Are Humans Inherently Unsustainable?

At Strategic Sustainability Consulting, we make it a point to translate complex concepts of sustainability into practical, everyday language. Every once in a while, however, we delve more deeply into the scientific, technical, and formal language of sustainability -- and the article, “What's blocking sustainability? Human nature, cognition, and denial” is a great example of a scenario where a discussion on this level is helpful when tackling the bigger picture questions. The article, published in the e-Journal Sustainability: Science, Practice, & Policy attempts to answer the question, “Why are we so terrible at responding to sustainability challenges?”

Or, more eloquently:

There is scant evidence that national governments, the United Nations, or other official international organizations have begun seriously to contemplate the implications for humanity of the scientists’ warnings, let alone articulate the kind of policy responses the science evokes. The modern world remains mired in a swamp of cognitive dissonance and collective denial seemingly dedicated to maintaining the status quo. We appear, in philosopher Martin Heidegger’s words, to be “in flight from thinking.” Just what is going on here?

We won't lie: the article is challenging -- it is written in academic language that sometimes borders on the excessively formal. But it's a fascinating look into human evolutionary tendencies that have now turned against us. It hypothesizes that humans are "inherently unsustainable" and backs that up with some convincing arguments. The article goes further to offer possible solutions out of this mess and more food for thought:

As early as 1993, a workshop report by the Business Council for Sustainable Development (now the World Business Council for Sustainable Development) concluded that “[i]ndustrialised world reductions in material throughput, energy use, and environmental degradation of over 90% will be required by 2040 to meet the needs of a growing world population fairly within the planet’s ecological means” (note the concessions to both gross carrying capacity and global equity). Similarly, mainstream climate scientists agree that the world should be aiming for a 50%-80% reduction in carbon-dioxide emissions below 1990 levels by 2050 to avoid dangerous climate change. One recent study specifically argues that to avoid reaching a catastrophic greenhouse-gas level of 650 parts per million by volume of carbon-dioxide equivalents (ppmv CO2e), the affluent nations will soon have to begin decarbonizing at the “draconian” rate of 6% per year, likely requiring a “planned economic recession”(Anderson & Bows, 2008). Finally, ecological footprint studies suggest that if North Americans were serious about achieving global sustainability they would be planning to reduce their ecological footprints by 77% (from 9.2 gha to their equitable Earth share of 2.1 gha). All such measures would ease pressures on the ecosphere while creating the “ecological space” required for justifiable growth in the developing world.

It is commonly argued that in every crisis is opportunity. The (un)sustainability crisis thus provides the world community with the unique privilege of intentionally scripting a new, ecologically adaptive, economically viable, and socially equitable cultural narrative.

We're curious -- are you willing to dive into some of the tougher material on sustainability, or do you stick to the layman's interpretation? And do you agree with the author that humans are inherently unsustainable? Leave a comment here, or join the conversation with SSC President Jennifer Woofter on Twitter (@jenniferwoofter) or on our Facebook page.