Sustainability

By Herb Bowie

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As Practical Utopians, we want our culture to continue to evolve towards better and brighter outcomes for humanity.

The biggest threat we see to this continued evolution is our ongoing exhaustion and degradation of our natural environment here on Earth.

These environmental impacts manifest in several different ways:

  • Depletion and overuse of natural resources;

  • Extinction of species;

  • Pollution;

  • Global warming, caused by pollution of our atmosphere.

We see this negative environmental impact as the ultimate tragedy of the commons: “a situation within a shared-resource system where individual users acting independently according to their own self-interest behave contrary to the common good of all users by depleting that resource through their collective action.”

There are four separate sorts of human activities that are all contributing to a worsening of our current state:

  1. Depletion of non-renewable natural resources, such as oil and helium.

  2. Overuse and depletion of renewable natural resources, such as groundwater.

  3. Global economic development, which tends to increase per-capita resource usage and pollution output.

  4. Increasing human population levels.

When we look realistically at our current conditions, and then at these multiple sorts of human activities all working to make things even worse, we see the biggest crisis that humanity has yet faced.

Clearly, we must work as individuals, organizations, nations and a global human community to positively influence all of these factors, to slow and reverse the negative trends we observe today.

We must certainly do our best in this regard, but we should also remember the words of Winston Churchill:

It’s no use saying, ‘We are doing our best.’ You have got to succeed in doing what is necessary.

When we look at the four types of activities above, and what we can do to influence them in a positive direction, we see several types of actions we can take, some of them easier than others.

  1. Reduce consumption per capita (through mass transit, shared resource usage, denser housing, etc.).

  2. Invent and deploy better systems and technologies to allow us to reduce the environmental impacts of consumption (better recycling, renewable energy, etc.).

  3. Reduce human population levels.

When we look at the broad sweep of human history, we find that, while we are good at inventing new systems and technologies, we seem to invariably use these to increase the numbers of people on Earth, even when such increases result in a poorer quality of life for most of those people.

And so, while it is easy for individuals and governments and other institutions to encourage us to think that we can invent our way out of our current situation, there are also good reasons to consider actions we can take to reduce human population levels. Consider:

  • It is unreasonable to think that human population levels can continue to grow without check when we are living on a planet of finite resources.

  • If we wish to continue to increase the quantity of people on the planet, it will inevitably be at the expense of the quality of life for many of those people.

  • If our goal is to maximize the quality of life available to as many people as possible, then there is every indication that our current population levels are already excessive.

And so, we believe that we must take reasonable steps in all three of these areas: reducing our consumption per capita, reducing the environmental impacts of our consumption, and reducing our global population levels.

We realize that, when we discuss slowing and reversing human population growth, and reducing consumption per capita, we are running up against powerful cultural norms that have been developed and strengthened over centuries, and that this is where the most important cultural work needs to be done.