The world population is stabilized at a level that is within the short- and long-term carrying capacity of the earth’s finite resources. This level is of great debate and is probably between 8 and 9 billion people.
Resources are used efficiently. Leading organizations such as the Wuppertal Institute and the Factor 10 Club and a growing number of individuals such as Ernst von Weizsacker, Paul Hawken and Amory Lovins have been calling for a huge increase in resource productivity by a factor of 4 to 10 in order to increase wealth for four-fifths of the world’s population and to decrease environmental impact. This is critical because the industrialized economy is incredibly wasteful in use of resources while the planet has a finite amount of resources and a finite ability to absorb and process wastes. According to a recent report of the World Resources Institute, industrialized countries extract forty-five to eight-five tons of materials per person per year. A recent report of the US National Academy of Engineering indicates that 93 percent of all the material which enters into commerce becomes waste before the product reaches the consumer. Paul Hawken estimates that 80 percent of the remaining 7 percent which is embedded in the products goes to waste within six weeks of use. For example, only 3 percent of the energy produced by a nuclear or coal-fired power plant to power an incandescent light bulb actually results in light! Moreover, Hawken estimates that if one were to include energy, water and biologically-based materials each person in the United States consumes their body weight in natural resources daily (9).
Such inefficiency and wasteful consumption continue, however, not because of the absence of attractive alternatives. In their recently released book Factor Four: Doubling Wealth, Halving Resource Use, Ernst von Weizsacker and Amory and Hunter Lovins call for a revolution in energy and resource productivity and provide over fifty demonstrated examples of factor 4 increases in energy, material and transportation productivity from a variety of institutions around the world. With a few exceptions they all cost less than conventional means of doing business and increased social and economic as well as environmental sustainability.
One energy example, in particular, illustrates the challenges and the possibilities ahead. From 1973 to 1986, the United States economy grew by 40 percent, yet energy consumption did not increase. Higher prices in oil led to industrial conservation and government efficiency standards for automobiles, refrigerators and electric motors. The result is that the economy saved $160 billion a year — and there is still room for improvement. Germany and Japan obtain twice as much economic output per unit of energy consumed as the US and ten to twelve times as much as China. Since 1986 the price of oil has fallen to an historical low due to the success of conservation. As a result, in the United States, the size (witness the growth in gas guzzling sport utility vehicles (SUVs) which now make up 45 percent of new car sales) and number of automobiles and the number of miles driven has continued to grow at a rate of 3 percent per year, driving energy consumption up steadily each year. The United States now imports more oil just for gasoline than the total amount of oil imported during the 1973 oil crisis (10).
We will mirror and live within natural systems. Humans are the only species on Earth that produce waste which is not a raw material or nutrient for another species. We are the only species to produce wastes that can be broadly toxic and build up for long periods of time. As William McDonough, Dean of the University of Virginia School of Architecture, has said, a sustainable society would eliminate the concept of waste. Waste is not simply an unwanted and sometimes harmful by-product of life; it is a raw material out of place. Waste and pollution demonstrate gross inefficiency in the economic system since they represent resources that are no longer available for use and/or create harm in humans and other species.
A sustainable economy would mirror nature’s “circular” method of using matter and employ the concepts of design through which all waste would be the “food” (waste = food) for another activity. This idea is illustrated in the concept of industrial ecology.
Metal extraction and conversion would be replaced by strategies to continuously cycle existing metals through the economy. For example, recycling aluminum rather than using virgin bauxite ore cuts energy use by 95 percent and pollution by 99 percent. When we recycle paper, we cut energy consumption by 40-50 percent and air and water pollution by about 35 percent, while employing more people.
We will use renewable resources at a rate less than or equal to the natural environment’s ability to regenerate the resource. This means living off the income, not the capital, e.g., practicing sustainable forestry, sustainable fishing and sustainable agriculture. Every ton of paper made of recycled fiber saves seventeen trees and cuts air and water pollution 30-50 percent. Organic farming and agricultural production minimize the use of pesticides and fertilizers while conserving soil and water are safer and more sustainable.
We will rely directly on solar energy to drive our economic system. Over 85 percent of the world’s energy comes from fossil fuels. This form of energy use causes major environmental and health problems such as black lung disease, air pollution, acid rain, oil spills and global climate change, to name a few. The desire for a continuing “cheap” supply of fossil fuels has had enormous military and economic costs to keep the oil and gas flowing around the world, especially from the Middle East. Moreover, this fossil fuel dependence is economically unsustainable for more than a few decades — it took 10,000 days for nature to create the fossil fuels that society consumes in one day.
