While the term “sustainability” and the values it implies have gone mainstream, global atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide yet continue to rise, as do per-capita consumptions rates in developed and developing counties. “Consumer cultures” in places like the U.S. apparently die hard. Meanwhile, a warming planet dissolves ecosystems and life-sustaining natural cycles and resources like sugar cubes in a pressurized teapot.

Dr. Paul Ehrlich of Stanford University and colleagues both at the University and representing the Nature Conservancy in Seattle, Washington, imparted wise words and inconvenient truths alike on the state of our planet in a recent Nature article published in a June 2012 issue dedicated to the Rio Earth summit and “second chances” for Earth. Citing the words of U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, the article started out thus: “… We believed in consumption with consequences. Those days are gone… Over time, that model is a recipe for national disaster. It is a global suicide pact.”

Agricultural soils are being destroyed in a tenth of the time that it took to form them. Water in aquifers is being pumped out much faster that it is being recharged. The animals, plants and other organisms that run our life support systems for us are being destroyed at unprecedented rates, in what is essentially the sixth large extinction in 65 million years.

I interviewed Dr. Ehrlich for this article on the paradox of sustainability.

“You can’t negotiate with the environment,” Ehrlich said. “A standard footprint analysis shows that if you want to be sustainable with the kind of civilization we have now – that is with seven billion people, about a billion of them hungry and about another two billion living more or less in misery – you have to have one and a half Earths.”

According to Ehrlich, humans are not living on the interest from Earth’s natural capital, but rather on the capital itself. We can’t change the physics of climate and the laws of nature, he points out, but we can change our social and economic systems.

“Climate change may very well not be the worst of the problems we are facing,” Ehrlich said. “There is no significant dispute in the scientific community that the climate is changing, that humanity is playing a very large role in that change, and that it threatens to destroy our civilization. But on the other hand, the toxic chemicals that we are distributing from pole to pole may turn out to be a worse problem, as could be the epidemiological environment, which grows worse and worse as our population grows and we get more and more immune compromised. And the resource wars that we are already involved in could easily escalate.”

Ehrlich and his colleagues at Stanford University and beyond have offered up their own vision of a sustainable future and how to get there. They propose an interwoven web of goals including population rescaling, social equity across gender, and buffering against global shock waves through resilience and natural capital planning. According to Ehrlich, the currently limited reach of sustainability is just as much a problem of governance as it is a problem of environmental and technological constraints.

“The destruction of agricultural, water, and ecosystem resources - these things are well known in the scientific community,” Ehrlich said. “But if you followed the debates among the seven dwarfs running for the Republican nomination for President, no single serious problem here was even mentioned in those debates. That is why we need dramatic social change. The scientific community knows what sorts of things we ought to be doing to solve these problems, but we aren’t doing any of them.”

Depleting Natural Resources

The production of natural goods and water, water purification, marshland-based coastal protection, insect-driven crop pollination, cultural benefits (who isn’t inspired by nature and our recreation in it?), preservation of genetic diversity: these are just a few of the services that our planet provides us with. But more than half of these services are now in a troubling state of decline. Perhaps even more troubling, declining natural capital and pressures on Earth’s capacity to support human activity are inappropriately concentrated in the poorest regions of the world.

An inequality of environmental services leaves the inhabitants of poor and developing countries most vulnerable to natural disasters – many of which, ironically, are being increasingly precipitated by climatic warming environmental degradation forces exerted by the richest of nations. For example, highly damaging tropical cyclones look to become more frequent as ocean waters warm, posing risks to coastal inhabitants who have limited resources available for protection and or evacuation. These cyclones may do more damage in the future than they do today as land subsidence in the Gulf Coast, for example, is precipitated by pumping the land for oil and developing storm-protective wetlands for agricultural and residential purposes.

Ehrlich draws attention to ecosystem science, tools and decision-making approaches based on natural capital evaluation. He and his colleagues support an integration of natural capital into land use and other resource decisions on a large scale. As a society, especially here in the U.S., we tend to undervalue the natural capital and ecosystem services that sustain our way of life. Under an umbrella goal of harmonizing people and nature by securing critical natural capital, Ehrlich and other environmental researchers support efforts to sequester carbon from the atmosphere, conserve water sources and supplies, control flooding, protect coastlines, and enhance scenic beauty.

Meanwhile, it is now taking more and more energy to secure less and less resources.

“We are now chasing after the scarcest, most depleted, most dangerous resources,” Ehrlich said.

When the first oil well in the United States started at the surface of the ground and went down 70 feet, it hit oil. More recently, the Deepwater Horizon oil well started under a mile of water and had to go down roughly two miles to hit oil. Today, the move toward Artic resources promises to take even more energy to secure hard-to-reach resources, and to pose even greater risks to oil drilling personnel and local wildlife.

“Probably the best single measure for how much destruction we are doing is humanity’s level of energy use,” Ehrlich said. “People don’t understand what is described as the nonlinearities associated with population growth. If the projections turn out to be correct, we are going to add 2.5 billion more people to the Earth by 2050, and those 2.5 billion are going to do much more damage than the last 2.5 billion, because human beings are smart. We picked the low hanging fruit first. We didn’t start farming in the river valleys, and now every person that you add has to be fit for worse and worse land.”

