Sustainability Redefined

By Peter Montague of Rachel’s Democracy & Health News

[Rachel's introduction: The 1987 definition of sustainability went like this: "Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." That was a fine definition, but now a new one has been proposed: "Learning to live off the sun in real time."]

sunChemical & Engineering News (C&EN) is the weekly voice of the American Chemical Society, which is the professional association for academic and industrial chemists. This high-quality magazine lies near the heart of the establishment and -- like the Wall Street Journal -- it hires some of the top writers in the business because many of its readers are elite decison-makers who need the best information available, whether it be good news or bad.

The August 18 issues of C&EN was devoted to "sustainability." In it, editor-in-chief Rudy M. Baum pointed out that a sea change has occurred just in the past two years. He says humans passed a "tipping point" in about 2006. A "tipping point" occurs when something fundamental changes in a way that speeds up further change and/or makes change permanent.[1]

Baum writes, "In the case of humanity's relationship to Earth, a tipping point appears to have occurred in 2006. In what seems to have been the blink of an eye, a shift in attitude occurred. On one side of the divide, people in general expressed concern, but not alarm, over the state of the environment. On the other side of the divide, past the tipping point, a consensus emerged that human actions were having a serious negative impact on the global environment. The consensus was embraced by scientists and nonscientists and, remarkably, by a large swath of corporate America."

Community activists who struggle against toxic corporate behavior may doubt that "a large swath of corporate America" really accepts that "human actions are having a serious negative impact on the environment" -- but it does seem true that important segments of the public have become convinced. This is new. This is big.

Baum continues: "What is clear is that humans need to change their relationship to Earth. No resource is infinite. There are enough of us, more than 6 billion, and we are clever enough that our activities are impacting the global environment. How is it that we can ever have imagined otherwise?"

It is as if Baum has just awakened from a pleasant dream and is realizing for the first time that we are all facing a harsh reality.

He then repeats the original definition of "sustainable development" from the 1987 "Brundtland Report," formally titled "Our Common Future:"

"Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." And, he says, "That is as good a definition of sustainable development as one will find."

And he his own interesting new definition of sustainability: "Learning to live off the sun in real time." He says, "Although sustainability is not only about energy, it is largely about energy."

Then he dives into a brief history of humankind and of civilization. He points out that for aeons humans lived off the sun in real time. Then the discovery of coal, and later oil, powered the development of industrial society: "The extraordinary productivity of the past 150 years has largely been fueled by fossilized sunshine." Then he says, "This has to change for two reasons."

Reason No. 1: Fossil fuels are finite: "One can argue," Baum writes, "whether we have already reached 'peak oil' -- the point at which half of all the oil that ever will be discovered has been discovered and supply, while far from exhausted, will inevitably begin to decline -- or whether we will reach it in 10, 20, or 30 years. The point is, we will reach peak oil. (Certainly," Baum continues, "the current remarkable run-up in crude oil prices is consistent with what will occur when peak oil is reached.) Yes, there are vast reserves of petroleum locked in oil shale and tar sands, and yes, there's enough coal out there to power society for 200 years, but extracting these resources will take a terrible toll on the landscape of Earth. At what point are we going to say, enough?"

Reason No. 2: Global warming. "The gigatons of carbon dioxide humans are pumping into the atmosphere as if it were a giant sewer are causing the climate to change. That's no longer in dispute," Baum writes.

But then suddenly Mr. Baum seems to slip back into the pleasant dream of yesteryear: his solution to our energy (and sustainability) problems -- which he still calls "living off the sun in real time" -- is nuclear power.

This is jarring because both U.S. and world supplies of uranium are finite and limited. Baum backhandledly acknowledges this by saying, "Energy efficiency and conservation will play important roles, but so will vastly expanded use of nuclear energy, including breeder reactors to enormously expand the supply of nuclear fuel." So, uranium by itself will run out -- most likely sooner than coal will run out -- but we can "enormously expand the supply" of atomic fuel with breeder reactors. Mr. Baum doesn't say so, but breeder reactors don't breed uranium, they breed plutonium, the preferred raw material for rogue A- bombs.

Mr. Baum does acknowledge that his plan entails some difficulties -- he calls them "complexities" -- like "building safe breeder reactors, secure handling of plutonium, [and] responsible disposal of the remaining waste." Complexities indeed.

Leaving aside the morally indefensible plan to bequeath tons of highly radioactive waste to our children to manage forever, humans haven't devised a solution for the slow march of nuclear weapons across the globe -- except of course to ban the manufacture of all raw materials for such weapons. This would require ending nuclear power globally, forever.

