Naturalist's Notes

Sustainability in an Expanding World

By Paul Lumia • March 29 2011

In 1987 the World Commission on Environment & Development (WCED) and its chair Gro Harlem Brundtland Prime Minister of Norway at the time, published Our Common Future and there after it was know as the Brundtland Commission and the Brundtland Report. The commission synthesized ideas brought to the table by the participating international community about conflicts between the global environment and world development trends, and came up with the now well established doctrine: “The environment does not exist as a sphere separate from human actions, ambitions, and needs and attempts to defend it in isolation from human concerns have given the very word “environment” a connotation of naivety in some political circles. The word “development” has also been narrowed by some into a very limited focus, along the lines of “what poor nations should do to become richer,” and thus again is automatically dismissed by many in the international arena as being a concern of specialists, of those involved in questions of “development assistance.” But the “environment” is where we live; and “development” is what we all do in attempting to improve our lot within that abode. The two are inseparable.”

The Brundtland report was followed up in 1992 by The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development also know as the “Earth Summit”. This meeting created a list of 21 actions that the international community should take in an effort to mitigate the effects of climate change and the destruction of biodiversity. In 2002 the United Nations held the World Summit on Sustainable Development at which time participating nations and concerned international organizations affirmed their commitment to sustainable development. Various definitions of sustainable development have been developed but all have a common thread, that being the relationship between economic development and natural resource consumption.

The WCED’s definition; “Humanity has the ability to make development sustainable – to ensure that it meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” is deliberately wide in scope, perhaps for political reasons, allowing all stakeholders the opportunity to mold the concept to their particular agenda. Other definitions are more focused, clarifying the relationship between man and nature. The World Wildlife Fund definition is …”the improvement in the quality of human life within the carrying capacity of supporting ecosystems”. The definition offered in many academic circles as documented by Herman E. Daly ecological economist and professor at the School of Public Policy of University of Maryland states “the development without throughput growth beyond environmental carrying capacity of supporting ecosystems and which is socially sustainable”. All definitions about sustainability come down to this dynamic interplay between man and nature. Will we move toward a more sustainable world, balancing out our demand and use of natural resources with the natural world’s ability to replenish these resources and assimilate wastes? It seems we are at a cross road of either accepting the relationship between the environment, natural resources and ecological systems, and human activity, economic growth – consumption of natural resources – and the related environmental impacts, and the need to work toward maintaining balance between them or continuing with business as usual and the uncertainty with that approach.

According to Dr. William E. Rees of the University of British Columbia and noted solar on the topic of sustainable urban and environmental systems, world economies right down to the local level have historically operated in an economic vacuum, manufacturing and consuming goods and services generated on the front end from limited natural resources at a rate beyond the natural regenerative capacity of these resources, while discarding waste product on the back end far beyond the absorption capacity of the natural environment. We have basically been running an ecological deficit over many years and now it appears we are beginning to feel the impacts of our actions with increased carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere and the resulting climate change. Other effects can be seen as well. Our global biodiversity is diminishing as we alter entire ecosystems to meet our needs. We now see many more species of plants and animals brought to the edge of extinction due directly to our actions. This human manipulation of our global ecological systems is leading us into uncharted territory with respect to the Earths ability to sustain us. This idea of the Earth possibly not being able to sustain us if we continue down the consumption path we are heading may be a bit sobering to some and perhaps unbelievable to others. To add validity to the idea that we are operating on borrowed time all we need to do is look back in history to examples of where civilizations failed to consider the sustainability of their ecological systems.

Easter Island off the coast of Chile in the southeastern Pacific Ocean represents an example of the effects of mismanaged resources. The island was made famous by the monumental status called moai that were created by the indigenous Rapanui people who inhabited the island up until the 1800’s. Scientific research clearly shows that the indigenous population consumed the islands limited resources at a rate beyond which they could be replenished. This contributed to a crash in the human population which was exacerbated by the introduction of invasive plant and animal species and foreign pathogens. Another example of a society crossing the ecological tipping point can be found in the historical records of the Native American people inhabiting the southwestern United States and specifically around the four corners of Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico. Archeological evidence shows that these Pueblo people or Anasazi began abandoning their lands in the 1200’s, moving to the Hopi mesas in northeastern Arizona, to the Zuni lands in western New Mexico and to dozens of adobe villages in the watershed of the Rio Grande. According to Dr. Eric Blinman of the Office of Archeological Studies of the Museum of New Mexico in Santa Fe a number of factors contributed to the flight of the Anasazi. Notable among them were the conflicts that erupted over the utilization of scarce resources such as water and wood. Certainly today we can site examples of local, national, and global conflicts over the extraction and use of natural resources.

The take-a-way from the examples sited above is that we do not live in a world where resources are limitless and therefore our economic systems that generate goods and services must incorporate the external costs to ecosystems and the environment into the cost of the goods and services produced. If we fail at this we run the risk of degrading our natural resources to a point beyond which they can recover. Currently the United States is the “alpha consumer” of the world’s vast array of resources. Our consumption rate is so great that leading experts on resource utilization have calculated that it would take the natural resources of four to five planet Earths to keep pace with our rate of consumption of resources. Bringing this concept down to the local level we can begin to examine ways in which we can all become more sustainable community members and reduce our ecological footprint.

Besides becoming more conservation minded around our homes and in our habits we can also work as a community to attain local and regional conservation goals. Regional and multi-municipal land use planning is one such way. By planning together we can significantly cut our rate of consumption of many different resources while improving our quality-of-life in the process. Well thought out comprehensive regional planning efforts in the United States have demonstrated that significant natural and financial resources can be conserved and quality-of-life improved. Some demonstrated results of these planning efforts include: reduced costs for new infrastructure and replacement of aging infrastructure, reduced property and school taxes, increased conservation of critical wildlife habitat and recreational open space, reduced traffic congestion and commute times, improved air quality, reduced stress levels and improved overall health; reduced physical footprint from buildings and roads, and an overall sense of belonging to a community. Smart regional planning is no easy task in northeastern Pennsylvania considering we have over 120 separate municipalities in Luzerne and Lackawanna alone. We have done some outstanding modeling at the county level on what regional planning might produce if we choose to take it on.

The evidence suggests that we Americans are not living a very sustainable lifestyle. We are consuming more than the natural ecosystems rounds us can replenish and assimilate. There needs to be a paradigm shift, a change in the way we think about resources and their use. Besides contemplating changes in our personal consumption habits we need to consider working together as a region to affect change on a larger scale. Smart regional planning practices that can take advantage of economies of scale are one area where we can get started right-a-way.

Paul Lumia is the executive Director of North Branch Land Trust a land conservation organization operating in eight northeastern Pennsylvania counties. North Branch has protected or conserved over 10,800 acres of natural lands in the region and continues to work with landowners in the region to ensure that the conservation values they cherish are upheld. The Land Trust also works to inform communities on the benefits of smart growth strategies.

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