Tuesday, April 7, 2009

On alchemy and sustainability

The end of the winter semester is at hand; only one more lecture to go with my first-year Environmental Studies course, which is entitled "Global Environmental Challenges". I used to find the final couple weeks of this course a challenge to teach (it's my third consecutive year teaching it) over nagging concerns that I was encouraging my students to practice alchemy.

As with many first year courses, the goals include introducing the students to a broad range of important issues, encouraging them to think critically about the processes and interactions that give rise to these challenges, and reviewing some of the possible range of responses that may be undertaken. It is the latter subject - the "what to about it" part of the course that we cover in the final classes - that has troubled me in the past. The course textbook we're using (I didn't select it, but it is as good as any other and is kept up to date by the author/publisher) says essentially that sustainability/sustainable development is the answer to global environmental challenges.

In the past I've done a fair amount of research on sustainable development (SD) in terms of what people say it means, how in it should be undertaken and so forth, but until recently I had never thought critically about whether SD is even conceptually or theoretically possible. Having done my undergrad degree in the late 1980s, the then-recent report of the World Commission on Environment and Development (the 'Brundtland Report' or Our Common Future), which has become a de facto scripture of the SD world, was mandatory cover-to-cover reading in a couple of my courses. So perhaps I internalized its messages only too well.

SD has become one of those motherhood and apple pie statements. Few people say "I try to live my life as unsustainably as possible". Politicians have long known the importance of using the word "sustainable" whenever they roll out a policy or initiative - you would be hard-pressed to find a piece of economic policy these days that does not include the phrase "sustainable economy". I have been guilty of this myself, having written for example about the linkages between sustainable development and refugee protection, blithely treating both as equally desirable and equally possible. And yet are they? (We seem to do a poor job of both).

The old practice of alchemy - attempting to transform lead or similar materials into precious metals - must have made perfect sense to its practitioners. After all, who wouldn't want to turn lead into gold? For supporters of alchemy, even if short-term results were elusive, the potential for success and the continued practice of alchemy toward that end must have itself seemed a worthwhile endeavour. With the benefit of hindsight we now recognize its impossibility, alchemy seems rather quaint, and the word now serves as a useful metaphor (academics love it - try a Google Scholar search of the word and see for yourself).

So is SD a new alchemy? No doubt those who work in the field of SD have already been through the sort of internal debate about its merits and possibility that I had until recently avoided, and so would find this blog posting quaint (or tedious). But in any event, here's how I worked it through to my own satisfaction.

I compared SD's key tenets to Paul Ehrlich's ImPACT theory. Ehrlich and those who share similar views suggest that the scale of human impacts on the environment (I) is related to the size of a human population (P), the level of affluence of that population (A) and the level of technology used to extract resources (T). Sometimes consumption (C) gets substituted for affluence depending on the the author or work. So you get formulations such as this: I = P x A (or C) x T. According to this logic, a small and technologically advanced population (like that of Canada) with a high degree of consumption can have a greater an impact on the environment than a larger population (e.g. Bangladesh) where consumption and technology is much lower. And indeed, this makes intuitive sense when one thinks of such things as greenhouse gas emissions or generation of solid waste, where Canadians are far and away more villainous than Bangladeshis.

But increasing levels of wealth do not always result in negative environmental outcomes. Some things, like levels of airborne particulate in urban areas or sulphur dioxide emissions, tend to fall as a society becomes more affluent and implements or regulates greater controls on pollution. Not all technologies are necessarily consumptive or environmentally detrimental; some facilitate conservation and/or may be environmentally beneficial.

Another important phenomenon is that as per capita incomes rise average family size tends to fall. In this respect, per capita income is likely an indicator of affluence, with the actual determinants of affluence in this context being access to sanitation, good primary medical care (especially for women and children), greater valuation of women's roles in society, destigmatization of contraception and so forth. In other words, depending on how we define and pursue affluence we can actually reduce or offset the net effects of the other two variables of technology and population in the Ehrlich impact model.

This is where SD comes in. SD provides the blueprint for how to redefine affluence in a way that it reduces the net impacts of population growth, consumption and technology on the environment. Critical tenets of SD include equity (for those now alive and for those yet to be born) and the need for policy- and decision-making to take into account economic, social, cultural and environmental factors on an ongoing/continual basis. It makes increasingly clear sense to me. In hindsight, I now see that SD is not an alchemy - at least in theory. It is not an impossibility, and therefore we should be practicing it (and teaching it to first year students) even if the results so far have been less than optimal. There's still too much lead and not enough gold in our current trajectory of socio-economic development. But we should still keep trying.

There is, of course, the other question of whether Ehrlich's impact model makes any sense. But that's for another posting.


katydid said...

I greatly enjoyed your blog post here. I also teach Geography, as well as Sociology and Political Science, and am working on my PhD Dissertation in Sustainability Education. Indeed, the search for effective measurement of Sustainability seems oftentimes like the alchemist's most elusive, foggy brew.
Social equity appears to be the key--but how to achieve it when consumptive societies and the structures that they rely upon live so unsustainably, at the gross expense of other societies--amidst global interdependence? I=PAT might work, if we lived in closed socieites..
Is retraction to smaller, self-sustaining communities the key? How might global transformation occur?

Robert McLeman said...

Hi Katydid,

Sorry for being so slow in responding to your comment, hope you still see this.

The short answer to your questions is, I'm still trying to sort it out. Years ago I was heavily influenced by Schumacher's "Small is Beautiful", and my students have lately got me hooked on Bill McKibben's "Deep Economy". But I am still wondering if these are just wishful thinking or are realizable.

I don't think I am in favour of entirely closed societies and correspondingly closed production & consumption systems; in simplistic terms, I like the idea of a "local production when possible, but fair exchange when not" philosophy, but I am not sure how collectively get there given current socio-economic structures, which increasingly seem to make little practical sense.

I've more thoughts, but think I'll halt here and just check to see if you are still following this thread before continuing.