No the Breakthrough Institute, Sustainability is Not Already Achieved

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The summer issue of the Breakthrough Journal features an article by Jessie Ausubel which argues that "beginning in the 1970s, Americans began to consume less and tread more lightly on the planet." The goal of this journal is to "challenge conventional progressive and environmental wisdom," but as is often the case to be able to mount such a challenge the thesis was built on a shaky foundation of overly stretched evidence. I take at least some issue with each of the links in the chain of reasoning:

  1. That US resource use has plateaued and is declining due to technology
  2. Even if that is true, that flattened resource use means flattened impact on the planet and people
  3. Even if US impacts has flattened, that this level of impact is somehow Sustainable

Has US resource consumption plateaued due to technology?

While in some areas the use of resources by the US has perhaps leveled out, there are many areas where resource usage (particulary if one counts all the manufactured goods we now import) are continuing to increase (and have certainly increased dramatically since the 1970s) but lets just look at two of the focal resources of this article. landuse in phx over time Ausubel points out that we are using less cropland in the US than the peak. Certainly technology has contributed but so has urbanization as this image of Phoenix makes clear (green is farmland, orange is housing).1)I threw together this animated Gif with images created as part of the CAP-LTER research project. But mostly we have just hit the limit of productive, arable land. Yes, water use in agriculture has not increased over the last few decades, but that is because literally every single drop of water in the arid west is accounted for. It CAN'T go up. If it could, farmers would cover all of California with almond trees.

The point is that in some of the cases the plateauing that the author describes is NOT because of technological breakthroughs, or consumer behavior change or production changes but because we have hit physical limits of our planet. To his credit, Ausubel acknowledges that this is the case with fisheries. Wild fish catches have plateaued for decades because we are emptying the seas (thanks to technology) yet demand for fish keeps growing (thanks consumers). So fisheries demonstrate that if some technological advances reduce resource consumption (e.g. efficient farming) plenty of others increase it (e.g. factory ships). Perhaps because the section on fish ran counter to the desired narrative, no graphics were included to catch the eye.

Direct resource use is NOT equivalent to impact on people and the planet

This gaping hole alone is enough to completely collapse the edifice that technology has already "liberated the environment". In terms of agriculture the author emphasizes the cropland has declined in the USA while production has grown. Well sure, but would anyone argue that the impact of corn farming was bigger in the early 20th century (when its acreage peaked) than it is today? Off the top of my head some impacts that have increased even if the use of a particular resource, in this case cropland, hasn't: the dead-zone in the Gulf of Mexico, growth of the energy intensive cold chain, unjust contract chicken farming (fed by all that cheap corn), to name just three.

But wait, what about the single biggest impact humans are having on the planet right now, Climate Change? How does that fit in this narrative. Those words are not even used once. Instead we get this gem:
..the growing season has lengthened, attributed to global warming. The longer growing season is also causing more plant growth...
In fact there is lots of evidence that any gains in the high latitudes will be wiped out by loses in other (poorer) regions, plus all the other impacts of climate change are just conveniently forgotten. Obviously every article can't cover everything but the real fundamental point is this: the intensification of agriculture via technology has dramatically increased its impact in many areas even if it has enabled small decreases in cropland. So if we narrow our focus to one particular resource (or two) as this article does we risk watching a tree blossom while the rest of the forest is cut down around us.

If the the world copies the USA we are in trouble

corn field photo
Photo by fishhawk
The article closes with the aspiration that the rest of the world will soon follow the US's lead and the world will soon be wild again. This may be the most fantastic argument yet. Even IF US resource use had plateaued and that somehow also our impacts have plateaued the level of this plateau is so ridiculously higher than the rest of the world that it would take 5 earths if everyone joined us on our plateau! Its also worth pointing out (which the author does as well), that nearly all the gains in efficiency we have gotten from technology we have almost entirely consumed. No better example than corn (his example) which is off the charts productive so we use it to eat more meat and fuel more cars.2)Ricardo Salvador has started a really promising looking blog series on the incredible over-productive corn we have created. We have not (so far) used technological gains to actually REDUCE our impact.3)This is of course the central pessimistic argument in David Owen's Conundrum.

We CAN Achieving Sustainability but it doesn't help pretending that we are already doing it.

I am sure I come off sounding very negative and in fact I appreciate when researchers such as Ausubel point out ways in which things are improving as it is all too common for negativity to dominate the narrative. The problem is to take some evidence that we are maybe in some ways slowing down the growth of our unsustainability and make it a basis for the claim that technology has already liberated the environment. In order to truly get on a path to Sustainability we are going to need a lot more than what is already happening and technology is only one piece, individual change and new policies are musts as well.

Bonus Material

  • Some of the graphs are quite deceptive such as using forestry products/gdp to suggest overall use is declining (though it hasn't) and talking about total petroleum use while showing a graph of per capita use leveling out.
  • The cover photo is a perfect illustration of the problems with this article. It depicts a humpback whale off the NYC coastline. This is great news but it is NOT happening because "technology" has somehow liberated the environment. Technology in the form of ships and exploding harpoons nearly drove them to extinction. Mass movements of people to stop whale hunting and huge government investments in clean water and fishery regulation have brought back the whales. If anything this good news about whales DISPROVES the thesis of the article.
  • For more realistic optimism: "Within my lifetime, I’d like to get the sense that humanity is managing to “bend the curve”, that is, at least begin to turn towards a sustainable future, rather than keep racing away from it."

Aaron Redman is the founder of Achieving Sustainability and what passes for an administrator in these parts. Currently he is working on his Sustainability PhD at ASU while raising a baby daughter and taking advantage of nap time to foment discussions on this here blog.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. I threw together this animated Gif with images created as part of the CAP-LTER research project.
2. Ricardo Salvador has started a really promising looking blog series on the incredible over-productive corn we have created.
3. This is of course the central pessimistic argument in David Owen's Conundrum.
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