If we keep doing what we're doing,
we'll end up where we're headed

by Denis Hayes
he principal accomplishment of the industrial revolution has been the creation of material abundance. Fervent socialists and unbridled capitalists share the goal of ever-increasing production. The aim of modern industrial society, simply put, is to produce more.
But more, by definition, is a comparative term. We measure ourselves against our peers, and they against us, so the more we get the more we want. We never ask ourselves, "How much is enough?"
This material-driven society has not proven satisfying. Study after study has shown that, once a population escapes utter poverty, the correlation between increasing material abundance and happiness is almost random. Other things are more important.
Still, wealth is how we keep score. Industrial nations hold out their wealth as a lure to attract poorer countries down ideological paths. "Follow these simple rules," we tell them like carnival hucksters, "and you too can be rich."
Like most hucksters, the industrial world is selling a lie disguised as a dream.
Today's global population cannot ever be sustained at anything approaching the current lifestyles of the United States or Europe or Japan.
Since my birth, my fellow Americans and I have consumed more of the world's mineral wealth than all people in all societies throughout the entire course of history before I was born. If everyone consumed at the American level, the world's oil reserves would shrink to just a few years' supply; the world's old growth rain forests would disappear within a decade; the build-up of toxic wastes would terrify even the most sanguine proponents of growth.
Much of the world's population makes only minimal demands upon the resources of the planet. Even so, the world's biological systems are approaching their limits. Food and fiber production everywhere has leveled out over the past five years. Virtually all the best land is in production, as is much marginal land where agriculture cannot be sustained. Recent increases in fertilizer use have yielded no significant gains. Deserts around the world are spreading at the rate of 70 square miles a day. All the world's major fisheries have plateaued, and many are collapsing.
If all people consumed as do the citizens of the global North, this devastation would be incomparably greater.

It all adds up

The problem of global survival is not just that the self-indulgence of the super-rich cannot be widely replicated. The problem is that the lifestyle of the average middle-class consumer of the global North is not a sustainable model for global development. If embraced by 5.5 billion people, it would vastly exceed the ability of the planet to pump oil, refine metals, produce plastic, dispose of waste, absorb pollution, raise meat and grow trees.
I am not saying that the current world population could not possibly lead lives of comfort, dignity and productivity.
One can envision an attractive world in which the recycling of basic metals approaches 100 percent; in which all energy is used efficiently and is derived from renewable sources powered by the sun; in which healthy local, low-meat diets fall within the biological carrying capacity of the planet; in which information-dense, super-efficient, pollution-free technologies guide commerce, transportation, housing, medicine, education and entertainment.
What I am saying, however, is that such prosperity cannot be reached following any model currently being practiced anywhere in the world. To create cities that are truly sustainable, we must adopt, and then propagate, a new definition of well-being. Our leaders' sometimes glib embrace of "sustainable new development" may entail much more than they suspect.
It may require a fundamental reexamination of what we call "success."
In biological terms, Homo sapiens has destroyed about 12 percent of the net primary productivity of the planet, and we currently use an additional 27 percent directly and indirectly. In other words, our species has laid claim to about 40 percent of the sunlight that is fixed by photosynthesis and that ultimately provides all the energy that sustains life on Earth. As we take 40 percent, we are squeezing out other species at a rate that Professor Edward Wilson of Harvard now estimates at 100 species per day.
Four species are going extinct every hour. If Wilson is even close to being right, this is the most calamitous period of biological collapse since the disappearance of the dinosaurs.
At its most basic level, "sustain-ability" means passing on to our children and grandchildren a world with as many opportunities as we had.
That is not happening. Even as we expand the limits of human knowledge at a rate that can only be termed "revolutionary," we are permanently impoverishing the physical environment that forms the ultimate basis for all life.

How many is too many?

My observations so far have been based upon the current world population. In a sense, they assume that the world's population will stop growing today. However the structure of the global population - the sheer number of women now entering their prime reproductive years - virtually guarantees one more doubling of the human population, even if we slam on the brakes today.
Moreover, no one knows how to "slam on the brakes."
Because we are biological organisms, we might gain useful insights by observing the natural history of our fellow creatures. In most cases, when biological control - such as food limits, disease or predators - are removed from a population of, say, deer, there follows a huge population explosion. Eventually, the population exceeds the carrying capacity of its environment, and it suffers a catastrophic collapse.
Carrying capacity is an ecological concept that indicates the largest number of any given species that a habitat can support indefinitely. In 1944, 29 reindeer were introduced to St. Matthew Island in the Bering Sea. By 1963, the herd had grown to 6,000. The following winter, the herd crashed to just 50. The deer had over-grazed the lichens that were their main source of winter forage, and in a severe winter most simply starved to death.
This is the standard ecological model of a system out of equilibrium, and it applies to elk, fish, ladybugs, pigeons and every other creature with an instinct to "be fruitful and multiply."
The most important question in the world is whether human beings are wise enough to see what's coming - wise enough to recognize the degree to which we have already irreversibly depleted much of our natural capital - and avoid the fate of the deer.
The human population will grow by about 92 million people this year. Ninety-two million is more than the combined populations of England, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Greece and Switzerland. The human population is growing about 10,000 people an hour.
Let me put those numbers in perspective.
During the past several years in Somalia, television cameras have captured unending scenes of starvation and misery; of children with bony limbs and distended stomachs suffering from kwashiorkor syndrome; of mothers and infants, frail arms draped protectively around each other, slowly starving to death. An estimated 300,000 people have starved to death in Somalia over the past few years. You and I live in societies that stare with gaping horror at a hundred deaths in an airplane crash.
The idea of 300,000 deaths by starvation defies our capacity to sensitively absorb the information. The tragedy is simply too enormous.
Yet - globally - the loss of 300,000 human beings has no biological significance. Population growth will restore 300,000 people in about 29 hours. The deaths of 300,000 people over several years by starvation does not even cause a squiggle in world population charts.
The population explosion is our toughest problem. Solving the population problem is not simply a matter of replacing ignorance with good objective information. Population growth may be the most emotional, judgmental issue on the planet- clouded with religious, cultural and ethnic overtones.
Some clerics want more souls to be delivered to God's greater glory. Some racial minorities greet birth control with cries of genocide. Some males are reluctant to guarantee women the social and economic opportunities, and the reproductive health requirements, that produce smaller family sizes. Some peasants fear starvation unless they have many children to care for them in their old age. And some nations are consciously trying to outbreed their neighbors.
Kenya, whose population has increased four-fold since John Kennedy was elected president, hopes to triple it once again in the next three decades. If successful, this poor nation, steward to some of the most fabulous savanna in the world, will have increased its human population 12-fold in six decades with catastrophic, irreversible consequences for its previously diverse cultures, previously abundant wildlife and the once ample carrying capacity of its land.

