Sustainability: Nature Imposes Its Limits

Part One: The Limits of World Resources

Sustainability is easy to understand for a simple case like balancing our checking account. If expense is greater than income, we’ll inevitably ask for how long we can sustain. In the global context of world resources, the question of sustainability gets really complicated because it involves politics, history, and science, too. Still, we can look at it within the framework of expense and income, because we are consumers (spenders) of the world’s resources (incomes). We can only sustain by replenishing or creating the world’s resources.

The world’s resources can be treated as our total income composed of five distinct basic components:
*Sunlight (a critical resource, unlimited for billions of years to come)
*Atmosphere and climate (also critical but ignored until recent years)
*Land (plants, animals, aquifers, minerals, and oil/gas deposits)
*Water (oceans, lakes, rivers, and all the fish and plants in them)
*Humans (It all depends on what we do. Our ingenuity can replenish world resources. Our stupidity can ruin them all. Note that the human species is a latecomer because the other resources had existed long before us)

Sunlight is the only resource originating from outside the planet. It is critical for plant life and the climate, and ultimately for humans, too. Due to being unlimited and free, sunlight is usually taken for granted and its utility potential ignored. On the other hand, all the other resources are limited due to the fixed size of the earth. They must be replenished unless an alternative is found. As human consumption increases, the problems of sustainability will inevitably arise in a world full of constraints.

Coming late to the scene, humans are the true wild card in this resource play. Besides consuming, we have the ability to conserve, preserve, recycle, renew, and regenerate; not to mention the other ability to pollute and destroy the world’s resources. Before the advent of humans, the resources of the planet went though many natural cycles of disruption and regeneration on their own as if by autopilot. Whether or not you think of them as living things, they had survived the cycles of change amazingly well to foster a favorable environment so that the human species can develop. Now the big questions are: How much disruption have humans brought to the world’s resources? Have we damaged the delicate balance to the extent that it threatens our sustenance? Should we really worry about sustainability?

The first alarm bell was sounded by Thomas Malthus (1766-1834). He observed that world population would sooner or later be cut down by famine and disease. This proved to be premature. The Industrial Revolution was underway in England bringing new technologies that would better the human condition. The second alarm bell came from Paul Ehrlich in 1968. His best-selling book “The Population Bomb” warned of forthcoming mass starvation. This also proved premature due to the Green Revolution of the 1970s bearing the fruits of advanced technology in agriculture.

Despite wars and localized famines, the world’s population continued to grow, reaching 7 billion souls today. Even now, nobody can accurately predict how many people the earth is able to sustain. The planet can probably sustain many more if we are willing to live at subsistence level in the countryside, or go back to prehistoric hunter’s life. I think the devil is not in the number of people, but in the way we choose to live, that is, our consumption level and habit. Let me pose a question that may be unsettling for many: How long can the world sustain if all Chinese and Indians live like Americans? The world will be forced to face this moment of truth that may come within a generation or two. Scarier still, not only the Chinese and the Indians, but also the whole world wants to consume, waste, and live like Americans. The material temptation is just too hard to resist for the human race.

The question that I’ve just asked did not have a chance to materialize in the old times due to various political, economic, and social conditions. Throughout history, the world has developed very unevenly and unjustly. The consequence is that a very small minority of ruling elites controls most of the resources in every country of the world. The Industrial Revolution has spread wealth and power in some countries only, but not significantly on a global scale. As a result, a few industrialized countries have risen in power and commanded most of the world’s resources since the 18th century.

During the heydays of colonization, the few industrializing countries, armed with new technology, went overseas to grab whatever resources they needed. This ushered in the era of colonialism lasting for over 200 years when Great Britain and the others partitioned the world into their different empires. Outside the industrializing countries, the rest of the world lived in poor or subsistence conditions without a fair share of even their own resources. To the few industrializing countries, the question of sustainability could never arise because they had almost all the world’s resources to consume. For the rest of the world, the next meal was a constant obsession, never mind the vague concept of sustainability for the world. The situation was in effect the poor masses of the world sacrificing and supporting the rich and powerful few industrializing countries.

When de-colonization began in the late 1940s, the newly independent states were mired in poverty, poor governance and corruption. Industrialization and mass consumption had little chance to develop. The same situation therefore persisted where the poor masses supported the ruling elites, who were natives replacing the departing foreign masters. In another part of the world, China and the Soviet Union imposed self-isolation in order to immerse in the communist power struggle rather than pursuing economic development for their people. Again, the poor masses were supporting the ruling elites, who belonged to the top echelon of the communist party.

