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Retro: To-Do List for a Sustainable Civilization
Alex Steffen, 28 Aug 05

We often focus on tools here at WorldChanging -- specific new inventions and innovations which make changing the world a bit easier or more likely to succeed. But models are just as important a part of our portfolio. After all, without blueprints -- better understandings of the systems in which we find ourselves, better insight into the challenges we face, better visions for the kind of planet we'd like to create -- better tools are impotent. Alan's To-Do List for a Sustainable Civilization is a great example of the genre, and pretty much lives up to its name:

Here are just a few of the challenges we actually face, challenges that we inherited from our recent ancestors and that we will almost certainly pass on to our descendants:

The complete redevelopment of our energy systems. Energy is the life-blood of our economies, but producing it is destroying our climate, damaging our health, and degrading nature. We must make our energy sources and systems climate-neutral, or better yet climate-restorative. ...

The complete redevelopment of chemical, material, and building technologies. While we have begun a transformation in all these areas, the work remains far from finished. ... How we make things, and how we think about how we make things, must change radically.

The complete redevelopment of industrial agriculture. If we are to feed the world and coming generations, we need farming and food production systems that do not depend on fossil fuel, fossil water, chemical pesticides, ever-increasing nitrogen fertilizers and the like. Despite many wonderful experiments with change, most people's very lives still depend on one or all these things -- all of which are known to be dangerous, devastating, or deadly. This is perhaps the transformation nearest to our survival needs.

The preservation of the world's remaining species and ecosystems....

Stable and long-lasting international peace. We must never forget that human beings have created the means to destroy whole cities at the press of a button. We have created garbage with power to poison us and other creatures for thousands of years. We are, as I have written elsewhere, "doomed to a high-technology future," because we must forever maintain our technical capacity to deal with the results of opening of Pandora's Box. For this and so many other reasons, striving for basic peace, stability, and security is not an ideal; it is a precondition for the maintenance of civilization.

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Alex, You seem to avoid the subject of human population in all of your theories for a sustainable civilization. Do you have an opinion/idea on what level of human population is sustainable? Less than today, equal, greater than today? Shouldn't this factor into any planning for future technology innovations, rather than allowing population to be a side-effect/accident of all these new inventions you speak of?

Posted by: Linda on 31 Aug 05

Well, I can't speak for Alan, but my own view is that population is not a factor over which we have real control if we want to be a civilization which respects people's fundamental human rights.

I think it would be great to craft, planet-wide, incentives which support small, happy, healthy families; policies which perhaps have (as their eventual goal) a gradual reduction in the global population. But I, at least, am unwilling to endorse draconian approaches to the issue (e.g., mandatory sterilizations), and, even more, I think that population is just one of a number of factors which play into the formula of planetary sustainability. There's a lot fo tricky ground here, ethically.

In the more immediate term, slowing population growth the way we appear to be seems to me a gigantic victory for everyone involved.

And since, as women grow more prosperous, they tend to have fewer children (in several wealthy countries, the birth rate falls below the replacement rate) I expect that a planet of sustainably prosperous people would be a planet with a gradually shrinking population over time.

In other words, I don't think that population is our biggest problem.

Alan may have other views.

Posted by: Alex Steffen on 31 Aug 05

Restructure the energy infrastructure world-wide to start from a solar rechargeable light - small PV, blocking diode, rechargeable battery, low energy light (LED, cold cathode fluorescent, compact fluorescent...)

The rechargeable battery is a standard size, AAs or larger (or smaller, as in button batteries). Standard size batteries can switch from one machine to another.

Combine the solar with a hand crank dynamo and you have another source of electric power. Integrate the concept into our bicycles and we can recharge a couple of batteries as we replace car trips with bike trips.

Most cars and trucks can have extra batteries installed so that the alternator on the motor is charging more than the powering the engine.

Add inverters for AC electricity and there's the possibility of connecting to the grid.

The solar rechargeable light should be as ubiquitous and affordable as a "disposable" cigarette lighter. Easily broken down into its components and as non-toxic and recyclable as possible.

My guess is that such a thing is possible.

It's about time we did it.

Posted by: gmoke on 31 Aug 05

Alex, We have managed to pass all kinds of laws that affect human rights in one way or belt laws, motorcycle helmet laws, abortion laws, euthenasia, etc. I am sure we could develop a plan that is a compromise between human rights and a focused effort to reduce population to what ecological footprint analysis tells us is sustainable: ~1-2 billion people if they live at American lifestyles. And it doesn't take "draconian" laws to do it; only the right kind of incentives, as you mention, along with an upper limit on family size (worldwide) until we have reached the target we must reach.

Also, we humans are very good at managing most other species of animals and plants and have NO ethical problems there, so why shouldn't we include ourselves in that equation -- especially since we are the greatest source of damage to the Earth's ecosystems and natural materials.

Evolving into a sustainable civilization is synonymous with transitioning to a sustainable human population. You can not have one without the other. Your website has many good ideas but without addressing the subject of sustainable human population, it is hard to envision the world you speak of.

Posted by: Linda on 3 Sep 05


"what ecological footprint analysis tells us is sustainable: ~1-2 billion people if they live at American lifestyles."

I take your point, but, actually, "if they live at American consumption levels" would be a more accurate statement of the problem. Since our economy currently wastes about 95% of the materials it touches (according to Amory Lovins), in theory we could have lives just as rich while consuming 1/20th of resources, or, alternately, have an even larger population than we do now while still living within a one-planet footprint. If we changed the nature of our lifestyles, we could consume even less, obviously.

It's not hard to imagine that world, at all -- we do it every day here. And in a world of equitably shared prosperity, sustainable economies and human rights, much of the population problem will sort itself out over time.

I'm not even going to get into the second paragraph of your comment, except to say that most of humanity disagrees with you.

Posted by: Alex Steffen on 4 Sep 05



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