Sustainability of what and for whom?

To mark the publication of the inaugural issue of The Journal of Population and Sustainability (JP&S) with The White Horse Press, in this blog, JP&S editor David Samways questions the meaning of ‘sustainability’ and its implications for different populations. 

About 15 years ago my partner and I installed a wood burning stove. At the time we had an abundance of waste wood from various sources and I can remember people remarking on the environmental virtuousness of heating our home with a ‘sustainable’ source of fuel. However, there are no environmental free lunches. The huge growth in the number of woodburning stoves in the UK, often motivated by concern for the environment, has led to anxiety regarding their effect on air quality. And even notwithstanding this pollution, the sustainability of wood as a fuel is clearly questionable.

In Britain, the fossil fuel revolution began not with the industrial steam engine, but with the domestic hearth. Prior to the sixteenth century wood provided the principle source of fuel, but from 1500 onwards the use of coal for domestic heating and cooking dramatically increased. This was arguably caused by the demand for timber, for general construction, shipbuilding, iron smelting, etc., as well as for domestic fuel, outstripping sustainable supply. Not only was the early modern economy growing but so too was the population – from around 1500 to 1700 the population of England roughly doubled to 5.2 million. Moreover, a preference for comfort over efficiency meant that domestic heating moved from the open bonfire ventilated through a hole in the roof, to a hearth with a chimney which not only evacuated the smoke from the building but a considerable amount of the heat. Yet, while demand for wood was increasing, the area of woodland was stable or declining, and the shortfall between supply and demand for domestic fuel was met by coal.

The pretensions to sustainability of the modern woodburning stove illustrates that the environmental sustainability of a particular practice is invariably a quantitative issue and therefore has a population dimension. At an aggregate level, Ehrlich and Holdren’s I=PAT equation helps us understand that environmental impact (I) is the product of the number of people (P), their level of affluence (A), and the technology (T) employed. At its most simplistic, ‘sustainability’ requires that the resource consumed must be renewed at a rate equal to its consumption and that any waste products of consumption be harmlessly processed by the environment at the same rate – in perpetuity. Clearly, with a population more than ten times that of early modern Britain, the notion that the woodburning stove could be sustainable as the principle source of heating for all households in modern Britain using domestically produced timber is, to say the least, extremely doubtful. It might be countered that importing timber from abroad may be sustainable, but this has the potential to disrupt the global market for timber with unintended consequences for other populations.

IPAT describes the overall collective impact, but reveals nothing of the distribution of environmental impact amongst the global population. Employing our simplistic definition, almost any activity may be described as sustainable if practiced by very few, and so in considering claims of sustainability a pertinent question is “sustainable for whom?”. In the rich world, environmental sustainability is frequently framed in terms of the technological changes required to maintain present standards of living without adjustment to behaviour or lifestyle. Yet with the collective environmental footprint of humanity exceeding the Earth’s regenerative capacity by some 70 per cent and the richest 20 per cent of the global population consuming 80 per cent of resources, the sustainability of rich world lifestyles appears only possible if the distribution of resources remains massively tilted in their favour. Sustainability can therefore be a ‘weasel’ word, obscuring the fact that a technical solution is only sustainable if limited to a small proportion of the population who are able to participate due to their economic power.

Many have argued that even with a huge redistribution of resources a ‘good life’ –  often equated with the present average European standard of living – could only be sustainably enjoyed by about 3 billion people. However, recent research suggests this may be too pessimistic and that by addressing the social and technical systems which mediate between resource use and actual standards of welfare, around 7 billion might be supported at a good standard of living within planetary boundaries. Yet this depends on the populations of the rich world embracing a cultural shift away from consumerism towards a satisfaction with the material resources sufficient to have a comfortable, but not luxurious, standard of living. Moreover, support must be nurtured for a massive reduction of inequality through an active redistribution of wealth both within nations and, crucially, between rich and poor nations. However, critical questions remain. Would rich-world electorates accept these values and support radical social structural change? And how quickly might this be achieved? The global population is already nudging 8 billion and, depending upon action to assist the development of nations with the highest birth rates, could peak at less than 8.5 billion or reach nearly 11 billion – possibly much more. Obviously, the longer action to address developmental inequality, and hence population growth, is delayed, the greater the peak population, making the challenge of providing a good life for all within planetary boundaries all the more difficult.

Ideally, environmental sustainability relates to a given level of welfare shared by all. However, in our move away from fossil fuels – the historically critical factor in enabling long, healthy and comfortable lives – alternative sources of energy, especially those involving land-use change must be assessed in terms of their potential ability to meet the energy needs of all, not just the demands of some to the exclusion or harm of others. Twenty years ago the apparent sustainability of running one’s diesel car on biodiesel seemed intuitively obvious. However, the scaling-up of biofuel production has had the unintended consequence of contributing to pricing 2.7 billion of the world’s poorest people out of the food market, leaving them severely malnourished or unable to access safe, nutritious and sufficient food. In such cases one person’s sustainability is the misery of another.

Environmental sustainability is inseparable from factors of population size, levels of consumption, and choices of technology. But just as importantly, sustainability is dependent on our social norms and values as well as wider questions of global justice and fairness.

Further reading:

FAO. 2008. Biofuels: prospects, risks and opportunities Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

FAO. 2021. The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2020: Food Security and Nutrition Around the World in 2020. Part 1. Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

O’Neill, D.W., A.L. Fanning, W.F. Lamb and J.K. Steinberger. 2018. ‘A good life for all within planetary boundaries’. Nature Sustainability 1: 88–95.

Rackham, O., 1987. The History of the Countryside. London: Dent and Sons Ltd.

Samways, D., 2022. ‘Population and Sustainability: Reviewing the Relationship Between Population Growth and Environmental Change’. The Journal of Population and Sustainability 6 (1).

Vollset, S.E., E. Goren, C.-W. Yuan, J. Cao et al. 2020. ‘Fertility, mortality, migration, and population scenarios for 195 countries and territories from 2017 to 2100: a forecasting analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study’. The Lancet 396 (102580): 1285–1306. 

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