In conclusion, I’ve observed that as long as consumption is suppressed for the masses, leaving the world’s resources to be enjoyed by a small minority of ruling elites and their collaborators, the problem of sustainability, albeit real, can never assume any urgency. The world seems to have unlimited resources because the economic pie is so unevenly and unjustly shared. This great imbalance of consumption power has existed throughout history, known as the big divide between rich and poor. This gap is visible at two levels: at the global level between the few developed countries and the vast majority of developing ones; and at the national level between the 1% rich and the 99% ordinary citizens.

Are you aware that this great imbalance of consumption power between rich and poor is destined to change? The first sign of change came as a great awakening in 1973. Even bigger changes are coming but in a strange and unexpected way.

Part Two: The Great Awakening

The first awakening came in 1973 when OPEC initiated an oil embargo. Suddenly, oil, the top energy resource, became artificially scarce and expensive. This was designed to pressure the industrialized countries, especially the United States, for its pro-Israel policy. Unfortunately, all the poor nations without oil were hurt even more.

A new class of oil-exporting countries emerged from the developing world after 1973, amassing huge foreign reserves by selling their black gold. It is hard to tell black curse from black gold because the top 1% ruling elites controlled all the oil revenues. The riches did not filter down to the people. Economic development and mass consumption had to wait for OPEC. The world still appeared to have unlimited oil albeit at higher prices for those who could afford. A second oil crisis in 1979 did not alter the status quo to a significant degree. However, the developed countries had already begun a process of change.

Changes mostly occurred in the energy and transportation sectors, such as increasing use of nuclear power, and electrification of mass transport by rail in Europe and Japan. On the contrary, the biggest consumer of oil, the United States, remained complacent and halfhearted. As a result, the US lagged behind in the development of mass rail transport. Furthermore, American passenger cars habitually consumed more gasoline than other makes. This gave Japan a big opening in the auto industry with new emphasis on fuel efficiency. Within four decades, Japanese automobiles rose from near zero to around 53% of the huge US auto market, culminating in the eventual bankruptcy of General Motors and Chrysler in 2009.

The high price of oil artificially maintained by OPEC suffered a near collapse around the early 1980s due to a deep worldwide recession. Since then it continued to surge relentlessly until today. This calls into question whether a real shortage of oil exists. The fact is, the shortage and price rise are real this time. First, the regular world surplus is already depleted with no reserve left to cushion a sudden drop in production. Second, the oil reserve of the North Sea will run dry in a decade or so. Third, the new sources such as tar sands in Canada and oil reserve off the coast of Brazil will cost a lot more to extract than the existing proven reserves of OPEC. Fourth, this is the real overriding factor: the rise of China and India with their consumption appetite.

China and India have a combined population of 2.5 billions, accounting for over one third of the world’s total. Like all other countries, the top 1% ruling elites control most of the wealth. The big difference this time is the creation of a huge middle class from the have-nots within a period of less than 30 years, estimated at 500 million in China, and 250 million in India. Their combined size roughly equals the entire population of the developed world. Furthermore, this emerging middle class is growing year after year. It’s only human nature for them to aspire to consume like the American middle class (not the top 1%), which has enjoyed material abundance accompanied by unnecessary wastes for a long time.

After so many centuries, the world has finally reached a consumption balance: An emerging class of consumers from two largest developing countries wants to share equally with the developed world all the resources that they used to control and enjoy. It really hits home that there may not be enough resources such as oil, minerals, water, food, housing materials, fishery, and so on. The age of abundance lasting for so long and limited to the rich and powerful suddenly looks like a fantasy at the dawn of the 21st century. Even scarier, many developing countries with large populations are waiting in the wings to share resources with the developed world.

The uneven and unjust development throughout history did not bring out much concern about sustainability. At the national level, the top 1% ruling elites always found enough resources to enjoy. Globally, the few developed countries could easily obtain most resources to consume as long as the developing countries stayed poor, powerless, or isolated. Now that consumption equality has finally arrived, the world finds itself facing a sustainability problem that is likely to turn into a crisis. Isn’t this ironic? Is the emergence of a large middle class supposed to be a good thing leading to better equality?

