Sustainability science: The word science suggests pursuit of ‘scientific knowledge’. But what is scientific knowledge? Let us have a closer look at what the acquisition of scientific knowledge is in practice. Suppose you are concerned about air pollution and set up an experiment to measure the concentration of substance X in a well-defined area. The measuring tool is itself a specimen of scientific development. The result of your experiment is a series of concentration values at given location p and time t, c(p,t). Building upon atmospheric physics and chemistry, you interpret the results in terms of dynamic cause-and-effect processes. Such a description, framed in the formal language of mathematics, is called a scientific model.
You realise that it is actually the impact of air pollution that matters, so you decide to explore impact on the forest in the area. With the help of ecologists, you do additional experiments and extend the model. The concentration values c(p,t) are now inputs to descriptions of the various trees in the forest. They are a measure of the exposure of the simulated trees to external factors. Because the tree dynamics are relatively slow, longitudinal experiments have to be set up (>5 years). The result of these experiments are an indication of the sensitivity of the various trees for the particular exposure c(p,t).
When individual human beings began to experience the first flashes of consciousness, there must have been an emerging anxiety about death of the individual. Biology may have dictated the individual to put the survival of the species above that of the individual, but individual physical survival became the preoccupation that determined actions, emotions and ideas, albeit extended to the nearest members of family and tribe. Whenever threats to survival were absent, the individual and his kin could pursue other qualities of life such as improved shelter and clothing. It was here when development of the individual, and with it society, started.
Survival and reproduction of the individual and his kin has for ages been the main if not only sustainability concern for humans. Only a few individuals broadened their horizons and interests to larger areas and longer periods – the kings and priests in recorded history. But, as seen in Chapter 3, levels of quality of life above mere subsistence could rarely be sustained for more than a dozen of generations and for more than a few small elite populations. For the majority of people, individual suffering from illness, strenuous labour, oppressive overlords or natural disasters was never absent or far away. One response to these realities of life was military valour and conquest – the way of the warrior. Another one was transcending the individual self, in art, love, sacrifice, meditation and compassion – the way of artists, philosophers and priests.
Early human groups were completely dependent upon their natural environment. They were confronted with changes of catastrophic immediacy such as earthquakes, and slow but no less impactful issues, such as changing courses or drying out of rivers and changes in climate and vegetation. These changes presented threats as well as opportunities and risks as well as challenges. Populations responded with outmigration into new areas with better opportunities or with attempts at increasing control of plants and animals. Indeed, the capacity to adapt to a variety of environmental situations may well be the most remarkable characteristic of the homo faber sapiens: ‘All mankind shares a unique ability to adapt to circumstances and resolve the problems of survival. It was this talent that carried successive generations of people into many niches of environmental opportunity that the world has to offer – from forest to grassland, desert, seashore and icecap. And in each case, people developed ways of life appropriate to the particular habitats and circumstances they encountered. Farming, fishing, hunting, herding and technology are all expressions of the adaptive talent that has sustained mankind thus far’ (Reader (1988) 7–8).
With the broad brush of Big History, one can distinguish several regimes in the existence of homo on earth. The first one was the fire regime, in which the control of fire was the determining feature (Goudsblom 1992). The transition from hunting-gathering to agriculture and herding was the second large regime shift. This transition is called the agrarianisation process, a better name than agricultural revolution because it was a rather slow process with local characteristics. Humans gradually expanded into nearly all corners of the earth, a phenomenon we call extensive growth, and created increasingly larger opportunities for more efficient exploitation of resources, the equivalent of intensive growth. It led to stronger interactions between humans and their natural environment, with a more sedentary lifestyle and new techniques and forms of social organisation. In particular, urbanisation did allow activities and exchanges that prompted relationships and innovations that might not otherwise have occurred.
When you open a newspaper, any newspaper, there is a big chance you will encounter the term sustainable development. Introduced to a broader public in the 1980s with the publication of the UN's report Our Common Future, sustainable development has become common vocabulary. The word ‘development’ is commonly used to indicate growth, not only in quantity, but primarily in quality. The word ‘sustainable’ refers to something that can or should last. The idea of sustainable development reflects one of the leading aspirations of humankind in the 21st century, not unlike the idea of socialism in the early 20th century. It has become a modern equivalent of, and complement to, the Declaration of Human Rights, formulated shortly after the devastating Second World War. Civil society organisations have pushed sustainable development forward; respected business and government leaders now hail it as the foremost challenge for the 21st century.