While reducing our per capita consumption, we also need to be preserving critical areas of ecosystem services for future generations. You wouldn’t jam up your only fresh water well to build up a parking lot. But that is essentially what goes on in many places all over our planet. Natural resources are often wasted in the name of urban and commercial progress.

Global Shocks Waves

Not only are natural resources being depleted rapidly on a worldwide basis, but environmental degradation in one region of the world can easily affect inhabitants in other regions, in what Ehrlich terms global shock waves.

Climate change is, among other things, melting glaciers around the planet, which has serious consequences for the availability of water for agricultural operations. This is the case in the Himalayan water tower, or the ice and the snow of the Himalayas and the Tibetan Plateau.

“As the ice and snow melts more – and it will certainly melt more –the flow of rivers in South Asia is going to be restricted during the growing season,” Ehrlich said. “Same as in California. You may get just as much precipitation during the year as you always had, but if water isn’t stored up there as snow, then the water will run off during the winter when it can’t be used for farming. Then in the farming season, you will be short of water.”

Water shortages could become the source of armed conflict between nations suffering from droughts and limited water supplies.

“Recent research shows that a nuclear war between two small countries could easily bring down civilization through both its ecological and economic impacts,” Ehrlich said. “So people think that they are isolated from these impacts, but we are really not isolated.”

Contagious diseases such as the bird flu, which may become more prevalent as warmer environmental conditions foster their development and spread, are another example of the dangers of a globally connected society in an age of environmental degradation. Meanwhile, societies around the world are not prepared to deal with the spread of contagious disease on a global level.

“Our global connectedness means that the way farmers combine ducks and chickens and pigs overseas could easily affect the lives of people in the US,” Ehrlichsaid. “We have problems that are truly global, but we have no governing system that allows us to operate globally.”

Fixing the Problem – What is it Going to Take?

Ehrlich and colleagues suggest potential fixes for the sustainability paradox, but as always these fixes are not simple and require cooperation and effective communications on a large scale. Ehrlich argues for equality of women as important players in environmental protection in developing nations

“I think women are absolutely essential to sustainability in a series of dimensions,” Ehrlich said. “The most obvious one, and the one that is widely recognized in the scientific community, is that if you give women full rights, same as men, equal pay, equal opportunities, then you can expect that their birth rate will drop rather dramatically.”

Ehrlich and colleagues point to the paramount importance of social justice, education and communication in fostering environmental awareness. Global warming mitigation and environmental protection are perhaps more intimately connected with the human condition than they are with our planet’s physical one.

“We have the potential to educate the entire public about what is actually going on in the world, but we aren’t doing it,” Ehrlich said. “For example, we should start teaching about the environment in kindergarten. Instead of saying “See Scott Run,” we should say “See the Plant Grow in the Sun,” to start making the connection to photosynthesis. The average faculty member at a major university couldn’t give you a coherent story about how we know that there is a huge human factor in the climate impact story, because we don’t train people that way.”

Communication is Key

Communicators have for years now been trying to attack the problem of environmental degradation and human-driven global climate change on the social science and mass communications front. Collective communication is paramount to solving a problem that exists on a global scale. However, newer forms of media may not be bringing together people of different backgrounds and opinions as much as reinforcing media consumer’s prior opinions and beliefs about the environment.

“I think good communication is absolutely essential,” Ehrlich said. “Unfortunately I think we are moving almost in exactly the wrong direction. Certainly the potential is there with new media, but now what that media basically does is let everybody listen to exactly their own opinions. You can pick a channel or a blog that will tell you exactly what you want to hear. We’ve got to fix that somehow.”

Ehrlich and his colleagues at Stanford University have started MAHB, or the Millennium Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere. MAHB is bringing together researchers in the physical and environmental sciences with researchers in the social sciences and the humanities and arts, getting social science researchers much more involved in dealing with the human dilemma in global climate change. Social scientists, for example, conduct research into communications other efforts that can foster pro-environmental behavioral change in the public sphere.

Unfortunately, telling members of the public about the science of global climate change does not promote concern and pro-environmental behavior to the extent that some physical scientists might hope.

We know that telling people the science doesn’t get behavioral change,” Ehrlich said. “But the social scientists know about what does get behavioral change.”

According to Ehrlich, the set of environmental problems that we face today is the perfect storm of problems. Global climate change will have severe impacts on natural resources and our way of life if people from many different backgrounds aren’t brought together to help solve these problems. And what else can we use to bring people together but effective communications strategies?

But these strategies may not be as straightforward as they seem, requiring new and creative thinking to bring key publics to a place of environmental concern. The mass media certainly does not have a good track record in pro-environmental communications, failing to ask and discuss key ethical environmental and global governance issues in the public sphere.

“We are trying to stir that up, but it’s a tough job,” Ehrlich said. “The MAHB is a first attempt to get everybody together, to give a common platform. Who knows whether it will work. It just seems worth trying.”

Only together, in a state of social equality and tied together with effective communications strategies, pro-environmental educational programs, and a media not afraid to treat global climate change and other environmental problems seriously, can we achieve change on a societal level. And, personally, I hope that change will look like the sustainability we so dreamily value.


"Blue Marble" NASA composite images – Wiki

Ehrlich, P. R., Kareiva, P. M., & Daily, G. C. (2012). Securing natural capital and expanding equity to rescale civilization. [10.1038/nature11157]. Nature, 486(7401), 68-73.


Paul Ehrlich and the vital role of women in this century