In Part One, I mentioned the atmosphere and the climate as critical resources hitherto ignored. Atmospheric pollution due to car exhausts first became obvious in congested cities like Tokyo and Los Angeles, resulting in the introduction of unleaded gasoline and catalytic converter in the 1970s. The discovery of ozone depletion in the stratosphere led to the banning of halocarbon pollutants used in refrigerants such as CFC. The world was able to implement changes for obvious pollution problems in the atmosphere. The case proves difficult with subtle pollution like greenhouse gases.

The biggest awakening in this century is the broad and deep damages caused by greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide. Why? Greenhouse gases lead to gradual warming of the globe, which in turn leads to extreme weather conditions, which further lead to disruptions of crop production, plant life, animal life, and marine life. In other words, a deteriorating climate can raise other world resources to critical levels for sustainability.

Different countries see climate change differently due to various attitudes and vested interests. Sooner or later, they have to come to a common policy because all inhabitants of the planet share the same climate resource, regardless of rich or poor. The problem of climate change will assume more urgency when the weather becomes more extreme and the adverse effects cause more damages. What can be done?

Part Three:  A New Way of Life

There is no point in discussing sustainability if the world’s resources are limitless. The truth is they will run out someday, except only for sunlight which is available for free. Sustainability becomes more acute when a new middle class of 750 millions rising from the have-nots in China and India. This aspiring group wants to share with the people of the developed world all the resources they used to control and enjoy. It looks like a tidal wave of consumption is coming. What can we do? Do we have enough resources to share?

Is the developed world willing to share in the first place? Do we have a choice not to share in a world of free trade? When people possess something, it’s difficult to let go unless the price becomes too high. Throughout history, the act of sharing usually turns into violent confrontations as evidenced by wars, revolutions, colonization, oppression, and discriminatory practices designed to shut out particular groups of people. In reality, it is almost impossible to eliminate the big gap in consumption between the haves and the have-nots. The best we can strive for is peaceful competition in sharing resources and power, instead of bloody conflicts.

In the old times, the powerful few managed to subjugate the rest by perpetuating a political/social structure based on class, privilege, inheritance, even heavenly mandate to create a pyramid hierarchy so that they could hold on to all the resources available. This elitist power structure has been gradually eroded with the rise of the middle class mainly as a result of private enterprise fermented by capitalism. The middle class nowadays possesses plenty of power such as overwhelming numbers, technical/professional know-how, and the determination to say no to being denied material enjoyment. The consequence is fast growth in world consumption that will lead to shortages and price inflation. Although higher consumption fulfills the purpose of good living, if not managed well, it will degenerate into serious pollution and depletion of world resources that we have never seen before.

Among all the world’s resources, oil is the first one to face real shortage and price inflation since the 1990s. Oil is by far the most pervasive energy source for keeping the economy going. Without the movement of people and goods, the global economy will grind to a halt. Whether we recognize it or not, the crisis of sustainability has already begun with oil. In view of oil’s dominance, the sustainability crisis may end with oil, too. In other words, if we concentrate our efforts in addressing the shortage and pollution of oil to arrive at a balance between consumption and the environment, we’ll be able to solve most of the sustainability problems. How?

First, let’s look at the pollution aspect. The complicated science of climate change has gained increasing acceptance in recent years, even for big oil as evidenced by their acquisitions of companies in alternative energy. For instance, SunPower of USA was lately acquired by Total S.A. of France. Among the major factors of climate change, the burning of fossil fuels (oil, coal and natural gas) releases carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. This brings about a warming effect leading to a deteriorating climate that causes disruptions of crops, plants, marine and animal life. Despite moving the economy, fossil fuels damage the planet in the long run through CO2 and other emissions. This creates an unprecedented dilemma. Many people accustomed to fossil fuels find it hard to swallow the new truth about the negative impacts. Thus they employ various means to undermine the credibility of climate change.

If we can achieve substituting fossil fuels with other energy sources that are renewable and less dirty, we can sustain economic growth, and simultaneously restore the natural balance of the environment for a long time to come. This looks like the most ambitious human undertaking ever attempted for it has to kill two birds with one stone. Furthermore, this project has to secure worldwide cooperation in order to prevent one country from undercutting the other.

