The Promise of Sustainable Consumption

Human civilization is reaching the limits of the traditional linear economic model which supposes the planet to be an infinite source for industrial raw materials and an infinite sink for industrial waste. Fortunately for us, much of this waste never left the planet and can be found mostly in landfills in the ground. Enter the "Sustainable Consumption" model, where industrial processes will supposedly be redesigned to have little or no waste and raw materials that enter into the system will be constantly recycled. The energy needed to run these processes will be derived from plentiful renewable sources such as solar or wind power and thus a new era of potentially limitless consumption can be created.

The utopian promise of such a technological solution is that it requires no change in human behavior, practices or culture. However, the one major problem with this developmental model is that it doesn't apply to the biological world. As human numbers increase and wealthy humans insist on eating like apex predators in the food chain, ecosystems are collapsing and Life, as we know it, is diminishing. According to the latest ecological footprint calculations, humans are already consuming 40% more biological resources than the planet is regenera..., with the net result that as much as 30,000 species are going extinct every year. When ecosystems collapse, it is next to impossible to put them back together as biologists haven't even catalogued the majority of species that were an integral part of those ecosystems. Prof. Edward O. Wilson of Harvard equates this task to that of unscrambling a plate of scrambled eggs in a futile attempt to put the yolk and whites back in the broken egg shell.

One word of caution for those who are confident that human ingenuity will always find a technological solution to whatever nature may throw at us: "Katrina". That disaster has vacuumed up $100 billion in resources and after nearly 5 years, the most technologically advanced society on the planet still hasn't put New Orleans back in order. This for a natural disaster that displaced a mere 200,000 people from that city.

Now imagine that Nature displaces some 200 million people from their homes some time in the future. In proportion, wouldn't we need to spend $100 trillion and the next 5000 years to put those lives back in order?