• Getting to Green

    An administrator pushes, on a shoestring budget, to move his university and the world toward a more sustainable equilibrium.


Sustainability commandment #6

Understanding the implications of finitude.

December 11, 2014

Don't consume any resource that doesn't regenerate; don't use up any capacity that can't restore itself.

This sixth commandment is, in a sense, a direct corollary of the first.  Thus, I expected it to be easy to think through, and to write about.  Turns out I was wrong.

For most of my time as a campus sustainability administrator and advocate, I've thought of "don't use finite resources" as an absolute.  Part of that is a reaction to modern society's tendency to hurry up and utilize any resource before it runs out.  Which is, of course, pretty much a guarantee that it's going to run out.  Running our of resources is pretty much the opposite of sustainability.  But part of my formulation of this as an absolute rule has been, in all truth, an attempt to get students' attention.  To strike a radical, yet logically defensible, position well outside the realm of the normal.  To try to get them to recognize not just a particular sustainability problem, but the pattern of sustainability problems as a class.

Upon further reflection, however, I realize that to prohibit the use of any resource simply because it's finite is to treat the resource as if it doesn't exist at all.  I mean, if you can't allow yourself to use it, does it really qualify as a "resource"?  More important, and more realistic, is to get students -- and, ultimately, modern society -- to engage with the finite nature of specific resources (fossil resources, ores, fresh clean water, etc.) and to manage the use of each on the basis of its finitude.  Not to consume any finite resource for one-time temporary convenience (like burning fossils as fuel).  Not to discard any product made from a finite resource, but rather to recapture the material of the product for future reuse.  (This is what makes recycling of paper fundamentally different from recycling of steel and aluminum cans: the main benefit of recycling paper is future minimization of a highly polluting pulping process, while the main benefit of recycling metals is future reduction of demand for a finite supply of various ores (not that metal refining processes aren't also pollution generators)).

So my thinking, at the moment, is that some portion of finite resources should be available for use, but that the amount has to be limited by a sense of proportionality to the number of people who will ever inhabit the planet.  Which is to say that given some logically generated estimate of peak human population on the Earth (and I know I've seen something along this line, somewhere), the percentage of any finite resource which we can afford to have used -- since the dawn of civilization -- is the percentage of peak population at which we now stand.  If we're at 60% of the maximum population we ever expect to achieve (and yes, global population growth is itself a problem), then we can allow ourselves to have used (captured the value of, for perpetual re-use) 60% of the planet's stock of any finite resource.

In practice, at the present time, it probably doesn't make much difference.  In practice, we've already gone far beyond proportionate consumption of pretty much all the finite resources on which modern society depends.  In practice, we need to stop drawing upon them in their raw form, creating future value from reuse of products and materials already created rather than from the endless creation of new product from virgin materials.  We're in a hole.  We need to stop digging.

It's the "we're in a hole" part that probably offers the greatest opportunity for teaching this lesson of sustainability.  Because, for decades, what we've been teaching our students of all ages under twenty-two is that we're on a mountaintop.  Look at any social studies text through middle school level, or any introductory social science text for high school or college students -- there's an underlying emphasis on society's (particularly, our society's) successes.  The fact that societies can fail -- indeed, that more societies have failed throughout history than have succeeded -- is given only nodding acknowledgement.  Cultures have collapsed.  Civilizations have disappeared.  But with the exception of a civilization disappearing as a result of military conquest, these relatively frequent occurrences are given only nodding acknowledgement.  The implication is that modern civilizations are far too grand -- far too successful -- ever to succumb to their own unsustainable resource requirements or other internal contradictions.  A responsible teaching of history, or of any social science, should emphasize the many failures that have occurred, not just the string of successes which happens to have led us to where we are today.  After all, good judgment comes from experience, but experience comes from bad judgment.  We learn more from failures than from successes, but only if we allow ourselves (and our students) to recognize and interrogate instances of failure.  Perhaps honors students majoring in the social sciences now learn significantly about instances of social failure before they graduate, but non-majors clearly do not.  It's in the survey courses, both for majors and not, that consideration of social failure most needs to be introduced.

Similarly, teachers of the humanities can engage -- should engage -- with the societal assumptions that underlie specific pieces of art or literature.  That contribute to particular schools or movements or moods.  That shape, and are shaped by, social experiences and attitudes.  What stories get told, what myths get perpetuated, in what places and times and under what circumstances -- these are the perspectives that (at least to my mind) make the humanities relevant and interesting and powerful.  And they're perspectives that position students better to understand how human actions change the surrounding realities, which changes then come back to affect the human condition.  Again, survey courses set the stage, and the tone.

Sure, when we talk about natural resource utilization, there's material galore for economists, metallurgists, engineers, and the students who hope one day to become all the above.  But there's also plenty of substantive material with which the social sciences and humanities can profitably engage.  And probably should.


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