30/05/18: How do we measure sustainability?

I have just published a new paper on measuring sustainability. It provides new ways to measure our use of resources. The measures link the concept of sustainability with the emerging economic theories that are focused on delivering human prosperity over absolute wealth.

Sustainability is the ability to reprocess resources to sustain life, indefinitely.

The new definition of sustainability is focused on the sustainability of life. The key point is that “life” refers to both the quality and quantity of life.

Measuring Techniques

The paper identifies that resources can be categorised in many ways. One way distinguishes vital resources, those resources that are needed to sustain life, from inert resources that do not. The ultimate waste is when we reprocess vital resources (say water, crude oil and captured solar energy) and combine them into inert resources (say plastics that are no longer usable).

Sustainability essentially measures how quickly we destroy vital resources. It warns us how long we can keep going the way we are, before we run out of resources. It also provides tools to measure critical threats. These are threats from our use of resources, which may be using them up too quickly, or creating bi-products (such as CO2 gasses), which have the potential to decimate life. The measures focus on identified problem areas, comparing the actual problem against the level experts identify as global tipping points. It also provides an overview of life, by measuring changes in the quantity of life on earth.

Key Results
A 2015 discussion document reported the results of a comprehensive evaluation in 2009 of nine planetary boundaries. The chart below is based on the evaluation. The red columns are roughly based on the findings. The blue columns are fictitious numbers to illustrate how the chart works.

By 2009, we had already exceeded two of the planetary boundaries, and we are not far off many of the others.

A second report was published in 2016, which estimated the total quantity of life on earth over the last 2,000 years. Here are the results:

Since the birth of Christ, we have been party to the destruction of getting on for 50% of life on earth. The rate of destruction has been accelerating out of control for the last 100 years.

We need to have a debate about whether humans have a responsibility for our own lives, and for the lives of our children grandchildren and future generations. The debate needs to extend to whether we have a responsibility to protect the other life forms on earth.

My contribution to start the ball rolling is that we have to look to our own future, even if we are happy to ignore the future of others. But almost everything we eat comes from some form of life on earth, and almost all life on earth is part of an intensely complicated ecosphere where changing any part of it has implications throughout the rest of the ecosphere. The success of our own future is entirely interconnected with the success of our children and of other forms of life on earth. The temptation to focus exclusively on the here and now is valid for people who are living on the edge of survival, but foolhardy for everyone else. We need to protect our planet, with the life and resources we rely on for our own lives, even if the only reason is to protect ourselves into the future.

The new measurements of sustainability need fleshing out. But just from the preliminary charts above, the measures show we are very advanced along the path of destruction. We have no way of understanding the implications for our own safety of what we have done to life on earth since we started climbing the evolutionary ladder over the last 20,000 years or so, or of what happens if we continue the trends of destruction and disregard for our future.

We need to ensure everyone understands the deeply disturbing implications of what we have been doing to our planet, in terms of our own future at the very least. The purpose of these new measures is to help the general public to understand what is happening. We need to translate the raised awareness into support for a new form of global leadership that will help us shift from a society built on consumption of vital resources to a society that is capable of regenerating them as it delivers what we need of it — human wellbeing. We need to use these new, simplified ways of understanding the seriousness of the threat so that we find the will to take action, before we no longer have the choice.