Jun 26, 2009
In bygone days, the environmental movement would often cast its lot
with a "Save the [blank]" ideology that generally included non-human
components such as "world" or "whales" or "spotted owls" in its
formulation. Unsurprisingly, many people scoffed at the suggestion
that human opportunities and progress should be foregone in the name
of saving other entities. In the end, the notion that our existence
might somehow be dependent upon the existence of those "other" things
-- or that we ought to learn to get by with less of the stuff we
wanted -- was a hard sell to a public used to thinking in Cartesian
terms of separation and one that is deeply inculcated with a cultural
mythos of human superiority. Simply put, this way of getting at the
issue actually fostered the very sense of a "humans versus nature"
rift that underlain the problem in the first place.
Today, however, the rhetorical tide has shifted even as the oceanic
one has threatened to rise. Now the pitch is more akin to "Save the
Humans," since it's our own vulnerable and somewhat maladapted arses
that are on the line at this point. It was sheer hubris to believe
that the world itself needed saving from human interventions; the
Earth and its life-giving capacities are resilient and will almost
certainly (at least on a geological time scale) survive whatever we
throw at it short of total nuclear pulverization. In fact, many other
life forms would flourish without us here
re-wilding even the concrete jungles we've created. So it's really
about saving ourselves these days, which is a more realistic aim and
one that is consistent with our actual place in the web of life.
It's also an easier sell for most people. Advocating for the
preservation of a seemingly unimportant animal species as against many
human jobs and their families' wellbeing is not particularly
persuasive, as spotted owl advocates found out some years ago (even
today, I still see faded bumper stickers saying "Spotted Owl Tastes
Like Chicken"). A much more potent argument is that those same loggers
would be put out of work by deforestation and the clear-cutting of old
growth stands, since they rely on the renewal of the resource in order
to have continuous employment in their region. Indeed, this logic --
human engagement with the environment in the context of renewal
capacities -- can be a powerful avenue for sustainability advocacy to
address both human and nonhuman needs.
Let me illustrate the point clearly, and briefly. I recently asked
some of my students whether water was a scarce or abundant resource.
Being good environmentalists, they mostly reflected upon the
hard-to-deny fact that water is scarce and getting scarcer -- it's the
as various outlets continually suggest. There's a truth in this
perspective, and yet water can also be seen as an abundant resource in
which the planet's evaporation-rainfall cycle continually renews it.
We can actually quantify
the amount of water it takes to maintain a local aquifer or the flow
of a river at healthy levels, and this is sometimes known as the
"recharge rate" of how much it would be necessary to put back in to
keep the water flowing. Swimming pool owners in hot climates, for
example, often fill their pools a little bit each morning to
compensate for evaporation, and thus perform a low-tech version of
recharging their water levels in this manner.
In fact, every resource has an inherent recharge rate
in the sense that the "balance of a system can be expressed as a
relationship relating all of the inputs and outputs into or out of the
system." Water is perhaps the easiest to measure, as in the swimming
pool example, although in the real world variables such as soil
location of stormwater basins
can make the calculations somewhat more complex. Still, rates are
estimable if not outright calculable in most locales, suggesting that
in practice we can find the balance point between output (i.e., what
we consume) and input (i.e., what gets replaced) for any given
resource. Using this framework, the distinction between renewable and
nonrenewable resources become blurred, since everything has an
inherent (or at least potential) rate of renewal and can thus be
sustained over time.
This may seem counterintuitive, since we've been accustomed to viewing
resources like oil and minerals as nonrenewable, but that's only
because we've applied a human time scale to such commodities. The
planet might in fact produce more of them, although it could take
millions or even billions of years. The resources that take the
longest time to replenish are also among the most costly to extract
and likewise oftentimes contribute most directly to the problems of
pollution and climate change that we presently face; furthermore, we
can't claim to fully understand what the consequences would be if they
were completely depleted in rapid fashion as we are seemingly aiming
toward. Resources like air and water that have faster recharge rates
are among the most basic for survival and are also the most vulnerable
to disruptions in their renewal cycles. Food sources recharge fairly
quickly as well, as do soils for growing, although less so than air
and water; timber resources take a bit longer but can still renew
within human time spans.
So here's my recommendation for sustaining the planet's fecundity, and
for saving ourselves in the process: consumption within recharge
rates, but no more. Air, water, and food are abundant and renew
quickly, and thus can be consumed at significant levels. Coal, oil,
uranium, and natural gas recharge very slowly and therefore should
only be consumed at very small levels (if at all) consistent with how
long it would likely take to replace them. Trees might still be used
for human purposes, but only as fast as they will grow back or can be
replanted. Solar radiation, geothermal energy, wind power, and tidal
cycles renew continually, and their recharge rates are internally
driven, so they can be utilized widely and abundantly.
Thich Nhat Hanh refers to something very much like this as "mindful
that are "doing violence to our home" and have led the world to the
doorstep of "catastrophic climate changes," yielding a pervasive sense
of "violence, hate, discrimination, and despair." In his moving book
The World We Have
story of "the vessel of appropriate measure":
"Since the bowl is exactly the right size, we always know just how
much to eat. We never overeat, because overeating brings sickness to
our bodies.... We see that people who consume less are healthier and
more joyful, and that those who consume a lot may suffer very
deeply.... Mindful consumption brings about health and healing, for
ourselves and for our planet."
Obviously we must consume in order to survive, but if we do so outside
the bounds of an "appropriate measure" our survival is placed in grave
jeopardy. If someone who is cold burns down an orchard to stay warm
for a night, they will likely have to cope with hunger the next day;
in this manner humanity often seems to find itself cascading from one
crisis to the next, as each quick-fix intervention leads to a new (and
perhaps more intractable) problem. People inclined to get rankled over
any sentiment that encourages us to do with a bit less of some
particular item might consider what it would be like if we were forced
to try and survive with less (or none at all) of everything, which may
be in store if we fail to act. Consuming within recharge rates is a
way to ensure not only our short-term but also our long-range
existence on this remarkable, self-renewing world that sustains us.
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