Our vision of the future can often be summarized as a wish to prolongate the trends, particularly in economic matters. The objective is then not defined in absolute terms (the goal would then be to achieve a given level of material comfort) but in relative terms : we must do next year a little bit more than what we did last year.
How long can we operate this way ? Is it sustainable ? Some people define “sustainable development” as a “development” (let’s say an evolution) that “allows the present generations to satisfy their needs without preventing the future generations to satisfy theirs”.
Even if it is not possible to associate a particular world to such a definition, one can say that what is “sustainable” can at least be prolongated over a long period of time without leading to dead ends most probably impossible to manage for our descendants, or without turning the world into something much more uncomfortable than what we know.
It is clear that the expresssion “sustainable development” is a contradiction in itself : no development is sustainable, only equilibrium has a chance to be ! We should rather use such expressions as “sustainable evolution”, or “sustainable harmony” if we want to be a little “mystic”. “Sustainable growth” and “sustainable development” are syntaxic nonsense.
If we want to be “sustainable”, it is not necessarily easy to know how to do. However, it is pretty easy to define what is not “sustainable” : we just have to characterize the dead-end. I have tried to do so regarding a couple of “non sustainable” trends below. One should otherwise note that a “need” does not correspond to an objective notion, except for what pertains to vital needs (breathing, eating, sleeping, and reproducing) : what we now define as a “need”, for which it would be morally inacceptable to prevent the satsifaction (for example individual mobility at 60 mph) would probably not have been qualified as such a couple of centuries ago ! And the “needs” of a French farmer of the 15th century were certainly inferior to those of a farmer of an “underdevelopped country” of the year 2000.
Therefore, apart from the vital needs, there are no true “needs”, only wishes or desires, but that might not be always compatible over a long period of time.
The economic “development” based on the perpetual growth of the material production (which is presently the case) is not sustainable
We won’t be able to live forever in a growing economy, at least with the “economy” looking more or less like what it is today. Let’s recall that the “growth” designates the increase of the production from one year to the next. When we are “growing”, it thus means that we produce more wealth a given year than the previous one.
We tend to forget it : despite the “demateralization” of the economy, which results in the fact that a growing share of the wealth produced is intangible, when the economy “grows”, not only does the overall production increase in value, but the industrial output in volume also increases, and with it the consumption of raw materials (various ores, hydrocarbons, etc).
Productivity increases, in a globally unchanged context, often lead to an increase of the global consumption : as less resources (thus less raw materials) are required to manufacture a given good, the production price of the latter decreases, and hence the solvent market increases, and generates an increase of sales that lead to an increase of the global consumption of resources (in other terms the unitary gains on the production of one good are more than balanced by the increase of the sales).
Can we indefinitely increase our consumptions of raw materials of all kind ? Obviously not : I did not go into the details, but copper, nickel, aluminium, iron ores, etc, and not present on earth in illimitate amounts. Apart for hydrocarbons, for which major problems will probably occur within a couple decades, and that furthermore generate climate change, it would be interesting to know at what time horizons will the first major dead-ends occur.
In a way, without modifying our lifestyles, which means with an economy that can operate only on a flow of non renewable resources, the stronger the growth, the quicker the “end”. If one considers this position as valid (it is supported by good arguments), then the stronger the growth and the worse the news for our descendants. Some say that Keynes was not far from this conclusion…
The growth of fossil fuels consumption
The present fossil fuel consumption is not sustainable : if we prolongate the trends, the world will have consumed all the oil, gas and coal proven reserves in 50 years. And the more we increase our consumption, the more we increase our dependancy of our economy to these sources of energy. Besides climate change problems, the end of the story, except if we are “saved” by the fast implementation of another way to produce energy, is obvious : war.
Just figure out a world where oil, gas and coal – and therefore electricity in most countries, as only 20% is produced out of nuclear or renewables in rough figures – would have suddently vanished : everything that makes our modern comfort – or even allows our survival : without tractors, 50% of the population must go back to the fields ! – vanishes along.
