The Right Questions

The good intentions of so many notwithstanding, the global environment has been getting worse for centuries. If anything, the downward spiral is speeding up. And I suspect this will continue to be true even if we manage to do things like pass legislation to limit greenhouse-gas emissions, or enact laws to get toxins out of the marketplace.

Like recycling household trash, for instance, those things are good answers — but they’re the answers to the wrong questions.

Not bad questions, necessarily. Just not questions that get to the root of the problem.

Up till now, all the questions we’ve asked ourselves and each other about improving the environment have basically been: How do we keep doing all the things we’ve been doing, more or less like we’ve been doing them, just less harmfully? You know — “sustainably.”

But what we should be asking is not: What we want (or even, what do we think we “need”). It is: What can the earth take?

The problem is, despite what you might have heard, “sustainability” doesn’t just mean being slightly more polite to Mother Nature. It’s actually a very rigorous standard that requires behaving so that one can maintain the same standard of living indefinitely.

If we keep asking this same question, that’s a standard we’re never going to attain (at least until Nature forces us to).

One way to understand sustainability is in terms of carrying capacity. This is the total of what the planet can produce to support all the life aboard it: sunlight, fresh water, fertile soil, fish, minerals, trees.

Some of these things are fixed in amount and recyclable; some are renewable. If the resource is something like water from an aquifer or a river, we can’t use it faster than the groundwater recharges or the rain falls. If it’s something like petroleum, once we use it up, it’s gone.

Evidence that we are passing (or have already passed, or are about to pass) various kinds of carrying capacity are legion. Most major global marine fisheries, for instance, are in decline. Last September, an international team of 30 scientists working through the Stockholm Resilience Centre identified nine “planetary boundaries” we shouldn’t cross for our survival. (The pdf is here: The scientists estimated we’re already in the red zone on climate change, biodiversity loss (that’s species extinction) and the nitrogen cycle (crucial for agriculture). And on things like climate change and ocean acidification, we’re well on the way.

Instead of asking big questions like this — what does the Earth need? — we’re trying to figure out how to keep overconsuming everything. Americans are especially guilty of this, gulping an estimated 25 percent of the world’s resources with just 5 percent of its population.

Too many of us live in giant houses, and drive too many miles in too-big vehicles. We spend half our household water on lawns. (Lawns.)

Virtually everything we do, from eating on up, is an injury to our ability to keep doing it (on any level) in the future. Basically, we can’t even poop sustainably, and we want to pat ourselves on the back for sorting out the bottles and cans on a Wednesday night.

Even many of our well-rehearsed solutions are problematic. Take renewable energy. Solar and wind are swell, but anyone who knows anything about those energy sources will tell you that they just don’t pack as much concentrated power as the fossil fuels we’ve built our entire civilization upon. Even if we tile the world with solar panels, and stuck it like a pincushion with windmills, we’d still need to use way less total energy (even at current population levels) to make it all work.

Automobiles are inherently wasteful: No matter how you fuel them, almost all the energy unavoidably goes toward moving the car rather than the person. And yet we’re not asking, “How do we change things so we can do without cars?” We’re asking, “How can we fuel cars differently so we do less damage using them?”

How much can the Earth take? More to the point, how much can it give? And what do we need to do to live within that limit?

Start asking that question, and maybe once in a while the answer we get will be the correct one.

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