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Sustainability and the End of History
Ward Chesworth


Lawyers, economists, social scientists and politicians — the usual suspects — have enclosed the word sustainability in a semantic swamp. The morass becomes all the more impenetrable when “sustainable” is coupled with “development.” In the middle of all the muskeg is a simple idea trying to get out: a sustainable system is one that lasts. Simple though the concept is, problems begin when we try to define how long a system must last in order for it to be labeled sustainable. Forever is not an option on a finite planet governed by the laws of thermodynamics; so we must set a pragmatic limit.

In the long run, human occupation of Earth is no more sustainable than a trilobite’s. Natural selection acts as the grim reaper, but a glance at the geological record shows that it has help. Catastrophic impact of events, massive floods, volcanic eruptions and a climate swinging between greenhouse and icehouse, punctuate Earth’s history like bursts from a cosmic Gatling gun. All of these events ensure that the biosphere is always in a state of adjustment, never completely stable. At best, an ecosystem may have sufficient resilience (or inertia) to persist in (at least) a sort of quasi-equilibrium for a while; but geologically speaking, how long it might last — its effective sustainability — can only be a short-term phenomenon. But then, so is the history of Homo sapiens, a mere 200,000 years at most, on a planet 4.5 billion years old.

In those 200,000 years, we have gone from a miniscule population of hunters and gatherers to a 6-billion strong super-species with a footprint that would cover four planet Earths if every person enjoyed the standard of living of the average Western European or North American.

Our progression from being one of the extras in the movie to playing the starring role (hero or villain, as the case may be) began after the latest glaciation 10,000 years ago and the Neolithic Revolution. Since then, all the usual geological processes have been joined by a new and immenseley significant one, never before seen on the planet, and one without which civilization would not exist: agriculture.

It is legitimate to view agriculture as a geological process since it now involves the movement of earth materials on a scale that rivals any of the natural earth-surface processes that affect the biosphere. Globally, farmers cultivating the land move about 1015 metric tons of soil per year: an enormous and totally new intervention in the life-zone of Earth. The consequences of this new phenomenon are as yet poorly discerned and are therefore the subject of copious argument. Yet, a study of this latest stage in the geological history of Earth is critical in judging how sustainable our food-producing systems are.

In terms of statistics, our current farming system in North America looks extremely efficient. Back in 1790, 90 percent of the working population of the United States was employed in agriculture, meaning that the agricultural surplus was only large enough to allow 10 percent of Americans to occupy themselves in other ways. Now, the farming population is about 2 percent, and they support 98 percent of us, as well as millions via aid to the developing world — an astonishing conjuring. How has this been done?

It’s been accomplished principally by developing highly productive plant and animal varieties, by managing water and soil resources, by manufacturing and using a variety of agro-chemicals (of which fertilizers and pesticides are the most prominent), by extensively using mechanized labor, and by developing an elaborate distribution system. Fundamentally, what has made all of these things possible is a cheap source of energy: fossil fuel. Our system of agriculture is built almost entirely on a nonrenewable resource and is therefore, in principle, no more sustainable than the farming of ancient Mesopotamia. In fact, we have not yet invented an agricultural system that is truly sustainable, i.e. one that in principle leaves the ecosystem that contains it continuously viable and recharged after each harvest. Some systems of the past have managed to last for thousands of years (Egypt, Northern China) while others have failed in two or three generations (the Midwest dustbowl, the Aral Sea region).

We seem to operate mostly by a form of crisis management in keeping a farming system going — the longevity of the system being a measure of a kind of band-aid persistence on the part of the farmer, rather than of true sustainability. Eventually, a breaking point is reached through natural or human-induced change, and the food supply breaks down. At that point, society itself breaks down. So the fact that we have not yet invented a truly sustainable agricultural system means that we have not yet achieved a truly sustainable civilization.

As far as human society is concerned, sustaining civilization is the ultimate task. Taking historian Felipe Fernandez-Armesto’s definition of a civilization as a starting point — “a relationship to the natural environment, recrafted by the civilizing impulse, to meet human demands” — the problem of sustainability reduces to one that avoids making our demands so great, and our recrafting so extreme, that the natural environment in which we are embedded breaks down as a life-support system. The crucial resources in our struggle to survive are the supply of water and food (which effectively means arable land). Undoubtedly, this supply is nowhere near as secure globally as might appear to the fortunate citizens living in those countries clustered around the North Atlantic. The anxious and continuing debate over “sustainable development” is a clear sign of the real scope of the supply crisis.

The basic question is: are there ways of coupling development and sustainability that might ensure an equitable supply of water and food for all, or is development the only thing sustained by “sustainable development”? If the latter is the case then we can soon expect to be “at one with Nineveh and Tyre.” Because of access to fossil fuels, Western agriculture already invests more than 1 calorie into a crop per calorie of food energy produced. And some of the suggested alternatives offer even less hope. Guelph University professor David Lavigne for example, says that aquaculture requires 50 calories in for every 1 out. If that’s the way that development is going, we might as well leap onto the funeral pyre now.

In the industrialized world, no doubt, we can enjoy our high material standard of living for a while longer by continuing to draw down the global capital of fossil fuel reserves, though it might mean a few more wars of the Gulf or Afghan variety to ensure the supply. And no doubt we can make, mend and patch together “solutions” to see us through a decade or two. But the fact remains that we cannot, as the international Bruntland Report of a few years ago proposed, raise less fortunate nations to our standard of living unless we can find another four planet Earths.

What do we do? We organize “World Summits” on sustainable development, the latest being the Johannesburg Summit that ended in September. It was opened by South African President Thabo Mbeki, whose take on our situation was bleakly Darwinian. “It is as though we are determined to regress to the most primitive condition of existence in the animal world, of the survival of the fittest. As though we have decided to spurn what the human intellect tells us, that the survival of the fittest only presages the destruction of all humanity.”

How do we avoid Mbeki’s forecast? Almost 50 years ago, a wise and now neglected geochemist, Harrison Brown, concluded that our high-grade resources would eventually run out, but that we could continue to live well off low-grade ones. He believed that in principle, population can be stabilized, and all of humanity adequately fed. The downside was that this stabilization would probably require a “completely controlled, collectivized industrial society.” In other words “the end of history” that he foresaw was not the American style, liberal, capitalist democracy of Francis Fukuyama (author of The End of History and the Last Man); but rather something more like Mao’s China.

Is there anything we can do to be saved? Yes, said Harrison Brown; but we need to apply our considerable human intelligence, imagination and courage to the problem, make a prodigious effort of planning, and offer unselfish help to nations less fortunate. With each barrel of oil used, each additional mouth to feed, each centimeter of topsoil lost, the situation becomes ever more intractable. It is imperative we act now, he said.

That “now” was half a century ago.
Chesworth is a professor of geochemistry at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada. For 10 years, he has taught a course that relates the history of civilization to the exploitation of geological resources, including soil. He is also an organizer of the Hammond Lectures, an annual lecture series on resource and environmental issues broadcast by the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. E-mail

Opinions and conclusions expressed in this section by the authors are their own and not necessarily those of AGI, its staff or its member societies.

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