On American sustainability - summary
Our American way of life is unsustainable; rather than attempting to perpetuate it, we must transition beyond it—quickly. Should we fail to do so, our society will collapse—in the not-too-distant future…
Message to mainstream America: our American way of life—300+ million people enjoying historically unprecedented living standards—has been enabled by our increasingly dysfunctional ecological and economic behavior over the past 200 years. Our existing way of life is therefore unsustainable; in fact, America is facing imminent societal collapse.
Message to the informed few: we must overcome our tendency to waste increasingly limited time and resources on futile attempts to resolve problems associated with natural resource depletion, or natural habitat degradation, or climate change, or overpopulation, or the economic crisis du jour. These problems will only be resolved through the resolution of our fundamental “predicament”: our American way of life is unsustainable.
There is only one solution to our predicament, and to all of its derivative ecological and economic problems. We must, as a society, transition quickly and beginning immediately to a sustainable lifestyle paradigm, one in which we live entirely within our means ecologically and economically—forever. Any alternative course of action will, at best, only briefly postpone societal collapse.
The solution to our predicament is simple and straightforward; it is our incessant attempts to evade, avoid, and circumvent this solution that are complicated, convoluted, and ultimately suicidal.
The American Perspective
Since the inception of our American industrial revolution in the early 19th century, our access to seemingly unlimited ecological resources and economic resources has enabled historically unprecedented improvements in our material wellbeing. Between the years 1800 and 2006, our population level increased by over 50 times—from 5.3 million to 300 million1. During the same period, the size of our economy, as defined by annual US Gross Domestic Product (GDP), increased by over 1600 times—from $8 billion to $13.2 trillion (2006 dollars)!
As a result, our average material living standard, as defined by annual per capita GDP, increased by a phenomenal 29 times—from $1,500 to $44,000 (2006 dollars)1—despite our 50X growth in population!!
Our American Way of Life
This meteoric growth fostered our prevailing worldview of perpetual ecological resource abundance and perpetual economic growth and prosperity, which has reinforced our aggressive exploitation of ecological resources and economic resources in the non-stop pursuit of our American way of life.
We have consumed both renewable and nonrenewable natural resources at prodigious rates; we have appropriated and modified natural habitats at prodigious rates; and we have amassed and utilized economic purchasing power at prodigious rates.
Our ever-increasing exploitation of ecological resources and economic resources has enabled us to continuously increase both our total production level and our total consumption level of goods and services, which has, in turn, enabled America to support ever-increasing population levels and ever-improving material living standards.
The resulting lifestyle paradigm, our American way of life, has become our perception of reality over the past 200 years.
The Real “Inconvenient Truth”
Unfortunately, our perception of reality is terminally flawed—our worldview, upon which our American way of life is based, is distorted; and our resulting ecological and economic resource utilization behavior, through which our American way of life is enabled, is dysfunctional.
The ecological resources and economic resources that enabled the emergence of our American way of life, and upon which its continued existence depends, will not be available at sufficient levels to support our existing lifestyle paradigm going forward.
As a result, our American way of life—300+ million people enjoying historically unprecedented material living standards—is not sustainable; it must come to an end.
The ecological resources—natural resources and natural habitats—that serve as the fundamental enablers of our American way of life, and that we consider to be essentially unlimited, are, in fact, finite and dwindling. Except for sunlight and an occasional meteor, planet earth is a closed system—no additional resources can be imported into our biosphere.
Given our continued aggressive exploitation of ecological resources within the context of finite resource supplies, perpetual ecological resource abundance is physically impossible. And, given physically limited ecological resource supplies, a state of perpetual economic growth and prosperity, which is contingent upon perpetually abundant ecological resources, is also physically impossible.
The specific mix and levels associated with the ecological resources and economic resources that we have chosen to utilize in our incessant quest to perpetuate our American way of life can only be described as psychotic:
- We persistently utilize renewable natural resources critical to our existence (e.g., water, soils, fish, and forests) at levels greater than those at which Nature can replenish them;
- We persistently utilize nonrenewable natural resources critical to our existence (e.g., oil, natural gas, coal, minerals, and metals), which Nature does not replenish;
- We persistently degrade natural habitats critical to our existence (e.g., air, water, and land) at levels greater than those at which Nature can regenerate them; and
- We persistently procure a majority of our economic goods and services through fiscal imprudence (economic asset liquidation, intergenerational debt, and deferred investments critical to our long term wellbeing).
While our dysfunctional ecological and economic behavior has enabled spectacular increases in our production level, consumption level, population level, and material living standards over the past 200 years—to levels far exceeding those attainable had we lived sustainably within our means—the obvious consequence of this behavior is the systematic elimination of the very ecological resources and economic resources upon which we depend for our existence.
As critical ecological resources and economic resources that were historically abundant become increasingly scarce, a scenario that is already in process, both our total production level and our total consumption level of goods and services will decline dramatically, as must some combination of our population level and material living standards. As a point of reference, the analysis contained in “On American Sustainability” indicates that America could sustainably support approximately 60 million people with an average material living standard approximating that of Bulgaria today.
The Party is Over
Our American way of life is NOT sustainable—it is not even close. We have only two choices going forward: we can choose to transition voluntarily to a sustainable lifestyle paradigm, in which we live within our means ecologically and economically—forever. Or we can allow Nature to orchestrate our transition to sustainability, through societal collapse, in the not-too-distant future. The results in either case will be devastating in terms of population level reduction and living standard degradation; Nature’s way will be horrific.
Given our existing worldview and resource utilization behavior, our current choice lies somewhere between “business as usual” and “lip service”—we are on the road to imminent societal collapse.
An American Cultural Revolution, through which we change fundamentally both our distorted worldview and our dysfunctional resource utilization behavior, is our only sane choice…
“The ‘developed’ nations have been widely regarded as previews of the future condition of the ‘underdeveloped’ countries. It would have been more accurate to reverse the picture…” - Catton
- From MeasuringWorth.com; http://www.measuringworth.com/usgdp/?q=hmit/gdp
- From “On American Sustainability”2008, pg. 18; Chris Clugston
- From “List of Countries by GDP” (IMF figures) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_GDP_(PPP)_per_capita
- “Overshoot”, 1982, pg. 175; William Catton, Jr.
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