Sustainability: Negotiating a Crisis of Faith


“Sustainability: Negotiating a Crisis of Faith”

by Daniel Reader

*Personal crisis of faith

Good morning.  I have a bit of a problem I would like to share with you.  Let me tell you about it..

In 1974, I was 15 years old and taking a biology class in high school.  It was then that I first heard of a book written just a few years earlier by Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich called The Population Bomb.  The dire predictions he made for global calamity between the mid 1970s and mid 1980s were, to me, both fascinating and horrifying at the same time.

The world population would reach 4 billion that year, and I decided then to do my part; that I would not have any children.  And I haven’t.   That was a rather significant, formative class for me, and in my senior year I returned to be a lab assistant for the biology teacher.

This was in Southern California, and I used to spend quite a bit of time in the Mojave Desert, which I came to love.  It’s a very delicate ecosystem, with very few species; and is quite fragile as a result.  I learned over the coming years just how fragile it is, as Palmdale was developed, fragmenting the ecosystem into pockets of life struggling to maintain balance.

As Jan told you, I teach courses in sustainability and environmental science in the Department of Geography and Geology at WKU.  In the course of my studies I am constantly aware of the many physical limits and challenges we face in the attempt to stabilize our environment, and achieve sustainability.  I watch the news and the commercials for “green” this and “sustainable” that, and am deeply concerned that the people so engaged either *believe* what they are saying, or worse, that they know the truth and are intentionally green washing their moments.

And every semester, I see the hopeful faces of incoming students anxious to learn more about their world, and to learn how they can make a difference.  They are variously eager or skeptical, yet regardless of what they believe as they come in, they *always* have an opinion.  They care.  So it is regularly saddening to me watching the glow fade from their eyes as they learn more about the truth of their world and the dim prospects for sustainability.  I feel for them, and attempt to impart some sense of hope to what appears to be an overwhelmingly hopeless situation.  I try desperately not to push them into despair.

And I see myself in the fray, and I wonder whether I am doing enough, fast enough, to make a difference.  This is my problem.  I am having difficulty maintaining the requisite level of faith — faith in myself, my message, and faith in humanity to make the right decisions – to do the right thing.

But let me tell you about faith..

“Not by faith alone shall we be saved”

The apostle James tells us that “not by faith alone” shall we be saved (James 2:24).

In terms of the environment, James couldn’t have been more right.

Some people have faith in science and technology.  Back in the ’60s, there used to be a diorama display at Disneyland called “A Big, Bright, Beautiful Tomorrow” that depicted a future of monorails and hovercraft, clean air and water, colonies in space and on the moon, and individually-owned computers in every home.  (I guess they got some of it right..)  But the succeeding decades have instead brought us Love Canal, Three-Mile Island and Chernobyl, the specter of global thermonuclear war, and most recently, crises in energy, climate, and fresh water that promise to hold our attention for some time to come.  Scientific research is wonderful stuff; but to have faith that it, alone, will save us all is betting on a long shot.

Some people have faith in a Higher Power.  Many believe that Earth was made specifically as a place for humans to live, and, as that Power is omnipotent and omniscient, It is ultimately responsible for whatever happens to the Earth.  Many of these people truly have faith that this cosmic Landlord has a handle on it all, and that the planet is only a temporary setup anyway.  It’s like durable goods; requiring some upkeep certainly, but ultimately the Earth is expendable!  Faith of this kind may be comforting to some, but it makes me decidedly *uncomfortable*.

Some simply have faith in positive energy.  They believe that if we all think good thoughts, and have a real positive attitude, that it will all work out somehow.  They light candles and have group meditation meetings where they concentrate on better times to come, and have faith that if their focus is sufficient, that everything will be all better. (pause).  Now *that* is some faith..

