Sustainability Science and the Rio Summit

The Earth Summit 2012 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil took place last week (June 20-22, 2012). Unfortunately, it was underwhelming and there was the definite sense that the politicians had very little interest in actually discussing how to save the world. This attitude towards sustainability is unfortunate, especially on the heels of an essay published this month in PLoS Biology. The article, The Macroecology of Sustainability, by Joseph Burger and colleagues, discusses how the field of sustainability science falls short because it often fails to take macroecological factors into account. The authors provide the example of the ‘successful’ Bristol Bay sockeye salmon fishery. It has been dubbed a success because, from a management perspective, it is sustainable; they can harvest fish, and the numbers returning the following year do not decrease significantly. However, from a macroecological perspective, the fishery likely has large downstream effects that are unaccounted for, including affecting other salmon predators such as bears and bald eagles. If the same managerial success story is looked at from an ecological perspective, it may not be regarded as such a huge success.

Additionally, the authors warn that we may be beyond the sustainable threshold, if we want to maintain current standards of living and development (not to mention trying to spread those things to currently-underdeveloped societies). Oil, copper, coal, and fresh water are four natural resources that we regard as fairly essential to modern-day life that have constantly increased in consumption since 1961 (see graph below, from the article). Economists and sustainability scientists may counter these data with optimistic scenarios (because we haven’t run out of anything yet), but the fact is that there are limited resources on Earth.

The main point of the PLoS Bio article is to question the way sustainability science evaluates its successes, but I would like to move it to a slightly larger issue at hand: the lack of concern people have for these issues. I’m guilty of it myself. I use a lot of energy and water, since I run an air conditioner, use electricity, take daily showers, buy mostly fruits and vegetables that have probably been grown with fertilizer and shipped in from somewhere far away, drive often, and even fly with some regularity. And unless people change their habits (myself included), it is unlikely that there will be any change in the short-term. But the fact that politicians don’t even seem to care enough to make an effort at the Rio summit is disheartening. The short-term political schemes will amount to nothing if we run out of natural resources.

I’m sorry that this post is a bit of a downer, but it’s important to remember that the world is not just full of unlimited energy every once in a while.

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