Introduction to Issues of Sustainabilty

Carl Sagan’s 1994 book “Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space” is a fascinating read full of high-quality photographs of the planets in our solar system, stars, and galaxies all taken from outer space by a number of spacecraft and the orbiting Hubble telescope. One chapter in the book is titled “Is There Intelligent Life on Earth?” This chapter describes the perspective of an alien spacecraft visiting our solar system seeking to determine whether there is life on any of the planets. A galactic ethic allows the alien spacecraft to orbit each planet, but strictly forbids a landing.

The spectrometer on board the alien spacecraft enables detection of gases in the atmosphere of each planet. By a process of analysis of the existence and proportions of each of these gases, the aliens are able to establish whether, at minimum, there is a microbial level of life on each planet. The aliens orbit the planet Earth where they detect some form of life. Magnified photographs of the surface of the planet with various filters reveal that a life form has developed sufficiently to a level of technology which has modified the surface of the planet. Closer examination reveals that the technology of the organism is also in the process of changing the planet’s climate which threatens all life forms on the planet. The aliens ponder whether this dominant organism has noticed what is happening. Is this organism oblivious as to its own and fellow organisms’ fate? Is it unable to cooperate and work together on behalf of the environment that sustains all organisms on the planet? Before flying to the next planet, the aliens are in doubt as to whether there is intelligent life on Earth.

The alien’s spacecraft above used the same spectrometer technology that was on board the Galileo, the 1990 NASA spacecraft designed to explore the giant planet Jupiter, its moons, and rings. To get to Jupiter, the Galileo had to fly close by Venus and then twice around Earth in order to accelerate fast enough to escape the gravities of these planets and fly towards Jupiter. The Galileo passed within 960 kilometres above the surface of Earth. Spectrometer analysis and photographs of our planet Earth by orbiting spacecraft and the space station since 1990 have documented further decline as observed in 1990 – loss of top soil to the oceans, loss of vegetation, loss of ice on the mountains and around the Arctic and Antarctic circles, rising CO2 levels accompanied by a rising average global temperature, acidification and poisoning of our oceans, loss of biodiversity, and increasing desertification. Some 30 years after the Galileo left Earth, we should be asking the same question as the above Aliens in Carl Sagan’s story. Does humankind have sufficient and necessary intelligence to continue survival on our planet Earth?

Humankind should have used fossil fuels to transition to renewable energy when only 10% of our endowment of reserves had been consumed, but humankind ignored Limits to Growth warnings almost 50 years ago about the possibility of our current predicament. The need to transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy now involves massive investment in new infrastructure which, in turn, involves the burning of additional fossil fuels (renewables cannot bootstrap itself without the use of fossil fuels) at the very same time that we need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions while the rate of supply of conventional oil is peaking and the Energy Returned on Energy Invested (EROI) of fossil fuels are declining. We now have what is called a wicked problem. According to Wikipedia:

"In planning and policy, a wicked problem is a problem that is difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognize. It refers to an idea or problem that cannot be fixed, where there is no single solution to the problem; and "wicked" denotes resistance to resolution, rather than evil. Another definition is "a problem whose social complexity means that it has no determinable stopping point". Moreover, because of complex interdependencies, the effort to solve one aspect of a wicked problem may reveal or create other problems."

There is no easy, simple, and single solution to our predicament. There are, however, simple causes of climate change and parallel ecological disasters that we currently face. Climate change is but one of many symptoms caused by over-population of humankind and excessive consumption of resources provided by nature. What further complicates the choice of pathways we should now adopt during a transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy is the uncertainty as to what level of technology human settlements will be able to utilise in 50 years’ time. There are strong indications that renewable energy will be unable to provide the same scale of energy per capita that we currently enjoy, future generations will have fewer energy slaves to work for them, and their life styles will be much simpler. Their quality of life, however, will not necessarily be lower than what we currently enjoy.

Action depends on Motivation which depends on Belief. Without Belief, there is no Action. Belief depends on confidence in sources of information, but even then hard evidence can be ignored due to a process of cognitive dissonance. We all tend to believe in what is comfortable for us and we can so easily unconsciously confabulate fact with wishful thinking. We are all involved in an engagement of competing stories or narratives. One dominant narrative is that continued economic growth can and should continue. Green growth has recently been proposed as a solution to climate change. This narrative claims that all we need to do is to transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy and business-as-usual can then continue. But it is logical that any form of economic growth cannot continue forever on a finite planet because all forms of economic activity, both good and bad, requires the use of energy and materials which are limited in terms of physical scarcity and the rate of production and extraction. Sustainable economic growth on a finite planet is a physical impossibility and the term is an oxymoron. Surely even the most die-hard proponents of economic growth would agree to that logic of impossibility. However, many proponents of continued economic growth are reluctant to consider when economic growth should cease. That time is now.