30 September 2009: Will our success be our undoing?

Will our success be our undoing?

One of the more affirming things about the direction of our country in these “troubled times” is the overall movement towards a sustainable green economy, head-in-the-sand old-energy proponents and myopic historical societies notwithstanding.

The idea of going green is something most can get their heads around: recycling, increasing fuel efficiency, developing alternative energy sources, and reconstructing the power grid to transport the new energies.

However, sustainability, as I noted last week, can be a nebulous concept. American Heritage offers a definition for sustain that captures its essence relative to our topic: to endure or withstand.

But taking it to the next level, does sustainability mean only surviving—enduring—or does it also include thriving?

In their essay on the Worldwatch website, authors Thomas Prugh and Erik Assadourian who maintain the idea of sustainability has been “overused and corrupted,” frame the question accordingly: “How do we make a self-contained place to live, and keep it going for a long time?”

“All people and cultures,” Prugh and Assadourian hold, “try to improve their lives and conditions; this process is often called development.” Citing the Brundtland Commission in 1987 which defined sustainability as “roughly, the ability to meet our needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet theirs,” they argue sustainability requires sustainable development.

Hence, for a population to thrive in a sustainable manner, development must be thoughtful and careful and not rape, pillage and plunder. Only unethical goons would bequeath their children a world depleted of resources and forlorn of hope.

Isolated, stable populations are able to live within their environmental strictures. Those compelled to have and consume more cannot exist in such a contained arena and require an ever-expanding area or process—unbridled capitalism—to accommodate that growth.

Prugh and Assadourian write, “It may be convenient to think about sustainability in terms of four dimensions: human survival, biodiversity, equity, and life quality.” (An in-depth explanation of each concept can be read on the Worldwatch website @ http://www.worldwatch.org/node/539.)

Keith Everitt of the Clear Creek Sustainability Committee states that sustainability at the micro level can be “expressed as fact or intention, or meant as a guiding principle.”

“In its most basic form,” Everitt adds, “to sustain is to utilize a resource in a manner that does not deplete it.”

Everitt’s point recalls for me the early 19th-century whaling industry, which exploded due to high demand for whale oil for lamps. But, due to over-hunting, whales became endangered of extinction. Fortunately, fossil fuels such as kerosene began to be developed, and with that the demand for whale oil died before whales as a species died although, once again, they are endangered.

At the macro level, Everitt says sustainability is “a path chosen that combines social, ecological, and economic impacts that support one another while creating as little environmental impact as possible.” He adds this is known as the “Triple Bottom Line or People, Planet, Profit.”

Prugh and Assadourian recount the history of Easter Island, 2,000 miles off the Chilean coast. When the Polynesians arrived there some 1,500 years ago, Easter Island was a virtual paradise. By the time Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen stumbled upon it in 1722, they had transformed it into little more than “shrubby grassland” supporting a decimated and impoverished population.

It seems, say the authors, “the Easter Islanders’ success triggered their undoing” due to generations of people “harvesting trees for building, making rope, and fuelwood,” which all “led to complete deforestation.” The authors note even the “stowaway rats” that consumed their seed, contributed to the island’s demise.

Along with other noted observers, Prugh and Assadourian offer four essential lessons we can glean from the Easter Islanders’ experience:
• Human beings respond strongly to incentives to overuse resources.
• We have great difficulty noticing when things are going wrong, unless it happens over relatively short periods.
• Declining resource availability can undermine the very organizational structures and capacities needed to fashion a response.
• The failure of the Easter Island culture to grasp what was happening to it led, not to its extinction, but to its radical impoverishment and simplification-in terms of numbers, capacity to act, biodiversity, wealth, and cultural richness.

There is historic parallel between over-hunting of whales and current depletion of fossil fuels due to their being “over-mined.” Both are limited resources, and when the last are gone, that’s it.

Will our success lead to our undoing? We have two choices: bury our heads in the sand or face the problem head on. As a culture, we Americans are a pragmatic people, and that pragmatism, I believe, will ensure we don’t follow the plight of the Easter Islanders.

Join me Saturday, October 3 @ 3:00 on KYGT for a discussion of this and more with Keith Everitt, Diane Kielty of Kielty Diversified Projects, LLC & the CC Watershed Foundation, and local EPA rep Tim Rehder.

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