Bouncing, Bouncing, Bouncing
Sustainability–defined as using resources in such a way that resources remain for future generations to use, with no decline in life-style or well-being–entered the global debate in the early 1980s, when the United Nations’ World Commission on Environment and Development released Our Common Future (Oxford University Press, 1987) (the Brundtland Report). It recognized that limits on population size and resource use exist and must be taken into account when governments, corporations, and individuals plan for the future. The 1992 Rio Conference established that sustainability implies such things as cutting forests no faster than they can grow back, using ground water no faster than it is recharged by precipitation, emitting no more pollutants than the environment can absorb or destroy, stressing renewable energy sources rather than exhaustible fossil fuels, and farming in such a way that soil fertility does not decline.
Some still cling to the idea that a sustainable civilization is achievable, if we can just reduce both population and consumption, or—lacking that—if we develop suitable technologies. But population has continued to increase, as has resource use, including the exhaustion of groundwater aquifers and the use of fossil fuels and concomitant carbon emissions, which threaten a warmer climate. Others have given up on sustainability, replacing it with “resilience”; Melinda Harm Benson and Robin Kundis Craig, “The End of Sustainability,” Society & Natural Resources (vol. 27, No. 7, 2014)(http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/08941920.2014.901467), argue that we must focus on coping or adapting instead of sustaining. (A much shorter version of this paper appeared at http://ensia.com/voices/the-end-of-sustainability/).
Even in a sustainable world, we must cope with and adapt to the results of what that world throws at us. We shift from “sustainable” to “resilient” when we start seeing those adverse events as coming more frequently and being more extreme. Ordinary coping and adapting are no longer enough. Resilience thus recognizes that we cannot maintain a steady state such as sustainability envisions. It implies that conditions will get worse but we will struggle to restore normality, to recover or bounce back from events such as the droughts, heat waves, wildfires, floods, hurricanes, and other consequences of global warming, as well as from more random events such as volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, and tsunamis. In effect, “We know we are going to get hammered; the question now is whether we can bounce back.”
Is that what we will have to worry about for the next few decades or even centuries? Disaster recovery? The random events are always lurking in the background, essentially unpredictable. The consequences of population growth, resource use, and carbon emissions are definitely predictable. They are concerns for the present and the immediate future.
What will we have to bounce back from? Well, one of those consequences is exhaustion of groundwater, essential for agriculture and renewable only on a time scale of millennia. Recovery must mean finding new sources of water, such as by desalinating seawater (an expensive process). Another consequence is bigger hurricanes, which destroy both individual houses and whole towns. So do wildfires and floods. Recovery means reconstruction (which is good for the economy—all those construction jobs as well as bricks and lumber), and that is straightforward enough. Droughts may mean widespread famine and death. Rising seas, particularly in low-lying lands such as Bangladesh, will mean displaced populations and increased conflict—and deaths. For deaths, recovery means replacing the dead with new births.
And it’s all good if the world gives you time to rebuild or rebreed before the next catastrophe hits. But what the experts are saying about the consequences of global warming is that we can’t expect that. We are going to get hammered again and again and again, probably in rapid succession. There may even be simultaneous hits, as California found in 2018. Drought parches the vegetation, leading to wildfires that remove the vegetation that holds the soil in place. And then come the rains and the mudslides.
The trouble with resilience… It is a property of rubber balls. Drop one and it bounces back—but not all the way to your hand. It falls slightly short. If you let it bounce-bounce-bounce, the bounces get shorter and shorter until the ball just quivers and rolls away into the corner of the room.
If resilience-instead-of-sustainability works in even a remotely similar way, we are not going to be able to restore normality after every adverse event. We will fall short at least some of the time, and then even shorter. We are looking at continual decline in population, built infrastructure, resource use, food production, and so on. Bounce, bounce, bounce, and dribble to a much reduced steady state in the corner of the room.
Am I just catastrophizing? In 2009, Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, told the Copenhagen climate conference that if global warming passes 5 degrees Celsius (9 degrees Fahrenheit) warmer than today, by no means a worst-case scenario and well below maximum projections, the Earth may become able to support no more than one billion people, a number last seen in 1800 (https://dotearth.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/03/13/scientist-warming-could-cut-population-to-1-billion/ ).
It won’t happen right away. That bouncing ball takes time to run down. But it’s something to worry about for your grandchildren or great-grandchildren.
So what can we do about it? No one is willing to talk about reducing population. No one is willing to reduce carbon emissions enough and some are still insisting they aren’t the problem. Some people are talking about geoengineering—spraying sulfates or water droplets into the stratosphere to reflect some of the incoming solar energy—but that idea is untested, the side effects are not well understood, and once you start and have it working, you don’t dare stop. (Unfortunately, politicians have a way of pulling the plug once the problem is no longer apparent. U.S. Republicans have actually tried to roll back the Clean Air and Water Acts because the air and water are clean now. Pollution is gone, so we no longer need to control it. Right?)
It might work better if we could just pull excess carbon dioxide out of the air, as described in Richard Conniff, “The Last Resort,” Scientific American (January 2019). A number of techniques are being developed and even tested, but to work they need to be deployed within the next few years. And they will be very, very expensive. By 2100, we will need to pull a trillion tons of carbon dioxide out of the air, at a cost of $100 or more per ton. The U.S. Gross National Product is about $18 trillion.
It would be cheaper to shift away from eating meat and plant the rangelands no longer needed to grow cows with lots and lots of trees. That would help, though only temporarily if we keep growing the population and burning fossil fuels.
Unfortunately, thinking in terms of temporary help is short-term thinking. We need that, when the problems we are trying to solve are urgent. But we also need to look further into the future. We need solutions that last.
Of course, the solutions we need are inherent in the problems we face: Stop doing that!
I wish I had a better one, that politicians could accept.