Monday, February 22, 2010

What does sustainable mean?

I have a column that should run in tomorrow morning's home town newspaper, the Morgan Hill Times.  In that bit of Green Talk, I take a stab at convincing my readers that nothing made of material is truly sustainable, or at least not in the way that we think about it, manufacture it, use it and dispose of it.

This Green Talk column is not yet online, is sometimes delayed for days, and most won't see it in a small home town paper.  So, if you click Read more! you have a chance to read it now.

It has almost become impossible to read a story about energy without finding the word “sustainable” used at some point. We all have some basic understanding of what is meant. The current supplies of oil and natural gas are limited and those new fields being found are increasingly expensive to maintain. Therefore, our current pace of using up the supply of fossil fuels in not sustainable, or will not be for very long. That discussion is generally focused on peak oil.

Often, this basic definition is followed by someone's favorite solution for maintaining economic growth in the face of such diminished supply of energy. Sometimes, these solutions are reasonable, like an increased use of wind and solar. Sometimes they pose a technological challenge with promise of a future energy supply, such as biofuels from algae. Others so defy rational analysis and that they could exist only in a bad sci-fi movie.

The focus on energy, as important and immediate as that is, allows us to ignore the very basic notion of what it would take to be truly sustainable. Some of have tried to explain this with the analogy of a spaceship. We all know that space ships have to carry everything needed to sustain life along with them. That includes the atmosphere people breath and the food they eat as well as the means of reacting to any problem that might arise. We see an example of this every time a shuttle visits the International Space Station with a load of supplies and returns with a load of waste.

So consider that the Earth is like a space ship. We have a fixed set of material resources. There is no way to add anything. There is no /Enterprise /that will arrive with new supplies. We have what we have and that is that. This fact should make all of the difference in how we think about the future, but sadly, it does not. Allow me to give a few examples.

There are those who see the future of energy as coming from nuclear power. Even if we assume that we could adequately protect people from the dangers of radiation along the entire production chain, from extraction of uranium to disposal or re-processing of the spent power plant fuel, we should be aware of the fact that energy planners are beginning to talk about peak uranium just as we talk about peak oil now. The economically retrievable supplies of untapped uranium are very few and many are far away in countries like Kazakhstan.

Evan as we are beginning to make major use of lithium for batteries in everything from cell phones to automobiles, there are increasing concerns over a peak in lithium and a search for other energy storage alternatives. The largest under-developed supply of lithium is in Bolivia and that development is subject to political as well as economic factors.

All of this is to say that we need to rethink that manner in which we use the limited material resources of this spaceship Earth to supply the needs of a growing population and it's desire to attain at least the same standard of living that we currently enjoy. The current UN low population forecast is for an increase of 2.4 billion people by 2050. That is more than the current populations of China and the US combined. And most of these would try to attain our lifestyle if they could.

We need to consider not just oil and natural gas or even more scarce materials like uranium or lithium. We have to begin to consider even the steel used in construction, the aluminum we use to wrap our food, the wood that frames our houses or even the number of trees it takes to make chopsticks and toilet paper.

The modern industrial practice is that of a linear irreversible throughput, where resource are moved into from the ecosphere to the humansphere where our economic engine of growth processes them producing waste along the way. But then, we discard most of it, creating more waste and our governments encourage us to do this to produce economic growth.

At some point, even the most ideological free marketer among us will be forced to admit that this pattern can not be sustained and that we need to find a new vision of what constitutes a life worth living.

Whatever that goal is, we will not get there along our current path. We need to transform our economy to one that cycles materials rather than uses them, where waste becomes the raw material for productions; that recognizes that we are all part of an ever changing ecosphere. There will be economic consequences of such a radical change. It is our choice whether we absorb those consequences now when they are manageable or later when they are not.

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