On Sustainability

• Concern about sustainability is not new. In 1903 Theodore Roosevelt said: “Wild beasts and birds are by right not the property merely of the people who are alive today, but the property of unborn generations, whose belongings we have no right to squander.” Albert Schweitzer proclaimed the reverence of life and predicted: “Man has lost the capacity to foresee and to forestall. He will end by destroying the earth.” In 1952 Rachel Carson argued that “The ‘control of nature’ is a phrase conceived in arrogance…”

• Today if anyone believes we have control over nature or have dominion over the earth, then they haven’t been paying attention. Can anyone believe that our natural resources are inexhaustible? Fact: Americans consume 30 percent of the earth’s resources, with only 5 percent of the planet’s population. Do we really believe that we are entitled to consume such a disproportionate share of the earth’s wealth? Are we willing to accept that population growth has something to do with sustainability? When will we begin to accept our responsibility to our children and their children?

• There’s a myth going around that nobody knows what “sustainability” really means. Wrong. It was clearly defined in 1987 by the UN World Commission on Environment and Development. Sustainability is “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Or how about the succinct definition put forth by kindergarten teachers: “Don’t take more than your share.” Perhaps sustainability comes down to doing more with less.

• We are a status quo society, highly resistant to change. It often takes catastrophe to impel us to action. But if sustainability is to become a way of life, our society must change its collective behavior.

• Michael Lemonick, writing for Scientific American in 2009, argued that resource sustainability in the U.S. must depend on government to make it happen. Consumer choices and grassroots activism are helpful, but only government can mandate tax credits, fuel-efficiency standards, a per-ton tax on carbon emissions, pollution regulations, and targeted legislation. Unfortunately, the free market approach fails to accept that wasteful use of resources and the destruction of the environment are costly. Can’t sustainability and capitalism co-exist?

• In a recent study published in 2009 in Energy & Environmental Science, eleven alternative energy sources were ranked on their potential to generate energy, as well as their impact on: 1) the land, 2) wildlife, 3) human health, 4) global warming, and 5) energy security. The author, Mark Z. Jacobson, found that wind energy was, by far, the most desirable option, followed by solar power, geothermal, tidal, solar photovoltaics, wave energy, hydroelectric, coal with carbon capture and storage, nuclear, corn ethanol, and cellulosic ethanol.

• In behalf of future generations, we have no right to squander, pollute, or exhaust the resources of this planet. For their sake, sustainability and degradation of the environment are the greatest challenges we face.

• Can the concept of sustainability be applied to population? If one accepts that resources available to sustain mankind are finite, it’s easy to believe the planet is already overpopulated. As of September 1, 2009, there were 6,830,586,985 of us. By 2050 the population is expected to reach 9 billion. How do we feed all these people, considering that today 1 billion people are malnourished and at least twice that number “suffer micronutrient deficiencies?” (Barrett, 2010, Science, p. 825) How do we propose to meet the nutritional needs of 9 billion without degrading our environment? Although we talk about our “energy” needs in terms of oil, coal, and nuclear sources, there’s another kind of energy that powers the 200 or so billion cells of our bodies. The fuel is food, and from it our cellular power plants produce the energy required for thought, movement, and life itself. And eating coal just doesn’t work.

• Using the term “green” may imply a preference for the natural (e.g., firewood as opposed to propane for heating) over the artificial. However, for us to evolve a society based on sustainability we must first learn to accept some dependence on technology. Electric autos, wind turbines, and solar cells will produce electricity with fewer pollutants, including carbon dioxide, as we learn to embrace sustainability as a goal. As part of our evolution to sustainability we may need to temporarily turn to a highly efficient source of power that emits no pollutant gases and generates minimal waste – nuclear reactors. Modern designs are practically meltdown proof and less radioactive waste is generated, although its ultimate disposal is still problematic. The hope is that, over time, we will learn to meet our energy needs without relying on nuclear reactors. There are many environmentalists willing to accept reactor energy as a transitional step toward future energy sustainability. This group includes Patrick Moore, a co-founder of Greenpeace. (Michael Lemonick, in Scientific American, 2009; see

• On February 16, 2010, President Obama gave a speech on energy in Lanham, Md. He said the following. “Whether it’s nuclear energy, or solar or wind energy, if we fail to invest in the technologies of tomorrow, then we are going to be importing those technologies instead of exporting them.” He went on to support the construction of two new nuclear power plants in the U.S. While nuclear power plants may be important, at least in the short term, the president’s words are disappointing, since they hardly represent tomorrow’s technology.

• Even though the U.S. depends on coal-fired power plants, obtaining energy from coal is hazardous. After coal has been burned and its carbon dioxide released to the atmosphere, its negative impact on communities still persists. Ash remains as a by-product of coal combustion, and the stuff is loaded with heavy metals and toxic chemicals, including mercury, cadmium, arsenic, lead, thallium, sulfur, chromium, cobalt, beryllium, and boron. What do most coal-fired power plants do with the toxic ash? It’s mixed with water and pumped into “impoundment” ponds which often contaminate surrounding land and underlying aquifers. There are several hundred such toxic ponds in the U.S., and the EPA has designated 44 of them as “highly hazardous” to human life. The third largest coal power plant in the world is in Owensville, Ind., where residents near the plant must drink bottled water because wells are contaminated with boron and manganese from leaking coal ash ponds. It’s a devil’s choice between storing toxic ash waste from coal combustion or spent fuel rods from nuclear reactors. (Paul Rauber, writing in Sierra magazine, March/April, 2010)