Now there are some people that have faith in action; and I’m talking about a real, personal commitment to act for the environment.  They recycle religiously.  They use low-flow shower heads, curly low-energy light bulbs, and even have compost piles.  Maybe they drive a hybrid car, or are at least aware of the benefits of bio-fuels.  They buy local, and are big fans of all things organic.  Many have bricks in their toilets, and may even know the ditty “if it’s yellow, let it mellow; if it’s brown, flush it down.”  These folks believe that grassroots, bottom-up efforts will win the day.  They have faith that every little bit helps, and that if everyone just pitched in, that all our problems would be solved.  You gotta love these people; they mean so well, and truly have *faith* that sustainability can be achieved piecemeal, one step at a time.  I don’t know, maybe they simply have faith in the goodwill of humanity.

(Did I leave anyone out?  Have I failed to offend anyone yet?)

Now, don’t get me wrong.  I’m not suggesting that faith is a bad thing at all.  In fact, faith is what fosters hope when the chips are down and the future is uncertain.  I’m not questioning whether faith is necessary; it absolutely is.  But what I’m trying to say is that faith, by itself, is insufficient.  James (v.20) tells us that “faith without works is dead.”  Some translations use the word “barren” here, and in the case of the environment, that may be even more picturesque.  Because barren is what we are working toward, even as we have faith that things will get better.  Faith alone is barren indeed.

Let me give you a quick example of what I’m talking about.  We live in a water world.  About 70% of the planet’s surface is covered in water, yet only about 3% of that is fresh water.  Of that 3%, two thirds of it is locked up in ice.  That leaves 1% for everything else, including humans.  Across the world, about 70% of the fresh water used is poured into irrigation.  Another 20% is allocated to industry, and about 10% is used domestically.

This means all the drinking water, cooking and cleaning needs, showers and toilet flushes, all of the lawn watering and car washes and swimming pools, and even fire hydrants account for a small fraction of the total water used.  Now, what if we reduced our personal fresh water consumption by 50%?  This would entail more drastic cutbacks than many people would be comfortable with, because you still have to boil your rice and pasta, and you have to drink something.  But if we all got together on it, and everyone on the planet participated, that would result in a total savings of one half of 10% of 1% of the fresh water on the planet, a few hundredths of one percent – a tiny amount.  Worse, by the time such measures were actually implemented on a global scale, it would almost certainly not have kept up with population growth, for a net *loss* of fresh water.  Is this really what we intend when we refer to sustainability?

The Notion of Sustainability

In the discussion of sustainability, it’s important to remember some basic ideas.  First, sustainability is not the same as environmentalism.  The focus of sustainability is strictly human-centered.  Environmental concerns are important to the extent that environmental stability is necessary to maintaining our way of life.  Yet, that stability is severely threatened by human actions on many levels, and in order to have any hope of achieving sustainability, we have to take a good hard look at how we live.

The fundamental challenge in sustainability is finding a way to maintain our way of life, even as that very lifestyle threatens to make it impossible to maintain.  And the one thing that truly defines our way of life is the amount of energy we consume.

We live in a solar-powered world.  That includes all of the solar collectors and solar power generators of course, but it also includes the food we eat, and almost all of the energy we use, including coal, oil, and natural gas.  Even the wind and the ocean currents are powered by the sun.  The earth is able to intercept a tiny fraction of the sun’s radiant energy, and that only on the half that is in daytime at any given moment.  That is the total amount of power we have available.  Everything else – all of the nuclear and geothermal, and even tidal energy that we are able to harness – is miniscule by comparison.

Imagine that the world is like a flask that contains the sun, catching and holding solar energy.  As it does so, life processes are able to generate a backlog of stored sun power.  Now imagine that this surplus of stored energy is extruded out of the top of the flask as a candle.  The candle is lit, of course, as life uses that stored energy even as the candle is being extruded, and a balance is achieved.  This can go on indefinitely, fluctuating between a longer and shorter candle over the ages, and in fact this is the very essence of sustainability.  I call it the “Amazing Candle Extruder,” or ACE (A-C-E).

Now millions of years ago, there was a time of very prolific growth, such that the earth was able to store up quite a backlog of energy, making for a fairly tall candle in our ACE model.  I’m referring to fossil fuels, of course.  And about a couple of hundred years ago, some bright folks figured out how to use that stored energy to light their homes and power their engines.

