Philosophising about sustainability

Last night, I watched a documentary about life on Earth with 7 billion people, (called How Many People Can Live on Planet Earth, link) narrated by David Attenborough. It gave a matter-of-fact depiction of the challenges faced by a growing global population in the quintessential Attenborough style. It was interesting to see that many countries such as Japan and some in the eastern European bloc will see population levels fall over the next 50 years, many countries are likely to double, or in some cases like Rwanda, triple, in size over the next 50 years. The net result will be an increase globally, which I alluded to in the 7 billion people entry.

If you can view the program via the SBS link above, please do. It explored some of the most important issues facing the world in the next 50 years – food and water security, and sustainability in the face of the double-barreled reality of climate change and increasing populations.

The sustainability angle taken by the program got me thinking. So much of the program could be brought back to, for affluent developed nations anyway, living within ones’ means and trying to increase the sustainability of the resources on which we rely. One statistic Attenborough explained was that in terms of current living standards, the United States actually requires 9x the global average of sustainable person-space. Clearly that is not sustainable, and the exploitation of resources is skewed in such a way that the poorest countries are still teetering on the cusp of collapse, while developed nations churn through resources like maniacs (global equity is whole separate issue that I’m not going to get into here).

Have we perhaps gotten too wrapped up in whole climate change issue at the expense of sustainability? The way I see it, sustainability is going to cause huge problems for an expanding population. Climate change is going to exacerbate or influence our ability to cope, but I think the central theme of sustaining an ever-burgeoning global population is being ignored.

If the focus is shifted to the importance of being sustainable, rather than on climate change per se, will that promote climate-mitigation behaviours as a happy by-product of sustainability? There is still quite a lot of reluctance for people to accept climate change and the effects it will have on the world around us. But if we could spin it in terms of sustainability, would that get more people on board to reduce their footprints?

By understanding precisely how much water is used in the production of a hamburger, will that force people to consider how their actions are affecting the planet? If you know that it took up to 200,000 litres of water to produce 1kg of beef, will you eat less of it? Would you preferentially buy products that are grown/produced locally to reduce the carbon output associated with transport? How much oil and other petroleum products go into the things you use every day?

These things all require a substantial mind-shift in order for people to accept them and seek appropriate alternatives – and I’m by no means a saint in these aspects myself. But maybe it will be easier to encourage as it is more tangible and can have an instant reward for the individual, rather than the CC-related mitigation efforts that are often out of reach of individual efforts and rely on whole industries to be modified. If enough individuals make the effort to become more sustainable, we could see flow-on benefits for mitigating CC effects. Or maybe it’s all futile and too late and I’d better take off my rose-coloured glasses before I next ride my bike for commuting purposes.

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