A Sustainability Lesson

Scientists are currently conducting a study on Scots pine. The study uses a ring of carbon dioxide generators that surround patches of these trees. The objective of the study is to determine the effect of increased CO2 in the air on these pines.

So far, they have noticed that the trees seem to grow and reproduce much faster than before. They also develop more needles – on average 17% more needles than typical loom pines. At first glance, this seems to be a good thing. Trees trap carbon dioxide inside them, keeping it out of the atmosphere. It seems that the CO2 problem will solve itself: more CO2 produces more trees that absorb the extra CO2. The system seems to stabilize itself.

There is of course a dark side. On the one hand, other tree species will probably not benefit from the extra growth spurt. This means that Scots pine could spread rapidly, pushing other tree species, such as oak or maple, out of the way. This can change the entire landscape of an ecosystem: for example, squirrels and black bears depend on the acorns of hardwood trees. If acorns grow on these trees, squirrel and black bear populations will have to leave or die.

Another issue that we can learn from is sustainability. The rapid growth of these trees depletes minerals from the soil much faster than they normally would. Scientists predict that the trees will eventually run out of nutrients and fixed nitrogen, and then their growth will stop abruptly, and may even be reversed. So when they use their « fuel » to create « rapid growth », they will eventually run out of « fuel » and their growth will stop or be reversed. Does anyone else see a parallel here with our own civilization?

Nature is self-regulating. This is where my liberal and progressive colleagues often get it wrong. Nature does not need man to protect it. Nature does not care if man abuses it. As our conservative brethren like to point out, the Earth has survived natural disasters far more than anything man has ever done to it, and life has always found a way to survive and prosper. Of course, it may take millions of years, but it survives. … and what does a few million years represent for a 4 billion year old planet?

Conservation is not an end in itself. Conservation is not necessary to protect the Earth. No, conservation is necessary to protect and help humanity, not nature. Destroying rainforests, burning fossil fuels, over-developing the earth. … all of this is the result of the spread of our species and the growth and consumption of resources. Nature will correct this. We’re going to run out of rainforests, we’re going to run out of fossil fuels, and we’re going to run out of land that we can use. Our sources of food and drinking water will be exhausted; our sources of medicine and other essentials will be depleted. The growth of our species will stop abruptly and be reversed. It will return to sustainable levels. However, the « sustainable level » will be much lower than it is now, because we will have exhausted almost everything we need to continue living as a species and as a society.

Malthus was the first to predict this. He showed that unless something else slows the growth of a species, it will eventually « collapse. A catastrophe will inevitably reduce the number of a species well below the level of sustainability. In other words, if humans do not voluntarily regulate themselves, nature will regulate us, and nature is much less selective or indulgent in the way it does so.

When we talk about growth today, we are not just talking about growth in numbers, although that is part of the equation. We’re talking mostly about growth in resource consumption. Even if our population were stable, our consumption will continue to increase as the developing world develops. This growth in consumption, like the growth in numbers, is subject to the same law of Malthus – if we don’t regulate it ourselves, it will be regulated for us, and it will be regulated by disaster rather than planning.

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