Inevitably, such an aspiration or ideal accommodates a large variety of explanations, objectives and proposals. These are intertwined with personal and collective values and perceptions, which are in turn rooted in millennia of developments shaping human experiences, knowledge, technical skills and social arrangements. Given the human population's continous growth and its use of the planet as a source of resources and a sink of waste, humanity needs an ongoing dialogue that slowly converges to a widely shared vision on the theory and practise of sustainable development.
Although past civilisations are a source of imagination and insight, present-day concern about (un)sustainability is anchored largely in the exponential growth of population and economic activity in the last few centuries. These growth processes are part of what is known as the Industrial Revolution. Industrialisation occurred in many places throughout Western Europe at roughly the same time, although with locally specific features. It is rooted in the commercial and trade capitalism of medieval Europe (Braudel 1979). A series of events and trends since 1700 mutually interacted and boosted manufacturing and trading of goods in a successful mixture of science, technology and capitalism. It reinforced the process of European colonial expansion. The European ‘offshoots’ in America and Australia underwent similar transformations as Europe. A collectivist form of industrialisation took place in Russia after the revolution. The larger part of the human population, however, still lived a traditional agricultural life at modest levels of population growth and economic output until the middle of the 20th century. Only after 1950, they started to experience similar processes of change.
This chapter explores in some detail the important changes that came with the Industrial Revolution and modernity. Perhaps Churchill was right when he said, ‘The further backward you look, the further forward you can see’. In any event, some knowledge and understanding of what happened in the last 300 years is essential for an interpretation of our present situation and an exploration of what a sustainable future might look like. For that reason, I briefly survey demographic and economic trends, aspects of governance and globalisation, and socio-cultural trends. In the last section, two generic concepts are introduced as descriptive tools that can put the changes in a different perspective. The topic is vast, so I refer the reader to the suggested literature for further reading.
The scientific worldview cannot give meaning in itself to our lives and it cannot resolve the ethical questions surrounding sustainability issues. The scientific ‘facts’ about the world, important and accurate as they may be, have to be complemented with what people value and believe. It is time to have a look at the more subjective, personal side of the quest for sustainable development. Are there empirical data and theoretical concepts about the subjective side of sustainability?
Previously I have stated that sustainable development is about quality of life. But what is quality of life – are we merely shifting the problem? Sustainable development is to act here and now in such a way that the conditions for a (decent/high) quality of life elsewhere and later are not eroded. But for whom and for how long? Throughout history, individuals have struggled to realise their idea of ‘the good life’, by exploiting environmental opportunities and cooperating with and oppressing others. Since the dawn of civilisation philosophers have reflected on what ‘the good life’ entails. What can we learn from them?
This book is the outcome of eight years of teaching the course Sustainability Science for students of the M.Sc. in Sustainable Development at Utrecht University. Its aim is to give a broad overview of what the sciences have to say about sustainable development. To this purpose, it offers a mixture of concepts, theories, models and facts and an invitation to the student to become a critical, independent thinker and to act accordingly.
The book can be used at the B.Sc. level as part of an introductory course or at the M.Sc. level as context for other courses and M.Sc. theses. For most chapters, a high school or college background should be sufficient, but some capacity for abstract thinking is needed. As an introduction into the concept of sustainability and sustainable development issues, it is useful for people in NGOs, government agencies and business who are interested in framing the discourse from multiple perspectives and different scientific disciplines. It can help them to make better decisions for life on a finite planet.
At the dawn of the environmental movement in the 1960s and 1970s, there was increasing concern about the damage done by humans to nature – and nature protection and conservation were the stated goals. Ecology and the emerging environmental sciences were at the forefront. With the advent of the idea of sustainable development in the 1980s, more emphasis was put on the legitimate aspirations of many people to (material) well-being, that is, development. There was also an increasing realisation that natural systems are always changing and evolving, and that not much ‘undisturbed nature’ had been left after millennia of human evolution.
Nevertheless, ecology is still considered by many the core of sustainability science. The word is derived from the Greek οικοσ, house, and λογοσ, reason or idea, and it is, in a broad sense, the art and science of seeing things as a whole. As such, it has its formal scientific offshoots in theoretical and systems ecology, and its more social and transcendent expressions in social and human ecology. Its core idea has also shaped new bridging disciplines like landscape ecology and environmental and ecological economics. Ecology supports a rich interpretation of sustainability and a broad view of the environment-development nexus. It should not be confounded with environmental science, which has branched out in more practical and applied forms across various disciplines (chemistry, economics and others). Ecology is crucial for understanding the theory and practise of sustainable development, and more than one chapter should be devoted to it. This is not possible so I refer to some textbooks in the Suggested Reading.
