Sustainability at the Limits of Consumption and Production

One sentence in the press release about a new report from the UN is so simple it slips by at first: “The Earth, being a finite planet, has a limited capability to supply resources and to absorb pollution.”

Nothing more profound can be said about energy and the environment. There was a time when people lived on this land without concern for the overall supply of resources and without taking seriously the waste they left behind. They treated the environment with what now seems shocking disregard.

There is a remarkable sequence in Mad Men, the widely admired television series set in the early 1960s, in which the show’s main family passes a Sunday afternoon by taking a ride in their new gas-guzzling Cadillac out into the country. As they finish their picnic and prepare to return to the car, the father tells the little boy he can pee on a nearby tree, the mother shakes out the blanket on which they have picnicked – paper refuse and all – on the empty green field, and the father puts his cigarette into a beer can from which he has been sipping and throws it off into the distance. No comment is made. It is merely mid-20th century America over-consuming resources and nonchalantly strewing waste.

Things have changed. The world needs energy, materials and land to sustain the consumption and production that constitute its economy. For entirely self-sustaining reasons, people must learn to prioritize and protect them. Assessing the Environmental Impacts of Consumption and Production; Priority Products and Materials is a study from the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) of the key environmental and resource pressures that will set the priorities. Using a global perspective along with an understanding of regional and local factors, it identifies key materials and resources and describes ways the nations of the world can sustain economic growth without continuing to rape the environment. ::continue::

The assessment, based on a review of established data, is done in 2 steps: (1) A review of the observed pressures and impacts on ecological systems (ecological health, human health, and resources); and (2) the causative economic factors from 3 perspectives.

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The 3 perspectives from which the causative economic pressures on consumption and production are described are: (1) Which production processes have the most impacts? (2) What consumption has the biggest life-cycle impacts? (3) What materials have the most life-cycle impacts?

The key findings:

(1) The great preponderance of evidence shows agriculture and food consumption to be one of the most important sources of environmental pressure (especially habitat change, climate change, water use and toxic emissions).

(2) Fossil fuel energy for heating, transportation, manufacturing and metal refining is equally impactful (causing fossil resource depletion, climate change, and many emissions-related impacts).

(3) Impacts from these things are expected to grow if business proceeds as usual because increasing emissions are “highly correlated” with increasing income and population and economic growth is anticipated. The only way impacts can be mitigated is through significant changes in production and consumption.

(4) “Interlinkages” will make mitigation challenging. Example: Both New Energy infrastructure and electric personal transport require materials that are energy-intensive to obtain and metal refining that is energy intensive. More extensive life-cycle analyses with more complete data can confirm net benefits in transitioning to them.

This good earth, once so abundant, will be tested in the 21st century by human prolificity and human greed. On the earth’s side will be the advocates of doing the right thing the right way. That means pursuing ongoing growth and well-being by using the sun, the wind, the flowing waters, the earth’s own deep heat and the ecosystem’s waste to build a New Energy economy based on principles of sustainability.

Aligned against the earth in coming decades will be the business-as-usual of Big Oil, Big Coal and Big Nuclear, industries that only do the right thing when there is no other alternative. Such business-as-usual gave the world the Gulf oil spill, mountaintop removal coal mining and killer cave-ins, and the unforgettable epithet “Chernobyl” as a description of devastation.

The UNEP report’s measures of sustainability come from full life-cycle analyses of the means of production and the materials of consumption. The key term there is “cycle.” As in cycle of life. The report promises that business-as-usual will bring more Gulf oil catastrophes and sustainability will slip away if the forces of greed and disregard overwhelm the consciousness that everything is part of the cycle.

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This post is based on Towards sustainable production and use of resources: Assessing the environmental impacts of consumption and production: Priority Products and Materials (2 June 2010, United Nations Environment Program)

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