Well the more we increase our dependancy on fossil fuels (which is presently the case) and the more vulnerable we will be when this source of energy will progressively vanish (because there is no discussion on the fact that it will). And there is no need to be a great historian to know that one of the classical answers of populations, when there is a shortage of a resource indispensable in the short term, is the appropriation of the ultimate resources by the most powerful to the detriment of the least powerful, which means war if the least powerful intend to resist (including variants like civil wars, massive riots, etc) or more or less explicit slavery.
Transportation is directly concerned by a consequence of all this : their increase – that goes along with an increase of the consumption of fossil fuels – is not sustainable, and even not their remaining at the present level. A brutal summary of this though might be to say that our present tropism for cars and planes might bring us war someday.
It is interesting to note that nobody questions the least the objective – that seems most obvious to its supporters – of the various world financial institutions (IMF, World Bank, etc) to “sustain” a world economic growth of 4 to 5% per year (present rate) for the coming decades. What does the prolongation of such a growth rate yield over a long period of time ?
World economic output in 2050 compared to 2000 depending on the mean annual growth rate from 2000 to 2050.
(the output in 2000 is worth 1 by convention).
For example, maintaining a 3,3% growth rate over 50 years leads to a multiplication of the output by 5 in 50 years.
One can see that over 50 years (which is less than what separates us from the end of the Second World War) an average annual growth rate of 4% of the world economy leads to a multiplication by 7 in 2050, and an average annual growth rate of 5% leads to a multiplication by 11. Assuming a 2% increase of the energy efficiency per year, energy consumption would increase by 2% to 3% per year (which is about what we witness today), and energy consumption would be multiplied by 2,7 to 4,4 in 2050 (and without a modification of the energy mix the greenhouse gases emissions would increase accordingly : we are far from Kyoto !!).
The same calculation can be performed on any raw material consumption : we take the average annual growth rate of the economy, substract the average annual growth rate of efficiency increase (generally inferior), and we prolongate this over a long period. The multiplicative factors obtained are always impressive.
Besides transportation has a tendancy to grow faster than the economy itself (what has been witnessed during the last years). Assuming that 4% of economic growth generate a 7% increase of the world trafic (air trafic is presently not far from 10% per year, and some économists admit that the trafic grows almost twice faster than the economy), in 50 years the trafic would be multiplied by… 30 !! (far righ on the above curve).
Such an evolution is obviously not sustainable. The only good question is not to wonder whether it will last forever, but when and how all this stops.
Improvements of medicine and pharmaceuticals
In a century only the life expectancy has almost doubled in all occidental countries : it was a little above 45 ans at the beginning of the 20th century, and is around 75 years now.
The life expectancy (at birth) of cavemen is thought to have been comprised between 15 to 20 years, and life expectancy was around 20 years at the beginning of the christian era : in a couple million years, the gain has not gone over a couple years. Then it took 20 centuries (from the roman times up to 1900) to get to 45 years. Then just a century to get from 45 to 75 years.
Let’s have fun and prolongate this speeding up : the life expectancy in “rich” countries would soar to several centuries in 2100… (this extrapolation, as amazing at it may seen, is employed in a US department, only I don’t remember which one….). Is it impossible ? If one assumes that in a couple decades it will be possible to transplant kidneys, hearts, and livers artificial or obtained from clones or transgenic animals, that genetic engineering will allo to eliminate before birth – or even at the time of fecondation, why not ? – all know genetic diseases, that “Bionic Man” is not totally science fiction ever more, etc, it is indeed not totally stupid to suppose that the richer might live much longer than today (only this also assumes that the energy supply will evolve accordingly, because it requires a stable and ever richer world to be able to invest more and more means in keeping people alive for a long time).
It is obvious that such an evolution (the everlasting increase of the life expectancy for the whole humanity) is not “sustainable”, except if we do not wish to have kids any more (because death is a necessary mechanism to make room for the newcomers…). The question – to which nobody has the answer, but it does not forbid to discuss it – is : should there be a limit to our efforts to become immortals ? When does the prolongation of our life expectancy becomes a strong nuisance for our kids, or even for ourselves ?
Besides, the older we become and the more the other tendancies leading to dead-ends will be difficult to reverse (particularly the increase of the energy consumption per person) : it is easier to do without a car or to heat less when one is young and healthy….