Item: Pakistan has nuclear weapons (which it developed from nuclear power reactors) and is supposedly a strong ally of the U.S. But Dexter Filkins reported this week in the New York Times Magazine that Pakistani soldiers sometimes shoot at American soldiers who are hunting fundamentalist Muslims along Pakistan's border with Afghanistan. Filkins says "one of the more fundamental questions of the long war against Islamic militancy, and one that looms larger as the American position inside Afghanistan deteriorates [is]: Whose side is Pakistan really on?" Read the Filkins piece -- an amazing feat of reporting -- and you'll see it's a fair question.

Item: Last month President Bush authorized U.S. troops to begin military raids onto Pakistani soil -- without asking Pakistan's permission -- to try to kill Taliban fundamentalists there. Announcing the President's decision, the N.Y. Times wrote, "The new orders for the military's Special Operations forces relax firm restrictions on conducting raids on the soil of an important ally without its permission." The next paragraph in the Times story says, "Pakistan's top army officer said Wednesday that his forces would not tolerate American incursions like the one that took place last week and that the army would defend the country's sovereignty 'at all costs.'" This is sounding more and more like the beginning of a new war -- one with a nuclear-armed "ally" who also seems to be an ally of the Taliban.

The Taliban would like nothing better than to get their hands on a Pakistani A-bomb, deliver it to us on a cargo ship, and detonate it near the Statue of Liberty or beneath the Golden Gate Bridge. It would end the American experiment in democracy, almost certainly.

Item: This same week President Bush won approval from 45 nations for his plan to allow India -- Pakistan's blood enemy -- to buy and sell nuclear materials on the global market, thus negating the Nuclear Non- Proliferation Treaty that had been in force for decades but which India has steadfastly refused to sign. Nuclear experts warn that Mr. Bush's decision could lead to a nuclear arms race in Asia. Congress has yet to approve the deal, but Mr. Bush is now working to get their "fast track" approval.

Item: And this week, too, a writer in the New York Times pointed out that, "Many proliferation experts I have spoken to judge the chance of a detonation [of an A-bomb by Al Qaeda, or a Qaeda imitator on U.S. soil] to be as high as 50 percent in the next 10 years. I am an optimist, so I put the chance at 10 percent to 20 percent. Only technical complications prevent Al Qaeda from executing a nuclear attack today. The hard part is acquiring fissile material; an easier part is the smuggling itself (as the saying goes, one way to bring nuclear weapon components into America would be to hide them inside shipments of cocaine)."

Even if the optimistic view is correct -- that the chance of a rogue A-bomb explosion in New York Harbor, or beneath the Golden Gate Bridge, is "only" 10% or 20% per decade -- how many decades does that give us before the probability approaches 100%?

No, if humans are to survive, then "Learning to live off the sun in real time" cannot mean powering global civilization with plutonium- breeding nuclear reactors. It must mean really living off the sun in real time.

Luckily, that goal is seeming more realistic each passing week. In this issue of Rachel's we carry a story from Scientific American Magazine that estimates we could derive 35% of our total energy (and 69% of our electricity) from sunlight by 2050 -- and 90% of our total energy from the sun by 2100. And it would require a federal subsidy far smaller than we have so far committed to the Iraq war. Of course, if we felt the need were really urgent, we could get there even faster. That's a new "tipping point" we can all work together to achieve.

[1] Baum says "a tipping point occurs when some parameter reaches a value where various feedback loops come into play and further change in the parameter becomes radically more rapid and/or permanent." He gives the example of carbon locked in the arctic permafrost. At some point, rising temperatures in the arctic will thaw the permafrost, releasing large amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, thus creating warmer conditions, in turn releasing more carbon from the permafrost... until?


If you see any unhelpful comments, please let us know immediately.

C Robb W. 429°

For me the equation is simple, business as usual got us into this mess (pick a mess, any mess) and only thinking outside the box will get us out of it. Nuclear energy is the ultimate business as usual solution.
To paraphrase Einstein, we cannot solve problems with the same level of thinking that created the problem.

Written in September 2008

dontcry (anonymous)

Nice info.But so complicated.And it is night time here.I must go to sleep.But i will continue reading tomorrow.Anyway thanks a lot for the article.<A href="">club penguin cheats</A>

Written in January 2010

Add a comment
  • to get your picture next to your comment (not a member yet?).
  • Posted on Sept. 28, 2008. Listed in:

    See other articles written by Peter »


    Pledge to do these related actions

    Build your own solar cooker, 21°

    Be it a cooker (like the CooKit or Eagle) or a solar food dehydrator, make ...

    Tell Washington: no new coal or nuclear plants, 20°

    Take action at The global climate crisis is the defining challenge of our generation. ...

    We Need Clean Energy, Not Clean Coal!, 57°

    During the Vice Presidential debate, both Senator Biden and Governor Palin touting their support for ...

    Follow these related projects

    Carbon Neutral Supermarket Sections

    (a good idea here, is a good idea anywhere), New Zealand

    Baltimore, United States

    Featured Companies & Orgs