Introduction: The Industrial Regime
Until the 18th century agriculture dominated the human economy, with almost everywhere an important role for landed aristocracy, urban military and merchant elites and religious institutions. Around 1750, a new social-ecological regime began: the industrial regime. The beginnings were small, and hardly noticeable to most contemporaries. While human history over the past 10,000 years has been the history of the agrarianisation of the world, the history over the past 250 years has been the history of industrialisation. The metabolic profile of the agrarian socio-ecological regime and the industrial one are quite different (Schandl et al. 2009; §4.3). In the industrial regime, energy and material use per capita is three to five times higher than in agrarian societies. Population densities tend to be three to ten times higher, energy and material use densities even ten to thirty times higher than in agrarian societies. The fraction of biomass in energy supply is a factor three to then lower.
The industrial regime operates on finite stocks that are produced in nature at rates close to zero on a human timescale, hence the name non-renewable resources. They are often referred to as minerals, from the Latin minerale, which means something mined, although later it broadened to ‘substances neither animal nor vegetable’. Most importantly and already known and used in antiquity are sand, salt, glass, limestone and of course metals, and for a few centuries also fossil fuels. Mining and processing minerals to make metal objects has a history of several millennia. Ancient Egypt was renowned for its rich gold, copper, silver and tin mines. There has probably been silver (Ag) mining in Greece since 3500 Before Present (BP): In the 5th century, between ten and thirty thousand miners were at work in the mines of Laureion. A reconstruction of the exploitation history of lead (Pb), from measurements of lead concentrations in Swedish lake sediments, put the first mining back to the period 4000–3500 BP. Concentrations rose towards a peak during the Roman period (2150–1550 BP), declined thereafter and started to rise again with the industrial revolution. It mirrors the European history of lead use of about 300 tons per year (t/yr) in 2700 BP to an estimated 80,000 t/yr around 1950 CE. Mining and processing of minerals for iron (Fe), copper (Cu) and other metals has also increased exponentially.
Introduction: The Image of Man
The previous chapter looked at ‘nature’ through the lens of geography and ecology. But almost everywhere, ‘nature’ has been influenced by ‘culture’. The word culture is rooted in the Latin word colere, which means to tend or till the land but is also related to cultus and cultivate in the sense of care, labour and worship. The relation between nature and culture is an ancient philosophical question. How deeply are you rooted in ‘nature’ and how much and what kind of freedom can be realised in ‘culture’? The narratives about past societies give provisional answers. This chapter focuses more explicitly on the species Homo sapiens in nature.
One can see nature as fundamentally subservient to human interests, as it is phrased in some biblical texts and entrenched in modernity, or as a cosmos in which humans participate as it is experienced in most pre-modern religions and modern forms of ecospirituality (Figure 8.5). Clearly, there is more than one answer to the question of how we see ourselves in nature. Are people not much more than instinct-driven animals? Are human beings the pinnacle of evolution, on the verge of a revolutionary jump in cosmic consciousness? Are we, basically, rational survival-oriented individuals with an ever larger array of tools to control our destiny? Or are we all of this? There is a huge perennial philosophy at our disposal as source of reflection and insight. Philosophers like Wilber (2001) build an integrated psychological-spiritual view in the footsteps of ancient traditions, incorporating novel scientific insights. Social scientists have developed grand theories from which some major characteristics of men as social beings emerge (§5.2; Table 6.3). Biologists and economists have their own particular image of man. The latter prefer to see men as rational beings; the former emphasise the biological roots in an evolutionary framework.
Introduction: The Essential Resource
Energy in the form of heat and work has always been crucial for human beings. Wood usage as a source of heat goes as far back as the control of fire. Wind and water have been used for millennia, but the most important source of mechanical energy until a few centuries ago was the labour of domestic animals and human beings (peasants and slaves). This all changed with the discovery of fossil fuels as a source of high-density chemically stored energy.
Coal was already known as a fuel in early dynastic China and ancient Rome. It was used for heating in medieval Europe but was considered inferior to wood because of its foul smoke. Moreover, it was harder to obtain in most places. Under the pressure of wood shortage in 17th-century England, coal became a more common fuel. Chimneys protected people from the immediate effects of smoke. By 1700, the fraction of coal in energy use in the United Kingdom exceeded already 50 percent (Figure 7.1). With the invention of the steam engine, its use got another boost. Like the use of coal, the principle of the steam engine had been discovered long before, in both the Chinese and Roman empires. At those early stages, no practical uses were found for it. In 18th-century England, however, circumstances were highly propitious. Initially, the steam engine was developed as a device for pumping water from the coal mine shafts, which made the coal more easily accessible. In turn, the cheaper coal was used to power other steam engines, some of them propelling the ships and locomotives that transported coal to the growing number of users. This further lowered the cost and expanded the market. In 1850, coal supplied over 90 percent of energy use in the United Kingdom. It was one of those positive reinforcing feedback processes that ignited the industrial revolution. But more was to come.
