I recently reread a short essay by the late Donella Meadows from 1992 called “What does sustainability mean?” It’s still relevant, pointing the way to what we as a planetary culture need to think about and do.
Meadows was a brilliant analyst of global ecological, social and economic systems, and a principal author of a breakthrough report, “The Limits of Growth,” in 1972. She taught at Dartmouth College until her death in 2001, and was equally at home writing for a technical audience and for the public, publishing a regular column, “The Global Citizen,” in her local paper, including her essay on sustainability.
Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the idea of sustainability had a pretty decent pedigree. Meadows quotes the World Commission on Environment and Development 1987 report, defining a sustainable society as one that “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
For decades before that report, fisheries scientists calculated “maximum sustainable yield,” a figure that was believed to represent the largest catch that could be taken from a fish population for an indefinite period. Similarly, foresters define sustained yield as maintenance of harvest in perpetuity “without impairment of the productivity of the land.”
Seeing planet Earth from space reminds us that we live on a finite world. NASA
Unfortunately, the ongoing collapse of fisheries and widespread loss of forests show that these goals haven’t been achieved on a global basis — the only measure that really matters. Sustainability in one country, or several, is an oxymoron.
Meadows saw sustainability this way: “We’d start by eliminating waste. We would discover that we could run this country with half as much energy as we use now [or less]. We could also cut our materials budget in half by better recycling, by increasing the useful lifetime of products, and by reducing extravagant practices such as overpackaging and junk mailing.”
These efficiencies, though, wouldn’t be enough. If the savings we achieved led us “to grow more — more people and more stuff per person — we would quickly find ourselves unsustainable again.”
In the years since Meadows wrote that, not only have we not achieved the efficiencies she envisioned we could, but we’ve continued to grow: more people and more stuff. The world now is more crowded, more unstable, more unequal. A multiplicity of challenges faces us, demanding a multiplicity of responses. Here are some of my thoughts on what’s needed.
Climate. The highest priority for a sustainable human presence is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to zero, and to take steps to draw down their concentrations in the atmosphere. Without this step, all other efforts to achieve sustainability will fail. This means a rapid transition to renewable energy sources — wind, water, solar, geothermal — along with dramatic increases in energy efficiency. Global heating demands global solutions, and accords like the Paris agreement are the most likely means to move toward those objectives.
Materials and waste. A sustainable world is one in which we use the products of our lands and waters only as quickly as they are replaced. It also requires that we limit our output of waste products — solid, liquid and gaseous — to a rate that natural systems can process them. This calls for planetwide reuse and recycling, and elimination of toxic and nonrecyclable materials from our manufacturing. Anything less is mining — using up the resources and accumulating unusable or hazardous materials.
Ecosystems. We are a part of nature, not apart from it. Sustainability requires that we maintain a healthy balance between the built and natural worlds. Whether it’s food we harvest from the land and water, protection against floods and wildfires, or reducing the threat of disease transmission from animals to humans, robust ecosystems around the world need to be preserved and protected against development or destruction in the interest of short-term gain.
Environmental and economic justice. No plan for sustainability will succeed if more than half of the human population is left behind to starve or to absorb the waste of the so-called developed world. For example, our current climate catastrophes are disproportionately being visited on the people least responsible for the continuing carbon pollution of our atmosphere. Sustainability can happen only if these inequities are ended, and that can happen only if the world’s nations come together as they need to on all of these issues.
A sustainable world is a just world: one in which there are no winners or losers.
This is a daunting list. It demands vast social, economic and political changes at every level. But we can still work toward those changes. We can vote. We can urge others to vote. We can support candidates and policies that address these issues. But we can also lead by example: supporting local farms, local conservation organizations and local economic initiatives (e.g., cooperatives, credit unions, intentional communities).
The old slogan is ready for revision: “Think globally, act wherever you can.”
Michael Dover is a former board member at the Hitchcock Center for the Environment and a retired environmental scientist.
Earth Matters, written by staff and associates of the Hitchcock Center for the Environment at 845 West St., Amherst, appears every other week in the Daily Hampshire Gazette. For more information, call 413-256-6006, or write to us.
Click here to return to full list of Earth Matters articles.