[Coral-List] Resilience and sustainability

David Glassom davidg at ori.org.za
Wed Mar 8 04:07:05 EST 2006

Hi, All


I’ve been trying hard to resist entering the current debate.  But since
it seems to have moved from resilience of coral reefs to global
sustainability issues, the temptation has become too strong.
Specifically, the emphasis on population growth seems to me to be
somewhat simplistic, as was the earlier assertion that the earth’s
carrying capacity is about 3 billion.  Sure, population growth is a huge
problem.  But it’s the overall rate of resource consumption (or each
individual’s ‘ecological footprint’) that really makes the difference.
Emissions from jets is acknowledged as a major source of greenhouse
gasses, and almost all passenger flights are accounted for by less than
10% of the world’s population.  I’d lay odds (admittedly without any
figures to back me up) that the air conditioner in an average motor car
burns more energy per day than a poor family in a developing country
uses in total per day.  And the air conditioner burns the same amount of
fuel whether there’s one child or four in the car with you (Dr Weil,
kids in poor, overpopulated countries generally walk to their soccer
games).  The planet’s poorest people tend to degrade the environment
locally through overpopulation (overfishing local reefs, sewerage,
deforestation), but it’s wealth, not just population that largely causes
world-wide degradation (giant trawlers, air travel, huge energy
consumption, importing delicacies so you can eat them all year round and
cut-flowers to make the dinner table look pretty, everything wrapped in
plastic or polystyrene). Overall, the Living Planet Report (WWF, 2004)
estimates an ecological footprint of between 9 & 10 hectares per person
for countries like the USA and UAE, compared to less than one hectare
per person in those like Afghanistan, Haiti or Somalia.  In other words,
an Afghani family of 15-18 people would use about the same resources as
an American couple with no children!! So when we talk about things like
carrying capacity, we need to ask – are we referring to people living
like Hollywood movie stars or like peasant farmers in poor countries?
Unless we define an acceptable standard of consumption, the concept of
carrying capacity is meaningless.


As far as the issue of sustainability goes, and the debate on whether
sustainable development is an oxymoron or not, there has again been a
certain amount of over simplification.  I believe that the term itself
need not be oxymoronic, if it is adequately defined.  First of all,
sustainable development is an abbreviation of what is really meant:
“Ecologically sustainable economic development”. The best definition,
and the least glib that I’ve managed to come across is by Braat and
Steetskamp (1991) who define it as 


“changes in economic structure, organisation and activity of an
economic-ecological system that are directed towards maximum welfare and
which can be sustained by available resources”.  


Note the emphasis on changes to the economy – sustainability is
ultimately an economic issue and it is a myth that any form of
sustainability at any population level can be achieved in an economic
system that strives continuously to increase per capita consumption; or
that growth and development are interchangeable terms.  Development, in
terms of the above definition is the increase of welfare, not wealth,
and recognising this distinction helps to resolve the contradiction
between sustainability and development.  Economic development must
ultimately be constrained by ecological limits, so sooner or later there
will have to be some recognition that only a redistribution of global
wealth, allied with a ceiling on economic as well as population growth
can lead to sustainability. Since this is impossible in the current
corporate-dominated economic climate (not to mention an economic system
that sees life as an endless race towards some undefined and unreachable
material goal), we’re no closer to sustainability than we were when the
term was first used, more than 30 years ago, at the 1972 Conference on
the Human Environment. ( A more radical view would hold that development
itself is a paradoxical concept that has led directly to many of the
problems we face, and that sustainable development was simply a way to
propagate the development ideology while pandering to the greenies – see
for e.g. Sachs 1991). 



At the risk of being long-winded, I'd like to make a last point,
relating to what we as individuals can do to promote environmental
sustainability: there is much talk of 'global environmental problems',
such as climate change.  Global problems, of course, require global
one-size-fits-all solutions, leaving us as individuals feeling pretty
helpless.  But there are no global problems!! Things like climate change
are in fact global symptoms of many, similar local problems.  Pollution
emanates from localised point sources, reefs are individually fished,
deforestation occurs at local levels. Even population growth is a local
issue, since the reasons for it are about as varied as the regions where
overpopulation is an issue.  And the solutions are therefore a series of
individual actions tailored to local conditions and circumstances.  


So what should coral scientists do?  As scientists – carry on lobbying
hard for reef conservation, recognising that it entails more than just
declaring reserves and that the welfare of humans, not just reefs, is at
stake.  As private individuals – turn off the air conditioner, consider
really hard whether your talk at the next international conference
justifies the extra jet-fuel emissions, or join the protests when WTO
talks come to your area.  


David Glassom


Braat LC, Steetskamp I (1991)  Ecological-economic analysis for regional
sustainable development. In Constanza R (ed) Ecological economics: the
science and management of sustainability.  Columbia University Press. 

Loh J (2004) The Living Planet Report. WWF. 

Sachs W (1991) Environment and development: the story of a dangerous
liaison. The Ecologist 21(6) 252-257.


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