Growth vs. evolution

by Carolyn Chase


espite all the education and progress on contraception since 1968 - when most social and technical breakthroughs have been deployed - and resulting in declining birthrates in some places - the number of women still not using family planning is actually greater today than it was 30 years ago. Confronting this makes you much more aware of the scope and scale of human impacts.

The U.S. is the third most populous nation in the world (after China and India), and the fastest growing industrialized nation. At the moment, somewhat more than half of our national population growth comes from natural increase, and the rest from immigration. This means that even reproducing at a "replacement level," because of the momentum our existing numbers, is pushing our population towards 400 million from its current 269 million (as of 12/97).

Population momentum ripples throughout the global environment and underscores the unsustainability of out-of-control growth and consumption. While major advances begin to solve certain problems, they are being overwhelmed by unsustainable growth.

In 1989 the global fish catch peaked at 86 million tons. But it then fell by 7 percent over the next three years. Since 1992 it has hovered at about 80 million tons. The human population has increased by 800 million in the past decade and this means relentless pressures on fisheries. Due to increased technology, all 17 of the world's major fisheries are now fished at or above sustainable levels.

Thanks to enforced efficiency standards, the average fuel economy of new U.S. vehicles nearly doubled between 1974 and 1988. But since then, the average fleet efficiency has declined as the American love affair with cars overcomes environmental common sense and drives through political loopholes. Gas guzzling sport utility vehicles and minivans now make up 45 percent of all new vehicles sold in the U.S. Guess what? They are also not required to meet the same efficiency and pollution standards as regular cars.

Worldwatch Institute reports that soaring sales of high-wattage "torchiere" floor lamps are wiping out conservation measures and other efficiency improvements in the lighting industry. "World sales of the more efficient compact fluorescent lamps increased eight fold between 1988 and 1997. By providing the same light as old-fashioned incandescent bulbs with one-fourth the electricity, CFLs save money and avert pollution. But since the early 90s, low prices have made the halogen floor lamps popular among U.S. college students and others who live or work in rooms that lack built-in, high-quality lighting. These 40 million halogen lamps are now consuming more electricity than the 280 million CFLs are saving."

Worldwatch also reported that in "the United States, Western Europe, and Japan, floor space per person has more than doubled in new single family homes since 1950."

Americans comprise 5% of the world's population, and consume 30% of the world's resources. By the time a baby born today in the U.S. reaches age 75, he will have consumed on average: 4,000 barrels of oil, 54,000 lbs. of plant matter, 64,000 lbs of animal products, and 43 million gallons of water. He will have produced over 3 million lbs of atmospheric waste, 23 million lbs of liquid waste and 3 million lbs of solid wastes. This is our personal Environmental Impact Statement. The average American's "ecological footprint" (the amount of land is take to support our lifestyle) is 22 acres. Compare that with the "fair earth share" which is 5.5 acres.

What is the possibility that all the world's population can live as Americans do? Zero. Sustainability requires confronting that we are reaching the global limits to provide resources and absorb waste for the that peculiarly 20th century man: Homo Americanus Consumptus.

How do we develop without depleting our natural environments? Ongoing support for better family planning approaches can help. If all pregnancies were intentional, the long-term rate of population growth from all sources would decline by about 12 percent.

Another key part of the problem is that most businesses see environmental solutions as too costly. But this is simply wrong. In "Factor Four, Doubling Wealth, Halving Resource Use," Amory and Hunter Lovins and Ernst Von Weizsacker point out, "we are more than ten times better at wasting resources than at using them." This gives us considerable room for improvement.

"A study for the US National Academy of Engineering found that 93% of the materials we buy and consume never end up in saleable products at all. Moreover, 80 percent of products are discarded after a single use. ... yet this wasting disease is curable. The cure comes from the laboratories, workbenches and production lines of skilled scientists and technologists, from the policies and designs of city planners and architects, from the ingenuity of engineers, chemists, and farmers, and form the intelligence of every person. It is based on sound science, good economics and common sense. The cure is using resources efficiently; doing more with less. It is not a question of going backward or 'returning' to prior means. It is the beginning of a new industrial revolution in which we shall achieve dramatic increases in resource productivity.

"Countries engaging in the efficiency revolution become stronger, not weaker, in terms of international competitiveness....the efficiency revolution is bound to become a global trend....those who pioneer the trend will reap the greatest rewards." They go on to show "practical, often profitable ways to use resources at least four times as efficiently as we do now. Or to put it another way, it means we can accomplish everything we do today as well as now, or better, without only one-quarter of the energy and materials we presently use."

This, combined with increased access to education and family planning and valid, enforced environmental standards and regulations, is the sustainable development path we need to be seeking.

Do we value nature enough to protect it and in the process save ourselves? Dr. Peter Raven, world renowned director of the Missouri Botanical Gardens observed: "The world is shared with many others, and is not a series of personal accounts to be drained at will." But we don't live our lives or run our businesses that way, yet. This cultural blind spot must continue to evolve.