2019 and after would be hybrid or electric. Similar announcements are appearing by all major foreign manufacturers. A number of new manufacturers are also coming online with hybrid or EV powered vehicles.
In the U.S., the startup Tesla remains the most successful major producer of EV powered vehicles. Ford, GM, and Fiat/Chrysler lag far behind, though they continue to promise advances in the future.
The world is rapidly transitioning to sustainable energy while the U.S. clippty-clops in the rear due to a recalcitrant Congress and Executive Branch. The greatest gains in energy are in conservation and efficiency, yet the majority of our government views this as antithetical to unregulated, free-market capitalism. This is the ultimate economic oxymoron.
A subset to our energy and technology advances is education. The U.S. lags behind the world in science and math. It is difficult to imagine how the U.S. will maintain sustainable growth without increased and effective education.
Food and Resources
The global economy has grown tenfold since the 1950s. With that growth there has also been greater demand for foods that are higher on the food pyramid like meat, sugars and fats. Both of these factors have placed stress on planetary systems and resources that are already greater than the planet can sustain. To feed 9 billion by 2050, we will need to increase food production 50 to 75 percent. Arable land is decreasing rather than increasing. This is due to loss of fertility, pollution, housing and infrastructure. We are building our cities over the best farmland.
The speed of change, population, urbanization, and shortages of resources are putting stress on human nature (innate psychology) as never before. We are bombarded moment by moment with stresses that are both self-induced and beyond our tolerance individually and socially. Culture changes slowly — economies change rapidly. The family and community social structure is breaking down. At the same time, there is little research on how this paradox impacts sustainable development, let alone a sustainable civilization. The traditional systems for acculturating our youth are breaking down with the potential of adults that are intolerant of others. Fear of others is growing as bigotry and misogyny. If you ever want to be isolated and anonymous move from the country to the city. There you will learn to lock your doors and put bars on your windows.
W. Douglas Smith is an environmental scientist, environmental diplomat, explorer, educator and a retired Senior Compliance Investigator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, where he worked for 36 years.