Thursday, October 29, 2009

Sustainable Living Rethinking the Approach

When I moved from city living to the outer edge of the suburbs sustainable living became a much more complicated topic and approach to life. In the city, sustainable living had been straight forward low impact green living. Work as an environmental consultant, recycle, choose well in purchases (local food, wine and other products), conserve water, limit travel, limit car use, live without heat or air conditioning (which is not particularly difficult in San Francisco). My footprint on the earth felt small. However, here on the outer edge of the suburbs the topic becomes much more complicated and I no longer have a firm definition of what sustainable living is, and I need to rethink sustainability and expand my view. First the easy, we do not commute beyond the walls of our home, but sustainable living is a complicated topic that needs to be fully explored.

Over the next several days let’s look at the various definitions of sustainable living. Sustainability has its earliest roots in the tools developed to assess the environmental, social and economic activities of life. The first approach that I am aware of was IPAT.
Impact = Population × Affluence × Technology
Affluence and technology were believed to worsen the impact of humanity on the natural world. This theory is attributed to Barry Commoner, Paul R. Ehrlich and John Holdren in 1971. The equation was developed in the 1970s during the course of a debate between them. Commoner who argued that environmental impacts in the United States were caused primarily by changes in its production technology following World War II, while Ehrlich (Population Bomb, 1968) and Holdren while emphasizing the role of population growth, argued that all three factors were important. There was a strong movement in the 1970’s for zero population growth and John Holdren and Paul Ehrlich strongly supported population control.

The past 28 years have given us the opportunity to evaluate these point of views. Despite widespread fears amongst environmentalists that populations would continue to expand at an exponential rate until checked by plague and famine, in recent years world population growth has slowed as women are having fewer children. This phenomenon is believed to be a result of a variation in the demographic transition theory in developed nations, as people become richer, mortality rates drop and they have fewer children. As a result, the UN believes that human population might stabilize around 9 billion by 2100. Of course, the supporters of population control questions if the earth can support 9 billion people in a sustainable fashion. I do not know what life on earth a hundred years from now will be.

History shows that Barry Commoner was more right than wrong. As time goes on we see the power of technology of production and living to change our impact on the earth. Affluence and technology have worked together in the United States to promote pollution prevention, remediation and environmental awareness. It is in the rich, developed countries that the air becomes clearer, the streams cleaner and the forests and preserves more expansive. It appears that after industrial development the next stage of an industrialized society, is environmentalism. The environmental movement and technology join together to reduce and prevent pollution in a number of industries. Waste reduction and point source reduction are the great successes of the second stage of industrial revolution. Technology can potentially take the next step into product reduction, by delivering services electronically. Consider, information and music. Just as we moved from vinyl, to CD’s to electronic music files, I am afraid that IPAT approach is very vinyl in this analysis. It appears that technology will deliver new aspects of life that are more electronic than physical, efficiencies will improve.

Currently, sustainability is tied in the public consciousness with ecological or carbon footprint. Next we will look at the carbon footprint as a method of determining an maintaining a sustainable existence.

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