If we keep doing what we're doing,
by Denis Hayes
we'll end up where we're headed
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
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
It may require a fundamental reexamination of what we
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.