We will increase production of durable, repairable goods and eliminate persistent, toxic and bioaccumulative substances. At the same time, we will eliminate disposable goods as much as possible and detoxify the production process by minimizing the use and discharge of toxic substances. Products would be designed for disassembly so that the materials could be utilized in making new products. For example, several manufacturers (Volkswagen, Volvo, BMW) are redesigning automobiles so that 90 percent or more of the materials can be recycled into new automobiles. In 1993, the Gillette Company, one of the world’s leading manufacturers of shaving equipment, had reduced its Toxic Release Inventory (US EPA definition) wastes in the United States by 97 percent from their 1987 level. According to Factor Four, between 1981 and 1993, Dow Chemical’s Louisiana Division with 2,400 workers implemented 1,000 projects (costing under $200,000) to save energy or reduce waste. For the 575 projects subsequently audited, the average annual return on investment was 204 percent and the annual savings was $110 million.
We will focus on providing the ultimate ends of products or services not the products or services themselves. German chemist Michael Braungart and Bill McDonough have invented the concept of “products of service.” A key to resource efficiency is to understand products as a means to deliver a service to a customer. For example, people do not want energy, they want the service it provides such as heat or light. Similarly, people want access to people, places, things and experiences not necessarily increased transportation. An example of a company that has adopted this idea is Interface, the largest commercial carpet tile company in the world which leases carpet through its Evergreen Lease Program. The lessee receives the service of the product — warmth, softness, acoustic value and aesthetics for a fee. When the carpet is worn out, Interface takes it back and recycles it into new carpet.
All people will understand their connection to the natural world and to other humans. They will understand their “ecological footprint,” i.e., they will know where products and services come from, where wastes go, and what they do to humans and other living species. They will appreciate that driving a car in Ohio may cause flooding in Bangladesh through global warming, or that cutting down forests in Brazil may deprive someone in Hungary of a lifesaving drug. For all people minimizing their ecological footprint and walking lightly on the planet will be second nature.
All current and future generations of humans will be able to meet their basic needs, pursue meaningful work and have the opportunity to realize their full human potential personally and socially. The average American receives 3,000 advertising messages per day oriented toward consumption. The American public is often portrayed as a group of consumers, not citizens. But increased consumption and material acquisition alone has not led to a happier, safer and more satisfied population in the United States. Nor has it done so elsewhere.
In June 1997, the prestigious Councils of the Royal Society of London and the United States National Academy of Sciences issued a statement expressing an urgent need for better understanding of human consumption and related behaviors and technologies, so that effective action may be taken to expedite the transition to a sustainable, desirable life for the world’s people in the coming century. In the statement they said, “It has often been assumed that population growth is the dominant problem we face. But what matters is not only the present and future number of people in the world, but also how poor or affluent they are, how much natural resources they utilize, and how much pollution and waste they generate. We must tackle population and consumption together.” Sufficiency of resource use and accumulation is as important as resource and productivity. Beyond meeting basic needs, we must examine nonmaterial ways to fulfill our needs for security, belonging, personal development and happiness that transcend materialism — a goal of most major spiritual and religious movements.
We will have timely economic and social signals that encourage environmentally and socially sustainable behavior. The economic measures of success we use today, such as the GNP and consumer price index, discourage conservation and encourage waste, consumption, and the substitution of capital for jobs. The price of goods and services reflects all the profits to the producers but does not include all of the various social, environmental and health costs to society. In a sustainable society we would have more development, i.e., qualitative improvement in people and value added to resource use, than quantitative growth in resource and energy intensive economies. Several national and international organizations and thousands of individuals have called for full cost accounting (including social and environmental) for economic activities, development of macroeconomic indicators which truly reflect societal well-being (e.g., Index for Sustainable Economic Welfare, Genuine Progress Indicator) and taxation which taxes the undesirables (energy and resource consumption) and not the desirable (employment and investment).
Nations would act like a Global Family. We must change the relationship between the developed and the developing countries. Industrial countries must reduce their consumption of the world’s resources in the face of the desperate need of developing countries to improve health and to reduce poverty, social instability and population growth. A child born in the United States today will consume as much of the earth’s resources and produce as much waste as more than five to ten children in India. We also need new approaches for transferring technology, for training and education, and for providing financial assistance to developing countries. These approaches must address population stabilization, improving the educational and social status of women, the international debt problem, and the need for sustainable economic strategies.
To ensure a realistic chance of realizing this vision of the sustainable future outlined above demands that all citizens understand the basic functioning of Earth’s ecosystems and, especially, how humankind interacts with and is dependent upon the resources and services it provides. This is especially true for the future political, social and economic leaders emerging daily from our institutions of higher education. Unless higher education responds quickly to ensure that all of their graduates, regardless of their fields of study, are environmentally literate, then it is unlikely that our future leaders will demonstrate the analytical thinking, the will or the compassion to adequately address complex issues such as population, climate change and social equity.