The (Un)Sustainability of Nations

February 1st, 2009

There is no doubt that the world faces a daunting prospect in the 21st century, which is to make a transition from an unsustainable to a sustainable way of life. Whether we humans can manage such a transition for our species, and for the web of life on which we depend, is very much an open question.

Let us be very clear about this. The “planet” is not in danger. The natural environment can tolerate an enormous amount of what we are calling “greenhouse gases,” temperatures can soar, oceans can rise, and the weather can become vastly more unstable. This has in fact occurred during the planet’s history. It’s simply that human existence may not be possible under such circumstances, and indeed many of the species that currently exist may become extinct – while others flourish. The age of the dinosaurs was much different from ours, and the ages that preceded it even more so. There was a time when oxygen was merely a trace element in the atmosphere. But what we call – presumptively, it now seems – “intelligent” life, simply did not exist under these circumstances. So the issue is not “saving the planet.” It’s saving ourselves.

The planet, frankly, does not need us. If we prove to be too bellicose to survive, and launch nuclear missiles at each other, we may in fact make the planet “uninhabitable,” but that just means “uninhabitable for us.” If we prove to be indifferent to the welfare of the whole, we will eradicate ourselves by destroying the foundation on which we depend. This may seem extreme, but it is not. The conditions necessary for human existence occur within a very narrow range. Exceeding that range is not just something we might do – as was the case during the era of nuclear confrontation – it is something that is inevitable if we do not change course.

There is almost total scientific consensus around this, and the “global warming skeptics” have now become an increasingly irrelevant fringe. But we hardly need science to prove that human development is on course to exceed the planet’s carrying capacity; it is simply a matter of recognizing that our way of life cannot be continued indefinitely, and indeed parts of it must change now if human development is to continue and to come into balance with nature. This seems so obvious that it almost goes without saying. But it needs to be our starting point in every serious conversation going forward: virtually everything in our economy and our society needs to be reexamined in the light of whether it contributes to a sustainable (and indeed restorative) way of life – or not.

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