In France, a quick calculation shows that the present rate of land use for new constructions would result in a full urbanization of our country in… 160 years only. This might not be incompatible with our survival : it is probably possible to grow wheat or trees on roofs. But is maintaining a construction sector in good shape worth this price ?
Here also, this evolution (city spreading, because that’s how land use is evolving) reinforces the other dead-ends : the more we live “far from everything” and the more difficult it will be to do without a car, thus without oil !
Forests presently cover 25% or emerged land, which is about 35 million km². They are cleared at the pace of 0,15 million km2 per year (average from 1980 to 1995), for the time being only in tropical forests (still this represents the surface of France in 3 years). Just do a quick division : a prolongation of the trend means that in 2 centuries there will not be any forests left, and no tropical forest left much before (sometimes the figure of half a century is put forward : we might as well say one second compared to historical time scales). As the rate of clearing seems to accelerate, it is actually likely that in case of prolongation of the present trend, the outcome would be even closer than 2 centuries.
Are forests indispensable to humanity ? Probably not to survive, though one might wonder about their role in the functions of recycling elements and eliminating waste from the biosphere. As there has always been forests since the animal world exists, it is probably pretty difficult to give a definite answer to this question anyway.
But forests are a acknowledged as a source of comfort : even if man can dream to do without them, they fulfill an important role in local climates, in water purification, in the preservation of biodiversity, in resource production (for wood), not to mention its “appeasing” role that each of us has been able to experience directly. Their vanishing would definitely not be an improvement for many inhabitants of the planet.
Uniformity is making progress everywhere :
- The rate of extinction of living species increases quickly. In 2001, the United Nations considered that 25% of mammals, 12% of birds, 25% of reptiles, 20% of amphibians and 30% of fish (mostly freshwater) were on the verge of extinction : they will most probably be eradicated from the surface of the Earth within a couple decades. Species that have increasing or stable populations are those we have domesticated, and they are the same in the Netherlands and in Brazil (cows, dogs…). All the others have declining populations, with rare exceptions.
- Architecture. A century ago, building was not the same in Beijing and in London. Today, it is. It results in an obvious loss of diversity.
- Langage : do you speak english ? Internet will not encourage a reversal of this trend!
- Food. The rate of uniformization is not very fast, but clearly the tendancy is not to differenciation!
- Cultural production (songs, movies…)
I could go on and on with examples. Is such an evolution sustainable ? The asymptotous situation is a perfectly homogeneous situation whatever region of the world is considered, the only remaining difference – transient as long as this evolution persists – being the fraction of the population which is concerned, the poor remaining out of this evolution and being, paradoxally, the last representatives of diversity (a poor doesn’t live the same in Bangkok and in Paris, but a rich does !).
What are the risks of uniformity ?
- A lower resistance to systemic risks. It is well known that a diversified population is more resistant to risks (like diseases for example) than a uniform one,
- Boredom : once uniformity is achieved, people get bored. And God only knows what foolish things bored people are able to do…
This little list – that could be prolongated on and on – has no other pretention that highlighting one point : prolongating the pace of evolution (or the acceleration) that we impulse to the world – unknown before the modern times – would bring pretty quickly totally absurd or most probably unbearable situations. We are at a turn in history, our species having gained, through our number and our unitary power, an ability to modify our environment and our own organism that has never been known before in the history of the living world.
We are for some points probably far closer to a brutal inflexion than we imagine. Of course, repeating that “we have always successfully delt with every problem so far, so we will manage with this one also” is a sophism : with the same reasoning, I may consider myself immortal, since I always woke up alive so far… And it is also forgetting a little quickly that the “solution” to some past problems have been pretty painful : before Europe overcame the demons that took hold of it during the beginning of the 20th century (german-french rivalry, bolchevik revolution) the price paid has been of several ten million deaths….
Regarding the future, some time horizons (a couple decades) are not further away that the end of our own existence or that of our kids, that we otherwise send to school to ensure they have a “better future”. Are we so sure that we actively prepare it through our daily behaviour ?