An Archetypical Model
The industrialisation process, and the transition to a next regime, which is in full swing but still not easily recognised and interpreted, consists of several changes in succession (§8.6). I consider the postindustrial transition process a change from low income and low resource use levels towards a new equilibrium at high- and stable income and resource use levels. In stylised form, it can be summarised in seven items:
a positive feedback process drives the growth of income (€/cap/yr), which leads to (exponential) growth in activity chains;
the chains consist of exploration and extraction of resources, followed by processing into manufactured goods, use and discarding;
fossil fuels are an essential high-quality energy resource, that enables in combination with capital and knowledge accumulation a steady increase in labour productivity;
the resource intensity of income (mass/€) first rises and then declines with income (IU hypothesis);
the externalities along the chain: resource depletion, pollution impacts and waste accumulation, are initially not perceived and not priced;
with a delay, externalities are incorporated in the resource price in response to complaints of the more affluent citizens (EKC hypothesis);
the rising resource price stimulates a process of cost- and pollution-reducing innovations and the development of substitutes and alternatives.
The affluent countries are in the later stages of the transition; in the low-income countries, the first stages can be identified although the details depend on local circumstances and there may be jumps (‘leapfrogging’). The possibilities to import resources from abroad, the vulnerability of the natural environment and the worldviews and behaviour of people are important determinants of how the transition will unfold. In this chapter, I focus on the techno-economic aspects.
Introduction: The Human Habitat
The topic of a previous chapter is ‘pristine’ nature, but pristine nature is becoming scarce. Human populations have been very successful as a species and now have impact upon one-third or more of the biosphere. Humans have always interfered with the natural environment: Agriculture and pastoralism are sustained forms of manipulation of plants and animals. During the process of agrarianisation, they have learned to exploit soils, fish and forests for the provision of food, fiber and fuel. The larger part of the world population is still engaged in agriculture, and food production is still the most direct and largest interface between humans and nature. In monetary terms, agricultural products make up only a few percent of gross world product (GWP), partly because subsistence agriculture is outside conventional economic statistics. If food processing, transporting and retailing are considered, the economic role is much larger and in the order of 8 percent. But in physical terms, agriculture and the larger food system are of enormous importance. This chapter explores sustainability issues in present-day agricultural populations and systems. Agriculture is understood here in the broad sense of agroecology and the agro-food systems in the world, from local production to global trading and processing. It connects the Latin words colere and ager, the latter meaning field.
There are many ways in which human populations interfere with the ‘natural’ world of biogeochemical cycles and ecosystems. Although one can discern some universal tendencies in human-environment interactions, farming and animal husbandry are intrinsically local and the natural cycles still dictate the human activities in space and time. Land is locality par excellence. It is only logical, then, to focus first on the human habitat. The relevant branch of science is geography, along with ecology a core discipline in sustainability science.
There are other renewable resources than soil such as water, fish and forest produce. Let us make a trip to the imaginary country Lakeland to illustrate the nexus between population and resource exploitation. The country consists of two subsystems: a lake or coastal area with fish and their food – say, daphnia, a kind of water flea – and the economy of people, fishing boats and a reserve of mineral ore with high gold content (Figure 12.1). The Lakelanders get their food from fishing in the local lake and make their boats and nets from local materials. There are only two capital stocks: boats and nets, and mining equipment. They change because of investment and depreciation, with the latter assumed to be inversely proportional to the economic lifetime. The demand for fish is growing over time because of population growth. This means more boats and nets. Therefore, you can make three reasonable assumptions about the fishermen behaviour and the ecosystem:
fishermen invest in new boats and nets in order to satisfy expected growing demand;
there is an upper bound to the annual fish catch; and
gold mining causes pollution, which negatively affects the daphnia.
Each season the fishermen go out harvesting fish, which is sold on the local market at the end of the season. Assuming a population growth of 1 percent per year (%/yr), the Lakeland fishing grounds are sustainably exploited over the chosen simulation period of about twenty years (1,100 weeks; Figure 12.2a). As long as the population and fish demand hardly change, the fleet size remains about constant. Such a sustainable state has existed in many places and for long periods, with different institutional arrangements. Note that the model is meant to be an illustration and has not been implemented for a real-world situation.
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