Sustainable Development part 1

=======================Electronic Edition========================
.                                                               .
.           RACHEL'S ENVIRONMENT & HEALTH WEEKLY #624           .
.                    ---November 12, 1998---                    .
.                          HEADLINES:                           .
.                SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT, PART 1                .
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The phrase "sustainable development" was coined by the World
Commission on Environment and Development (the "Bruntland
Commission") in 1987. The Commission defined "sustainable
development" as material improvement to meet the needs of the
present generation without compromising the ability of future
generations to meet their own needs.[1]  This definition
emphasizes an important aspect of our ethical relationship to the
unborn, yet it remains too vague to be truly useful as a guide
for human activity because we cannot agree on the meaning of
"needs."  We can't really know what the "needs" of future
generations will be, and we can't even agree on what we ourselves
"need" vs. what we merely want.

Fortunately, more useful definitions of "sustainable development"
are coming into focus.  By "more useful" I mean definitions that
will allow us to reach agreement, thus giving us a common basis
for action. In his book BEYOND GROWTH,[2] economist Herman Daly
defines "sustainable development" as "development without growth
--without growth in throughput beyond environmental regenerative
and absorptive capacity."[2,pg.69]  This is an important
definition, worth examining.

First, let's look at "throughput."  Throughput is the flow of
materials and energy through the human economy.  It includes
everything we make and do.  When we speak of "growth" we are
talking about growth in throughput --people making (and throwing
away) more stuff and using more energy to do it.  The totality of
the human economy is throughput. It is calculated as the total
number of people multiplied by their consumption.

The "regenerative and absorptive capacity of the environment"
refers to the ability of the environment to provide (a) materials
for our use, and (b) places where we can throw our wastes.  This
gets a little more complicated.  It refers to two things --(1)
the ability of the environment to provide us with the
high-quality raw materials we need to make things, and (2) the
ability of the environment to break down our wastes and turn them
back into raw materials, an essential service.

Let's take waste first.  When we throw things away, nature begins
to take them apart and recycle them.  For example, when we throw
away wood, natural agents (called "decomposers"), such as
termites, begin to eat our wood waste and break it down into raw
materials --carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, sulfur, and so
forth.  Creatures such as earth worms use the termites' wastes as
raw materials for soil, which provides nutrients for new trees to
grow.  This is called the "detritus food chain" and it is
essential to life on earth, though largely invisible from a human
perspective.  The detritus food chain is made up of insects,
bacteria, funguses, and other creatures that most of us know
little about.  But without their workings, the world would become
overloaded with wastes and biological processes would become
clogged and stop working.[3]  If you've ever visited a modern hog
farm, you have an idea of what it means to exceed the capacity of
the local environment to absorb waste.  It is unpleasant and

A second major benefit that nature provides for us is
high-quality raw materials that we can use.  Herman Daly calls
these "natural capital," of which there are two kinds.  The first
kind of natural capital takes the form of a stock, a fixed
quantity, such as oil or coal or rich deposits of copper.  We can
use these stocks of natural capital at any rate we choose, but
when they are used up (dispersed into the environment as wastes),
they will no longer be available for our use, or for the use of
future generations.  (The second law of thermodynamics guarantees
that we can never take highly-dispersed atoms of, say, copper and
gather them back into a highly-concentrated copper deposit.  The
energy requirements of such an operation are simply too great. If
the second law didn't hold true, as Herman Daly says, we could
make windmills out of beach sand and use them to power machines
to extract gold from seawater.  Unfortunately, the second law
DOES hold true, and once we disperse highly-concentrated ores, we
cannot afford to reconcentrate them.)

The second kind of natural capital takes the form of a flow.  In
general these flows are continuous (though human bungling can
interrupt some of them).  Examples include sunlight, the capacity
of green plants to create carbohydrates by photosynthesis,
rainfall, and the production of fish in the oceans.  These forms
of natural capital are endlessly renewable but can only be used
at a certain rate --the rate at which nature provides them.
Example: So long as we cut trees at a certain rate, and no
faster, then nature will produce new trees fast enough to
maintain a constant supply of cuttable trees.  If we cut trees
faster than that, nature will not be able to keep up with us and
then people in the future will have fewer trees to meet their
needs.  The capacity of the Earth to support life will have been
diminished.  This is an example of exceeding the capacity of the
ecosystem to regenerate itself.

Growth, then, means quantitative increase in physical size.
Development, on the other hand, means qualitative change,
realization of potentialities, transition to a fuller or better
state.  On a planet such as Earth, which is finite and not
growing, there can be no such thing as "sustainable growth"
because growth will inevitably hit physical limits.  Because of
physical limits, growth of throughput is simply not sustainable
indefinitely.  But development CAN continue endlessly as we seek
to improve the quality of life for humans and for the other
creatures with which we share the planet.

To repeat, then, sustainable development means development
without growth in throughpout that exceeds the regenerative and
absorptive capacity of the environment.  Sustainable development
and the standard ideology of growth stand in contrast to each
other and, in fact, are incompatible with each other.