Carrying capacity

The most thoughtful recent study of global human carrying capacity was released earlier this year at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science by David Pimental, a biology professor at Cornell. He calculated that if we want to support the world's population at a lifestyle that resembles that in today's industrialized nations (albeit, with much more efficient use of energy and natural resources), the world could support a human population of about 2 billion people.
The bad news is that the world's population is almost three times that high already.
The good news is that we can, in theory, choose to move intelligently toward sustainable population levels, arriving at 2 billion people in about 100 years, if every family in the world began to average 1.5 children. In order not to follow the example of the deer and experience widespread starvation, plague, war, or any other abrupt collapse of the human population, we need merely to limit family size to an average of 1.5 children.
How realistic is this? Germany has already reached it, averaging just 1.5 children per family. Hong Kong has 1.4. Italy - among the most Catholic of all countries - averages 1.3. However, Rwanda averages 8.5; Bolivia averages 4.6; and the United States figure is 2.1 (showing that there is not a lock-step correlation with per capita GNP). The future of the world depends upon whether Kenya and India and Brazil decide to follow the model of Germany and Hong Kong or whether they choose to follow the model of Rwanda and Bolivia.

Our best hope

Today it is possible to sense the beginnings of what could be a sweeping cultural change. There is a mounting concern over the population problem - which is why, despite fierce opposition in some quarters, the United Nations is pressing forward this fall with the largest population conference ever held.
Moreover, with each passing year, we have seen a more profound unease in the soul of the industrial world over the inadequacy of material acquisition as an index of human worth and dignity. In his book, The Little Prince, Antoine Saint-Exupery wrote, "The men where you live raise five thousand roses in the same garden - and they do not find in it what they are looking for. Yet what they are looking for could be found in one single rose.... But the eyes are blind. One must look with the heart."
Individually, we must each find our own roses - the goals and values that will give us a sense of self-worth and dignity. Collectively, we must be guided by a vision of what we hope to build - a vision of prosperity and sustainability that must be more lofty than simple unconstrained material growth.
The recent explosion of interest in sustainable development acknowledges that all investments are not created equal. Some bestow their fruit only on the privileged; others advance social justice. Some are centralized and require authoritarian means of control; others promote decentralization and resilience. Some investments anchor us to the past; others embrace the future.
All investments will increase the GNP, but that by itself is not enough. For a political leader to maximize GNP as his vision for the country is like Beethoven trying to maximize the number of notes in a symphony. Quality - not just quantity - is what makes a symphony, or a nation, something special.
In late 1992, more than 1,600 scientists, including 102 Nobel laureates, signed a "Warning to Humanity" stating that, "No more than one or a few decades remain before the chance to avert the threats we now confront will be lost and the prospects for humanity immeasurably diminished.... A new ethic is required - a new attitude toward discharging our responsibility for caring for ourselves and for the earth.... This ethic must motivate a great movement, convincing reluctant leaders and reluctant governments and reluctant peoples themselves to effect the needed changes."
In other words, if our species is to have a future worth living, we must redefine well-being in a way that recognizes global limits, that brings meaning to our lives, and that constitutes a realistic model for the entire planet.

This is an edited text of a keynote address delivered at Eco-Ciudades: Estiategias Para Ciudades Sostenible (Eco-Cities: Strategiesfor Sustainable Cities), in Barcelona, Spain, April 14, 1994)

Meet Denis Hayes

Denis Hayes is a well known figure in the environmental movement. An environmental lawyer by training, he has published more than 100 articles and papers on energy and the environment. His solar energy book, Rays of Hope, is available in six languages. From 1983 to 1992 he served as adjunct professor of engineering at Stanford, and prior to that he headed the government's $120 million Solar Energy Research Institute.
Mr. Hayes is President of the Bullitt Foundation, an $85 million environmental foundation based in Seattle. He chairs the board of directors of Green Seal, a national consumer organization, and co-chairs CERES, a national coalition of environmentalists and investors promoting corporate environmental responsibility. Somehow, he also finds time to write.
In 1990, Denis was International Chairman of Earth Day, which enlisted 200 million participants in 141 countries. In 1970 he was Executive Director of the first Earth Day - an event often credited with starting the modern environmental movement. Last month, Denis accepted the post of Chairman and CEO of Earth Day USA. You can expect to hear more from him and about him as next year's 25th Anniversary of Earth Day approaches when we expect more than one-half a billion people will take part worldwide. For what you can do to help locally, see our regular Earth Day Every Day page near the back of each issue of Earth Times.