By Donella Meadows
–April 9, 1992–
“One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds,” said Aldo Leopold more than forty years ago. “Much of the damage inflicted on land is quite invisible to laymen. An ecologist must … be the doctor who sees the marks of death in a community that believes itself well and does not want to be told otherwise.”
Nowadays you don’t need to be an ecologist to see the damage to the earth — though there are still those who do not want to be told about it. Anyone who pays attention can see the leveled forests, the eroded cropland, the expanding deserts, the rivers brown with silt. Anyone can smell the polluted air. We hear almost daily about the decimation of fisheries, the drawdown of groundwaters, the extinction of species, the ozone hole, the greenhouse effect.
In spite of all that evidence, though, few people seem to be getting — or at least admitting — its meaning. We have great plans for growth, but in fact the human economy can’t go on drawing down soils, waters, forests, fish, and fuels even at its current rate for more than another decade or two. We can’t go on loading the soils, oceans, and atmosphere with pollutants. We are beyond the limits.
The limits we have exceeded are not limits to the number of people on earth or to the money value of our economy. They’re SPEED LIMITS — limits to rate at which resources can be renewed and wastes absorbed. If we could slow down the flow of materials and energy from the earth, through our economy, and back in degraded form to the earth, we could live sustainably within the bounds of the planet. Fortunately, in a perverse way, we are so inefficient and wasteful that it’s technically and economically possible to do that. We don’t have to cut out necessities, only stupidities.
For example: Over the past 40 years 3 billion acres of the earth’s productive soils have been seriously degraded — 10 percent of earth’s vegetated land — an area the size of China and India combined.
And yet: Farming methods that conserve and enhance soils are known and used by some farmers on every continent. In both temperate and tropic zones, hundreds of thousands of farms are obtaining high yields consistently without degrading the land and without high rates of application of fertilizers and pesticides.
Another example: Before the industrial revolution there were 14 billion acres of forest on the earth. Now there are 10 billion acres, only 3.6 billion of which are undisturbed primary forest. Half that forest loss occurred between 1950 and 1990. Three-fourths of the tropical forest is gone or degraded; at current rates the rest will be gone within 50 years — and with it perhaps half the species of life on earth.
And yet: U.S. wood consumption could be cut in half by increasing the efficiency of sawmills and construction, by doubling the rate of paper recycling, and by reducing the use of disposable paper products. Logging could be conducted so as to reduce its negative impact on soils, streams, and unharvested trees. Logged lands could be reforested. High-yield agriculture could reduce the need to clear forests for food, and more efficient stoves could reduce the need for firewood.
Another example: The energy use of the human economy grew 60-fold between 1860 and 1985. It is projected to grow by another 75% by the year 2020. At present 88 percent of the commercial energy used in the world comes from the fossil fuels coal, oil, and gas. One product of fossil fuel combustion is carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas. Its atmospheric concentration is now higher than it has been for the past 160,000 years and still growing.
And yet: Through efficiency measures alone the human world could reduce its energy use with no loss of productivity or convenience in the rich countries, and with steady economic development in the poor countries. The United States could provide every good and service it now provides using half as much — some technologists say one-fourth as much — energy. With efficiencies of that magnitude we could supply most or all our energy needs from solar-based renewable sources, whose environmental impacts are small, and whose costs are dropping steadily.
One more example: Some pollutants, such as lead in gasoline and DDT, have been greatly reduced by outright bans. In rich countries some pollutants — such as NOx in air and phosphates in streams — have been reduced or held constant, at considerable expense. Many other kinds of pollutants, particularly nuclear wastes, hazardous wastes, and greenhouse gases, continue to grow unabated.
And yet: Increased efficiency of fuel and material use, more complete material recycling, and redesign of industrial processes can reduce both resource depletion and pollution. Reductions in pollution will be a natural result of pricing of products to include their environmental costs, and of the adoption of the idea of sufficiency — simply reducing unnecessary, wasteful consumption.
It’s possible and affordable and maybe even easy to pull ourselves down below the earth’s sustainable limits. Then why are we doing it so slowly and reluctantly?
One answer to that question is that some powerful vested interests are not eager to change their way of doing things. Another answer is that we have a systematic and profound information problem.
More on that next week.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1992