The big obstacle is not technology, which is already available today. It’s our attitude, our way of life, and our vested interests that stand in the way. That’s why I pointed out that the human resource is a wild card because we can do both good and harm. What we need for sustainability are: a positive attitude, willingness to adapt to a new way of life, and moving from selfish interest to a broader one. It’s by no means easy. It’s never fast enough. What are the chances? I think the chances are good as evidenced by the following strong currents:

We have no other choices. We cannot consume like an addict today and leave future generations with a deteriorating environment. That is simply unacceptable. Consumption is more than for pleasure only. It takes on a new moral dimension when people become aware of the environmental impacts.

The market system will force us to act rationally whether we like it or not. As oil shortage causes prices to soar, we feel the pain and will try to consume less and find a substitute. Broadly speaking, we will become more efficient in energy use such as switching to a hybrid car, using fluorescent lamps, wearing a sweater at home instead of turning up the thermostat, etc.

Public awareness of environmental pollution is gaining momentum worldwide. Various movements already exist to promote recycling of wastes, renewal of depleted resources, using organic fertilizers instead of artificial ones derived from petroleum, and so on.

The modern high-tech industry is already working effectively to make the economy more efficient. Millions of tons of paper are being saved when companies switch over to electronic documentation. Private citizens together have also saved enormous resources by switching to emails, online banking/shopping, and teleconferencing. Unlike many other industries, the electronics industry belongs to the future because it consumes electricity that can be generated from sunlight rather than fossil fuels.

The unlimited power of the sun has largely been ignored up to now. Although the efficiency of electricity conversion is still below 30% for solar cells, the cost has dramatically come down from $100 per watt to about $20. Within a few years’ time, cost parity will be achieved between solar and fossil fuels for electricity generation. Motivated by cost, consumers will then begin to switch to solar. Up to now, we still haven’t taken into account the potential of nanotechnology for raising the current low efficiency of solar cells. As technology improves, it will reduce the time taken to achieve cost parity between solar and fossil fuels.

At present, renewable sources account for less than 15% of world energy now dominated by fossil fuels. This means great potential exists for substitution by electricity to be generated by sunlight, wind, and other renewable sources. The biggest impact of substitution will be coming from two areas: land transport involving millions of vehicles, and electricity generation by utility companies. Even within the fossil fuels sector, oil and coal are being substituted by natural gas, which is cheaper and cleaner. As I mentioned before, the market price will direct the substitution away from oil and coal towards cheaper, cleaner and renewable fuels.

As people see the great damages that greenhouse gases can cause, they will think of new ways to combat the problem. This will turn them from mere consumers into positive savers, recyclers, and innovators. Since human ingenuity is unlimited, it all depends on how we cultivate this resource with better  education and rational thinking. Do we want to continue drilling for fuels at higher costs? Or do we want to open up new opportunities by harnessing free and unlimited energy hitherto being ignored? Despite this simple choice, we must first overcome the hurdles of negative attitudes, consumption habits, and vested material interests. When these hurdles eventually come down, everything will start to flow quickly with minimal hindrance.

In conclusion, the world had hardly learned about the limits of natural resources until more than 725 million middle-class consumers came on stage in China and India, and more to come in other emerging countries. Like it or not, they aspire to consume and waste like people living in the United States, who have enjoyed a high standard of material living for decades. This raises serious questions about sustainability. Do we have enough resources to satisfy future consumption? Furthermore, what are the impacts of environmental pollution in view of the stunning growth of the middle class and mass consumption worldwide?

Out of the five basic resources that I specified earlier, only two have unlimited potential: human resource and the sun. Sustainability requires human ingenuity to recycle and regenerate the world’s limited resources such as land, water, atmosphere and climate. It also depends on how we utilize energy flowing from the sun, which is the sole unlimited resource coming from outside the planet. Environmental pollution, including greenhouse gases, has surfaced as the single biggest problem in modern times that threatens sustainability by degrading and disrupting all of the world’s resources. Whether you believe that humans are responsible for polluting the environment is beside the point. The point is that sustainability is now an urgent problem. There is only one resource that can solve this problem, that is, human ingenuity. Human ingenuity can save the world, and stupidity will ruin it.

(November 2011)

This entry was posted in 21st Century, Economics/Politics, Environment, Science/Technology. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Sustainability: Nature Imposes Its Limits

  1. Tanya Kram says:

    Outstanding post, you have pointed out some excellent points, I besides conceive this is a very good website.

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