We hear a lot about sustainability these days, and with good reason. Many people sense, finally, that our planet’s ability to tolerate deforestation, indiscriminate production of greenhouse gases, sea pollution, chemical poisoning of land via rubbish disposal and pesticides, etc, have brought Earth closer to some sort of un-survivable crisis point.
There are a lot of hard facts and tough truths behind this sense of foreboding, especially as Earth’s human population is now estimated to hit 9.5 billion by the year 2050, just 31 years away, when many people reading this will probably still be alive.
Our current population is currently around 7.6 billion people. But first, let us investigate what sustainability means in its overall context, because people mostly tend to focus on food production issues and pollution whenever sustainability is brought up.
The definition of sustainability
Sustainability was raised globally as an issue towards the end of 1987, in an important 300-page report called ‘Our Common Future’ written by the World Commission on Environment and Development, chaired by Gro Harlem Brundtland. It is often referred to as the ‘Brundtland Report’.
Far from a simple focus on food, ‘Our Common Future’ highlights the heavily interconnected nature of economic, social and ecological processes happening around the world. In summary, the report found the following:
- Private and public economic activities must be better co-ordinated to protect not only economic interests, but also the requirements of society and the environment.
- Being sustainable means more than just environmental protection. It also means a fair distribution of economic well-being and a cohesive society
- What happens today affects the futures of our offspring and this inter-generational aspect must be taken into consideration whenever we make decisions for today
- Based on our current flawed processes, it is clear that sustainability requires long-term structural changes to our economic and social systems to limit environmental damage and resource consumption to levels which will leave a viable world for future generation
There are a lot of uncomfortable truths in ‘Our Common Future’. One curious fact is that the world is producing more food per head of population than ever before; around 500 kilos per person in 1985 in terms of plant-based crops, and yet in that same year, more than 730 million people did not have enough to eat.
This did not include animal-based products such as meat and dairy which are all heading towards record levels almost every year.
The unbalanced rush toward ever greater food production statistics invariably means a loss of biodiversity. At any point in time, blight can affect billions of tonnes of crops because the lack of genetic diversity means that much of the world’s food crops are genetically identical and therefore unable to withstand any new disease that targets such crops.
The use of such homogeneous crops also alters the habitats of much of the world, as forests are decimated along with the loss of countless species of plants and other creatures.
The reduction in the numbers of cultivated and wild species also limit the ability of these species to adapt to new challenges such as climate change, pollution and other environmental challenges – in simple terms, the reduced gene pools of such species are too small to be able to adapt to unexpected changes in their environments.
The oceans used to be a vast bountiful sink where much of the indiscretions of human activity used to be quietly forgotten and forgiven. But this is not true anymore.
Many rivers around the world are now effectively long septic tanks overflowing with human and industrial waste pouring into the seas, where they add to pollution from farms, mines, oil spillages, microplastics, even plastic bags and containers discarded by careless people.
There is now a man-made continent of floating plastic waste in the middle of the Pacific Ocean which is over 135 million hectares in size.
On a personal note, I now do not eat large fish, such as tuna or salmon, especially from the Pacific. Several studies have noted large concentrations of mercury, PCBs and other carcinogenic industrial residues in large fish which roam for many years accumulating such toxins from seawater into their bodies.
This is not helped by several small studies which indicated that fish in the Pacific are also mildly contaminated with radioactive contamination from Fukushima.
However, to be fair, the levels of marine contamination after Fukushima are still below levels of radioactivity detected after a series of nuclear tests in the Pacific in the 1960s.
The issue is claims that fish with a small amount of radiation is safe to eat are undermined by the fact that there are no wholly agreed/known safe limits for ingested radiation, especially from caesium, polonium and strontium. Any “safe limits” are arbitrary limits imposed for analytical purposes only.
And so on. You should get the general picture about sustainability by now.
How to sustain sustainability
The pressures on our planet will not probably abate significantly in the immediate future. We have too much invested in old infrastructures, old practices, old bad habits to be able to change direction quickly.
More than this, the world’s problems are much greater than the sum of the problems in each individual country – for example, Germany’s sterling example of tackling plastic waste is rendered almost futile due to the disposal habits in other countries, especially those in Asia which are stepping up their economies and consumption of plastic.
There are also niggling issues to do with so-called “sustainable” commercial activities. For example, is it sustainable to farm millions of tonnes of prawns and shrimps in dirty, excrement-laced pools of water heavily contaminated by antibiotics and pesticides?
Is it sustainable to run salmon farms in large tanks in the sea, fed with protein pellets derived from waste animal proteins, and where disease is controlled by heavy doses of anti-parasitic chemicals?
It is the same with commercial farming, where vast tracts of forests are cleared for farm lands for crops and animals. What happens to the environment and wildlife around such farms? It would be hard to suggest that even an organic farm would be able to compensate fully for the loss of the original environment and habitats.
The standard argument is that 7.6 billion people today need to eat. This would be a good argument except that we currently produce enough food to feed twice that number.
However, much of what we produce is used for raising livestock for meat and dairy, along with producing greenhouse gases which promotes global warming. And that is why around 815 million (around 11%) of the people around the world are malnourished or starving.
As an aside, the brother of a friend ran a small honey farm in the south of France but he had to close because all of his bees died suddenly a few years ago. There was no real reason though he suspected that farms nearby were using neonics (a range of pesticides known to be particularly lethal to bees).
If his experience is repeated on a vaster, global scale, it is not impossible that production of much of the world’s crops will drop precipitously as crops simply need bees to pollinate them before they bear fruit.
It is hard to imagine now in these days of plentiful food but the strong scientific evidence is that without bees, a very sizeable proportion of the human race will simply die from starvation.
So the question is not whether we should choose to follow more sustainable lifestyles but whether it is possible for our planet to survive much longer if humans chose any other option. We have a responsibility to use our talents and brain power to try to leave our future generations with a planet worth living in.
There is no need in here to discuss things we can do to ameliorate our environment as there are many thousands of resources with good suggestions. It is a matter of making some kind of effort now before it is too late for our children and grandchildren.