“They all say ‘Save The Climate.’ If the climate was a bank, they would have saved it already!”
—Hugo Chávez, President of Venezuela
Sustainability and sustainable development. Concepts we hear more about each day. Some people wrestle with what these terms actually mean. Some even think they should have no place in our society. From the political right we hear “Let the free market solve the problem;” from the left we hear “We need to increase regulations in order to save this planet.” Each of those comments is equally distasteful to those from the opposite end of the political spectrum.
In my book “Comprehending the Climate Crisis,” I give a lot of attention to sustainable development in the last chapter. The term refers to the concept of balancing our requirements with those of future generations. In 1987, the World Commission on Environment and Development defined sustainable development as that which “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
I think one really useful way to look at sustainable development is to see it in its historical context. We’ve already learned from previous periods in our civilization’s history that sustainability is a necessity if we’re going to succeed in the long term. Not convinced? Just look at these examples.
Many thousands of years ago, we were nothing more than cave people, doing our best to survive against the hardships Mother Earth threw at us. We found food from plants and trees, as well as wild animals that we sometimes managed to kill, and we exploited those resources as best we could. This was the time when we were nothing more than hunters and gatherers. But there was a problem with this approach. It didn’t too long before we ran out of fruits and vegetables that were growing wild, nor did it take too long before we depleted the number of wild animals living in our region. So we had to live as nomads, moving from one depleted territory to make a fresh start elsewhere. Until of course we depleted those resources as well.
As our numbers grew, we ultimately learned that we could provide for ourselves better if we started to grow our own supplies of food, both plants and animals. Lo and behold, agriculture was born. In this way, we transformed from being hunters and gatherers into farmers. We grew crops and kept livestock, replacing those we consumed with new ones so that we effectively had an unlimited supply. Although there are still some areas on our planet where groups of people could still be considered hunters and gatherers, the vast majority of the global population is fed thanks to agriculture.
But that example wasn’t enough to teach us the valuable lesson that exploiting a resource isn’t as good as managing it so it’s renewable and sustainable like our food sources had become. When we needed materials for energy and building, we turned to wood. Wood could provide heat for comfort and cooking, and could be used to build the structures that became our dwellings. And since wood was plentiful all over the world, we simply chopped down trees and used them as we saw fit. Once again, we exploited a resource and since it wasn’t managed in any way, it wasn’t long before our planet’s forests were becoming decimated in populated regions. Europe’s growth in centuries past was a perfect example of that.
But then we clued in that just like our food, we needed to manage our wood as well. Forestry became a great way to provide an important renewable source of both energy and material. As a result, we now have forests that are well maintained, often increasing in size in developed nations all over the world. North America has been doing a good job with forestry management. India has doubled the size of its forests over the last twenty years. And China plants two and a half times more trees than the rest of the world combined. Developing nations often continue to practice a lot of deforestation, usually because they see no other way to provide for their needs, but for the most part our planet has come to grips with sustainability in our forests.
So with the examples we’ve learned from our food sources and from forestry, you’d think perhaps we’d have learned the same for energy. So far that hasn’t been the case. Most people think of fossil fuels as our only energy source because for most of the world it’s the most dominant. Some nations have more hydroelectricity or nuclear and a few have some geothermal available to generate electricity, but most countries still burn coal. And when it comes to transportation, buildings, and industry, fossil fuels are almost exclusively used for those energy needs.
But fossil fuels aren’t renewable. They’re a resource that’s being exploited and slowly depleted. And the easiest sources are already past their prime which explains why we now drill for oil beneath the ocean floor, or dig for bitumen in the tar sands of Alberta, or carve up mountain tops for coal. Someday we’re going to run out of fossil fuels, and they’re not renewable, plain and simple. In a matter of mere centuries, we’re going to deplete what took our planet 300 million years to create.
It’s time we started to think of energy as a resource that needs to be managed so it is sustainable. We have many options available to us: wind, solar, geothermal, and hydro are all limitless sources. The first two are intermittent and more expensive than fossil fuels, but with research and development, that will continue to improve in time. Even nuclear is something that is more sustainable than fossil fuels, although many people are opposed to it.
If we start to adopt the mindset that we need to ensure that our energy is a renewable resource we need to manage properly, we’ll have a much better chance of solving some of the important problems our world is facing. Until then, we’re destined to suffer the consequences our species did previously with other resources that we exploited and depleted.