The Sustainability Date measures humanity’s progress toward a condition where we are once again living within the Earth’s capacity to support us permanently. It measures those single-use resources which when gone must be replaced with some alternate item, or the overall use by humanity must be reduced. The reduction of some critical item means the overall population must be reduced. The ultimate thing needed to support people is energy, which we have traditionally obtained from food, but this World Sustainability Date goes to the limits on each of the factors observed. If a new source of food energy can be created by direct solar input, or other totally renewable input, into a system which generates more food than other means, then that would create a new set point date for sustainability.
Traditional natural food as given by natural processes was increased by the advent of agriculture some 12,000 years ago. That technology was helped by discoveries of irrigation, natural fertilizer and tools. Further improvements included draft animals pulling tools, then powered tractors cultivating larger areas, and now autonomous machines tilling our fields. There are far fewer people engaged in agriculture now because of machines. It is said about 95% of people living in America colonies during the American Revolution in 1776 were farmers, but that the number of American farmers is now, in 2013, only about 3%. Then they were almost entirely subsistence farmers, exporting some tobacco and cotton, and now we export vast quantities of food and other farm products. There is a problem comparing the productivity of the two years in that virtually all of our current production is made possible by one-time-use fossil fuels, and none in the year 1776 was. They could have continued their production forever, and we are limited by a finite quantity of fossil fuel. When that fuel is gone we must find another energy source to power our machines to create our food or our production must drop and with it the population.
The idea of the World Sustainability date is reminiscent of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists Doomsday Clock. Their clock represents in graphic form the minutes before midnight, which are intended to represent how close the world is to the all-out use of atomic weapons. When the Clock was created only the United States had these weapons and they were Atomic Bombs, only marginally larger than the Hiroshima bomb. The Tsar Bomba, the biggest H-bomb tested, in 1961, is 5,000 times bigger. Yes count the zeros – five thousand times bigger. What’s worse is that there are about 30,000 A-bombs now available for deployment, but very few, perhaps none, quite as big as the Tsar bomb. It is too big to be deployed efficiently. A modern Doomsday would be much worse than the one alluded to in 1947.
The World Sustainability date attempts to postulate how long before the human population returns to a number permanently sustainable by the Earth. The number of people living in 1825 was about one billion people, and the Earth could have sustained them for a very long time the way they were living. Perhaps they weren’t totally in balance with nature, but the way they were living would have promoted a population balancing about a population that could be sustained. To achieve this requires not only the population being at a sustainable number, but that its people agree to be at that population. The people would have to be willing to obey fair and equitable laws to maintain world sustainability.
I don’t think any presently living people will live long enough to see this come into being. It seems that human processes of the survival of the fittest must work out the inevitable consumption and ruination of our world before people will see living in balance with nature as more desirable than exploiting every last unit of value first for personal profit. Business as usual is going to lead to collapse at some point, and when that happens there is a possibility of doing what is necessary to return to balance. Until then probably an individual’s best option is to exploit your opportunities as best you can.
The World Sustainability Date is 150 years away.