Running out of stuff
London: A lot has been written about sustainability – it’s become fashionable in the past decade for everyone from marketeers and advertisers to policymakers, NGOs and world leaders to talk about the concept of sustainability in the way that they used ‘eco’ in the 90s. When a word is used this pervasively, it loses its meaning, so here’s a – er – couple of hundred ways of looking at the concept, courtesy of Samuel Mann.
I use sustainability to mean lastingness – how well something endures. In terms of the planet’s resources, sustainability means using resources at a rate at which they can be replenished. In the past, and still in many places around the world today, people have generally lived sustainably, using materials that are replenished by the natural world within months or a few years. Where resources were not replenished in short time periods, such as timber or peat, they were used in small amounts, in part because populations were smaller – in part regulated by resource limitations. This was not always the case, and there are many examples of great civilisations that collapsed because of unsustainable resource use, from the Mesopotamians to the Maya.
The ‘great acceleration’ from the mid-20th century, which was born of the technological advances of the Industrial Revolution, population expansion, globalisation and urbanisation, has dramatically changed our relationship with the planet. Earth is no longer in its relatively stable Holocene epoch, this is the new Human Age – the Anthropocene – and we’re going to have to adjust the way we live, eat and make stuff to accommodate to the planetary changes we’ve made.
We’re exceeding the sustainable resource replenishment rate with everything from fossil fuels to bluefin tuna, which means we’re running out of stuff. So we’re going to have to learn to live without these things, find alternatives to replace them, figure out ways to replenish resource stocks, or slow our use-rate through efficiency and re-use.
Most of this makes perfect sense to most people, not least because one resource we’re short of as individuals is money, and our sustainable use of cash should drive our sustainable use of other resources. The problem comes when resources are financially cheaper than their availability would suggest – we’ve given a lot of stuff an artificial value. Tin and indium are both cheaper than gold, even though they are rarer and likely to run out faster.
So what happens when the stuff we depend on runs out? How will we – the rich and the billions of poor people sharing this planet – live happy, healthy, fulfilling lives in the Anthropocene?
I’ll be looking at these questions in a series of Smart Planet columns for a new BBC website (although it can only be read by those of you living outside the UK, because of BBC licensing restrictions – try plugging the url into Google Translate if you’re in Britain. The first column is here). My first column is about the soil crisis – we’re running out of mud.
I interviewed a farmer in Kent, who is using a soil conservation method called no-tillage agriculture, which involves planting into undisturbed soil rather than ploughing. The technique reduces soil erosion, because the roots and other plant matter are retained, holding the soil. Here’s a video of our meeting: