Monday, April 17, 2006

A good article

Herald-Times actually had a well-written article today, and it rather resonates with me, especially after reading a similarly thoughtful article in the Spring issue of The Land Institute's newsletter which I may post to a webpage, so I decided to post it here.

Sustainability comes down to supply & demand
This guest column was written by Robert Bent, an Indiana University professor emeritus of physics and a member of the Bloomington Commission on Sustainability.

The mission of the Bloomington Commission on Sustainability is to promote a balance among the "3 E's" of sustainability: Economic vitality, environmental integrity, and social equity. To illustrate the complexity of this task, consider the interconnected problems of energy, food and population sustainability.

There is growing concern in all nations about the long-term sustainability of the energy-intensive lifestyle of the industrialized world, and moreover, whether the Earth can ever support this level of development for the majority of the world's people. This concern stems from the pressures of continuing growth in population and in energy use per capita on a finite planet.

The fundamental question is: how many people can the Earth support? From an energy point of view, this can be answered by dividing the total amount of energy available from all regions of the world and from all sources (fossil, biomass, hydro, nuclear, wind, solar, geothermal, etc. ) by the average energy needed per capita for a "decent" quality of life. Assuming a level of energy use equal to the average of that in the developed world today, the maximum supportable world population turns out to be 4 billion. Current world population is 6.52 billion, and is expected to grow to 8 billion to 9 billion by mid-century.

We can also see that the world population is close to, or over, the sustainability limit by looking at world and local food needs and resources. Dividing the total arable land in the world by the amount of land needed per person for a diverse diet similar to that in Europe and the U.S. gives a population limit of 4.8 billion acres/1.23 acres per person = 3.9 billion. Similar calculations give (for food self-sufficiency) a population limit of 368 million for the United States, which will be reached in 33 years at the present growth rate of 0.99% per year, 12 million for the state of Indiana (twice the present population) and 50,000 for Monroe County (less than half the present population).

The finiteness of the Earth guarantees that there are ceilings on human numbers, and the above calculations show the serious possibility that the number of people on the Earth has reached, or will reach within half a century, the maximum number the Earth can support in modes of life that we and our children and their children will want. The struggle to stabilize world population at a level consistent with long-term sustainability will require a prolonged commitment perhaps greater than any ever made by any society in the history of humankind.

There are reasons for hope, including the growing public awareness of the seriousness of the problems. They are not insoluble: We are their cause and we are the ones who can stop causing them, and start solving them. The crucial question is whether the outlook is convulsive change forced upon us by nature's checks and balances, or change brought about by foresight and conscious choice.

To learn more about "sustainability," come to the commission-sponsored forum "Sustainability 101," which will be held on Monday, April 24, at 7 p.m. in the Monroe County Public Library Auditorium. Admission is free. An interpreter will be provided for the hearing-impaired. The forum will begin with a presentation by commission member Cairril Mills that introduces the concepts of sustainability, discusses the implications of unsustainable practices and explains sustainability's exciting implications for Bloomington.

This presentation will be followed by questions and comments from the audience with responses from three expert panelists: Keith Clay, IU Department of Biology; Christine Glaser, IUPUI Department of Economics; and Charlotte Zietlow, Economic Development Coordinator for Middle Way House Inc. For more information, see

"To be conscious that you are ignorant is a great step to knowledge." ~ Benjamin Disraeli (1804 - 1881)