Thursday, July 1, 2010

On Sustainable Civilization

Any environmentalist who truly understands the problems facing our world knows that nearly everything we do has an environmental impact- every product requires resource extraction, every trip on any kind of transport requires energy, drinking water and sanitation systems have their own issues, even our food production takes a heavy toll on the environment. This has led many to believe that modern civilization and sustainability are polar opposites- that, to ensure the long-term survival of humankind, we should return to a hunter-gatherer, or at least simple agrarian existence. There are others who think that the collapse in cheap energy will inevitably blast us all back to the bronze age in the coming century, James Howard Kunstler being among them. Is civilization inevitably doomed? Must we revert to a simpler time to save ourselves?

I, of course, say no. I am an unashamed techie, and I think that humanity's technical prowess will adapt to nearly any situation. Will the world of the future look very different? Probably as different as today looks from 1910. Will we have to abandon modern technology? I think not.

This reasoning, of course, begs the question- what would a sustainable civilization look like? How can we re-form modern civilization into something that isn't constantly raping the planet? Well, as this is a blog after all, I'm going to tell you.

First, our civilization must get smaller. There are 6.8 billion people on this planet, and we're projected to hit 7 billion next year, just 12 short years after we hit 6. The 8th billion will be even quicker than that, thanks to logarithmic growth. The only way that we can currently support such a population is with severe environmental degradation from industrial factory farming, high levels of resource extraction and mass production, and still nearly 80% of that population living in severe poverty. 80% of our world lives on less than $10 a day- $300 a month. Even as an American who is currently living under the federal poverty line, I'm richer than the vast majority of human beings on the planet. We are currently having trouble feeding the human population. Switching to organic, sustainable and ethical food production would make these problems exponentially worse without population decline.

Population activism was popular in the 70's, coinciding with the Third Wave of feminism. Though it has fallen out of fashion, the reasons for shrinking our population are no less relevant today. There are simply too many people in the world.

As environmentalists, we should be working towards ensuring access to comprehensive sex education, birth control, abortion and voluntary sterilization for all people everywhere. The evidence of the last 50 years has strongly shown that, when women are given control over their fertility, birth rates decline significantly- and, in most of the developed world, they have declined below replacement rate. (I also think that, if a reliable male contraceptive is ever developed, similar things will happen for men. As-is, men's choices are limited to condoms or vasectomies.) There is no better way, in the long term, of avoiding the problems of resource usage and environmental damage than by limiting the number of people who are making an impact on the environment, and the mechanisms by which we can do so are non-coercive and scientifically proven, but this will be a long process. We should start today.

Second, a sustainable civilization is a paperless one. We should rely more upon digital technology for the distribution of media and cultural goods. I own both a Barnes and Noble nook e-reader and a Roku HD Netflix player (which also plays Rachel Maddow and Amazon video rentals), as well as having access to a myriad of online music stores. I literally do not buy DVDs or CDs, and I try to stay away from books when I can (Publishers have been slower to take up eBooks). Scholarly journals have been online for decades, and newspapers and magazines are also available for digital delivery now. The technology that runs the Internet is not carbon-neutral, to be sure, but it is less resource-intensive than physically printing media, then trucking it from plant to distribution centre to big-box store, and finally driving to the store, purchasing it and driving it home. Similarly, the sort of office work that currently relies upon shuffling of paper could probably be accomplished easily and usefully using digital documents, and much of what currently comes through our mail system could be shifted to e-mail. We may see a civilization with mail delivery only a few days a week, that primarily handles large packages, or we may see the mail system shifting to deliver goods from local stores and groceries. The point is that we are wasting resources today on paper and physical media that could be conserved instead.

Third, a sustainable civilization is one in which things are built to last. The average computer is around 3 years old. The average American replaces their automobile around every 3-5 years. (Mine is 16 and going strong.) Cellphones, iPods and other gadgets get shoved aside with alarming frequency, and don't get me started on the smaller things- the fans, clocks, towels, kitchen utensils and other bric-a-brac that we fill our houses with. Nearly everything made in our present consumer society is built to fulfil its function for a brief period of time, after which it disintegrates, and we are expected to toss it in the bin and buy a new one. This wasn't always the case- I have a set of pots and pans from my grandmother that were made in the 60's, and which are holding up better than the skillets I bought at Costco 5 years ago. (If only they were non-stick.) We simply can't keep living like this. Honest craftsmen of the past must be ashamed at what passes for consumer goods these days.

Fourth, and this is related to the above, a sustainable civilization knows how to fix things. Our society is a throw-away society- when something breaks, we generally go get a new one. It's often cheaper to do that than get it repaired, if we can find somewhere to repair it. Clothing, appliances, electronics- you name it, it can be tossed. We need to re-learn the skills to fix stuff. We ought to teach our schoolchildren how to sew on a button, patch a tire, read a circuit diagram and a volt-meter, solder and de-solder components, drill out stripped bolts, etc. There used to be an electronics repair shop in every town in America, right next to the tailor. Now, where they once stood, sits Best Buy and Target. We also need to make things fixable- none of this non-user-replaceable battery nonsense- and we need to make them upgradeable. Technology is moving quickly- we should design our doodads to be upgraded, so that we don't just have to buy a new one when a better model comes out.

Fifth, a sustainable civilization is dense. (This is a bit more like what I normally talk about on this blog.) The most efficient way for human beings to live is in dense, walkable cities, as you all undoubtedly know. Even small towns should be highly concentrated. Suburbia is not sustainable in its present form. We need to re-organize civic life around concentrated town centres, connected to the citizens they serve by walkable and bikeable transportation infrastructre.

Sixth, a sustainable civilization is electrified. We know how to generate electricity from renewable resources, like hydropower, wind power, solar-thermal and solar-photovoltaic power, and (I'm coming to like this one more and more) geothermal power. If we can electrify it, we can power it with clean, sustainable energy. There is so much renewable energy coming either from the sun or the Earth's molten core that we can use it in practically limitless amounts without harming either one of them. We need the infrastructure to harness, store and move that power, but it is there.

Lastly, a sustainable civilization is car-free. Driving about in steel cages, belching carbon into the atmosphere, is simply not an efficient way to move about. We need bikes, electric buses, and electric local, commuter and long-distance trains. What few cars and trucks we will still need should be electrically-driven, and that shouldn't be a problem, since most of those will be work vehicles. We also may need to take a very hard look at air travel, and if it survives it should be limited to the vast cross-oceanic distances that essentially require it... though we may be able to bridge the Bering Strait with high-speed rail. Wouldn't that be cool?

In summary, we need to:

  • stop having babies

  • quit shuffling paper

  • build things to last

  • learn to fix those things

  • move to the cities

  • harness the sun, wind, waves and Earth's core for power

  • and ditch the automobile

in order to achieve a civilization that will be both comfortable and environmentally benign. Will we manage to pull all of this off before the coming collapse of cheap energy?

Well, I'm working on it...

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