Thus to be sustainable, the human economy (our throughput) must
not exceed a certain size in relation to the global ecosystem
because it will start to diminish the capacity of the planet to
support humans (and other creatures).  If the human economy grows
too large, it begins to interfere with the natural services that
support all life --services such as photosynthesis, pollination,
purification of air and water, maintenance of climate, filtering
of excessive ultraviolet radiation, recycling of wastes, and so
forth.  Growth beyond that point will produce negative
consequences that exceed the benefits of increased throughput.

There is considerable evidence that the throughput of some parts
of the human economy has already exceeded the regenerative and
absorptive capacity of the environment.  The problem of climate
change and global warming is an example; it provides evidence
that we have exceeded the capacity of the atmosphere to absorb
our carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrogen oxide wastes.  Many of
the fresh water fish of the world now contain dangerously
elevated levels of toxic mercury because we humans have doubled
the amount of mercury normally present in the atmosphere
--evidence that we have exceeded earth's capacity to absorb our
mercury wastes.[4]   Depletion of the ozone layer is evidence
that we have exceeded the atmosphere's capacity to absorb our
chlorinated fluorocarbon (CFC) wastes.  This list can readily be

There is also considerable evidence that we have already
diminished several important stocks and flows of natural capital.
The U.S. economy, for example, is now dependent upon oil
imported from the Middle East because we have depleted our own
stocks of oil.  Most of the world's seventeen marine fisheries
are badly depleted --a flow of natural capital that we have
overharvested, in some cases nearly to the point of extinction.
(See REHW #587.)  This list, too, can readily be extended.

One particular limit seems worth noting at this point.  In 1986,
a group of biologists at Stanford University analyzed the total
amount of photosynthetic activity on all the available land on
Earth, and asked what proportion of it have humans now
appropriated for their own use (mainly through agriculture)?[5]
The answer is 40%.  This leaves 60% for the use of non-humans.
But the human population is presently doubling every 35 or 40
years.  After one more doubling, humans will be using 80% of all
the products of sunlight, and shortly after that, 100%.  Don't
get me wrong --humans are important.  But I don't know very many
people who think it would be smart to deny every wild creature
access to the basic food and habitat resources of the planet just
to keep the human economy expanding.  Even if we thought we had
the right to use 100% of the green products of sunlight for our
own purposes, the human population would have to stop growing at
that point because there wouldn't be any more sunlight to
appropriate.  That time is less than one human lifetime (70
years) away.

Thus we soon will reach --or more likely have already reached
--the point at which growth of the human economy does more harm
than good. What is needed under these circumstances is to
stabilize total consumption, total throughput.

There are two basic rationales for doing this, one based in
science and one in religion.  Herman Daly offers both.  We have
heard the scientific argument, above, which says that the
capacity of the Earth to support life is being --or soon will be
--diminished by growth of throughput and that sooner or later we
can only hurt ourselves and our children if we persistt on this
path of unsustainability.  The religious argument goes like this:

"I believe that God the Creator exists now, as well as in the
past and future, and is the source of our obligation to Creation,
including other creatures, and especially including members of
our own species who are suffering.  Our ability and inclination
to enrich the present at the expense of the future, and of other
species, is as real and as sinful as our tendency to further
enrich the wealthy at the expense of the poor.  To hand back to
God the gift of Creation in a degraded state capable of
supporting less life, less abundantly, and for a shorter future,
is surely a sin.  If it is a sin to kill and to steal, then
surely it is a sin to destroy carrying capacity --the capacity of
the earth to support life now and in the future.  Sometimes we
find ourselves in an impasse in which sins are unavoidable.  We
may sometimes have to sacrifice future life in order to preserve
present life --but to sacrifice future life to protect present
luxury and extravagance is a very different
                                                --Peter Montague
                (National Writers Union, UAW Local 1981/AFL-CIO)

[1] Gro Harlem Brundtland and others, OUR COMMON FUTURE (New
York: Oxford University Press, 1987).

[2] Herman E. Daly, BEYOND GROWTH (Boston: Beacon Press, 1996).

[3] See any ecology textbook; for example, G. Tyler Miller, Jr.,
LIVING IN THE ENVIRONMENT Ninth Edition (Belmont, California:
Wadsworth Publishing, 1996), chapter 5, "Ecosystems and How They

[4] F. Slemr and E. Langer, "Increase in global atmospheric
concentrations of mercury inferred from measurements over the
Atlantic Ocean," NATURE Vol. 355 (January 30, 1992), pgs. 434-437.

[5] Peter M. Vitousek and others, "Human Appropriation of the
Products of Photosynthesis," BIOSCIENCE Vol. 34, No. 6 (1986),
pgs. 368-373.

Descriptor terms:  growth; sustainable development; brundtland
commission; world commission on environment and development;
throughput; economics; herman daly; beyond growth; ecosystem
functioning; detritus food chain; natural capital; development

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