Sustainability is more than a carbon footprint
We hear a lot about how many resources Americans consume, how much waste we create, and how much we pollute the air. If you are close to those interested in environmental impacts, as I am, you hear a lot about sustainability and living sustainable lives.
What does this all mean? Is it all just an “Americans are guilty” thing? If it’s important, what can we do about it? Because most of us are on a pretty steep learning curve on these topics, I’d like to take a look at this question and the fundamentals of these issues. Let’s see if we can unravel some of it.
Sustainability can be defined as “meeting our human needs in the present without compromising the ability of our descendants to meet their needs, and without diminishing the natural diversity of life on earth.”
Although the term sustainability is well-worn in the environmental community, it is also an approach to life that is part of the core of traditional conservatism. A father of conservatism, Edmund Burke, said that the way we live our lives becomes “a partnership not only between those who are now living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.” That’s a nod toward continual sustainability, spoken in 18th century.
Although we’ve all heard a lot about carbon footprints, a measure of the sustainability of our personal lives is called our ecological or global footprint. Here’s a clever calculator that measures the amount of land and sea area that are needed to provide the resources you need (food, shelter, etc.), and to absorb the wastes you create (including carbon dioxide). The ecological footprint is expressed in global acres. It includes both personal and societal impacts. The Footprint associated with food, mobility, and goods is easier for you to directly influence through lifestyle choices (eating less meat, driving less, etc). However your Footprint also includes societal impacts or “services”, such as government assistance, roads and infrastructure, public services, and the military of the country that you live in.
All citizens of the country are allocated their share of these societal impacts. If everyone lived the lifestyle of the average American we would need five planets to provide the acreage necessary for everyone’s resource needs. [I’ve figured out that you can’t score under 2.9 planets if you live in America. I took the survey twice, the second time answering every question as “green” as the quiz allowed and I still scored 2.9.]
Sustainability is much more complex than a simple lifestyle calculator. There’s a great discussion of this at Lightfoot Cycles, if you are interested in digging deeper.
From Lightfoot, this final thought on sustainability:
“Our Needs” is a hierarchy of those things required for a healthy body and mind: air, shelter, water, sleep, food, safety (from predators, disease and toxins), exercise, mobility, and the means to provide these things for oneself. We also need: parental care for the infant and child, sanity within ourself and in our immediate social relationships, physical and mental stimulation, social acceptance, sexual relationship and companionship. One of our deepest psychological needs is to see life around us, to know that we are not alone.
The next level in the hierarchy, beyond the bare necessities, are the conditions and activities that define “quality of life”.These include: opportunities for reaching our potential; education and intellectual stimulation; an unpolluted living environment; medical care; a nourishing diet; satisfying work. It is within this more arbitrary list that the divergence to “wants” begins. It is here, for instance, that the simple need for mobility begins its evolution into the complex desire for luxury cars. It is here that the social imperative to develop our science and technology begins to gain political and psychological ascendancy.
Our wants recognize no limits, but sustainability defines limits. Agreeing to live within these often-ill-defined boundaries requires that we work to understand them intellectually; for they are firstly a construct of our minds, and only secondly the unbending biological law of carrying-capacity. We choose to obey the limits of sustainability just as we choose to obey the limits to traffic speed in a school zone; we obey prior to catastrophe, not after. We accept sustainability not for the effort and discipline it requires of us, but for what it promises us: a world for our descendants undiminished in life and beauty.
The restrictions of sustainability come in the form of limits to consumption.The things that human society consumes are finite in supply. There are only so many acres of forest to be managed for timber, only so many rivers to be dammed for hydroelectricity, only so much habitat for wildlife, only one atmosphere. Non-renewable resources are also limited over time; our great-grandchildren will have to draw from the same store (of fossil fuels and other irreplaceable and non-regenerating resources) as we do now.
My ecological footprint, by the way, was 4.0. Better than the American average, but plenty of room for improvement.