See, what they were doing was cutting into the length of the candle, and then lighting the new segment, even as the original flame was still burning.  And what a difference it made!  Impressed with the results, they continued to find new applications; new ways to burn more and more of this surplus, lighting more and more new little candles.  They weren’t just burning the candle at both ends – they were burning the candle at many ends.

At this point in the story, we have many, many small candles lit, and we like it.  We’ve become accustomed to it, and we almost expect it to continue forever.  The original candle is still lit too, although it’s pretty short at this point.  But the only one that is being extruded, the only one that is still growing, is the one at the top of the flask, and it’s not coming out any faster than it ever has.  And the bad news is that all of the little candles we have cut out of the long one are just about to start burning out.  When that happens, we will be left with just the nub of the original candle… and our way of life will change drastically.

We live in a time of limits.  We are looking at limits to how much carbon we dare inject into the atmosphere, and at the same time we find limits to alternative energy sources as well, making our choices limited indeed.  Many parts of the world are facing serious fresh water shortages, and solutions appear to be so far away or so farfetched, that crisis seems inevitable.

We are face to face with the upper limits to global human population growth, expected to arrive in less than twenty years.  There have been a handful of serious studies done on the “maximum sustainable” human population, and the results are pretty mixed.  One study says we can maintain a population of ten billion for a few generations, but that assumes that we are able to cut our consumption of all resources to barest subsistence levels, and fails to take into account losses of arable land due to erosion and sea-level rise.

Another study shows that we can hold a population of six billion for a period less than 100 years, assuming food production is the sole criterion.  And one study claimed that the maximum population we could hope to maintain indefinitely, where all children were provided with education, basic amenities, and per-capita energy use equal to one half the consumption of Americans in 1980 is closer to 2.5 billion.  Our lives are becoming increasingly defined by these limits, regardless of whether we choose to accept them.

Perhaps the most pressing limit we face is time.  In our global search for sustainable solutions, we are beginning to recognize that the peoples of developing countries can hardly spare the time or attention necessary to achieve such lofty goals even as they are trying to feed their children.  Even the IPCC is promoting a program to help alleviate poverty in Sub-Saharan Africa as part of the solution to climate change.  Countless NGOs are channeling funding to impoverished nations to assist with infrastructure improvements, enabling those countries to find enough breathing room to even consider the welfare of future generations.

These efforts are to be welcomed from any humanitarian standpoint, and no one could reasonably have any objection to them.  Yet the end result is that per-capita resource consumption is increasing accordingly.  You can’t provide more people with more goods and services and not expect it to show up on the ledger!  We are ensuring that per-capita consumption is reaching its maximum, even as the global population is reaching its maximum.  And time is short.  The ones who will face the full brunt of this are in elementary school even now.

In many cases, the problem is that we have found ways where it seems as though we can individually have an impact on a global problem.  So if we just *do* it, we believe, we will be doing everything we can to help make a better world.  This belief, this faith, enables us to withstand the barrage of disheartening information we face every day.  It *should* work, it *ought* to work, because it’s all we can do, right?

This is, unfortunately, misplaced faith.  The flaw, of course, is that individual actions are insufficient to the magnitude of the task.  Even collective action proves to be insufficient, as we saw in our water example.  What is needed is a new policy, based upon some radical new ideas.  We need a whole new way to think about the problem, and pressure on global leaders to make it work.  Faith will fuel the effort, but we must redirect our attention to where a real difference can be made, or the results will indeed be fruitless and barren.

The situation demands immediate attention.  We have just barely enough resources to expend on such efforts, if we begin now.  At least, we must *believe* that’s the case!  We dare not despair — we *must* have faith that effective changes may be made with what we have to work with.  And in keeping with this idea, I have a proposal for you.

I would ask whether you, this congregation, or any of you, would be willing to participate in a discussion of these ideas, to engage in the forging of the radical new ideas necessary to meet the challenges we face.  I would like to offer to lead such a discussion, perhaps on a weekly basis, right here in the building if that meets with your approval.  Please consider it, let me know where and when, and I would be very happy to get us involved in a way that can make a difference to ourselves and future generations.  Thank you all very much.

I would now like to open the floor to discussion.

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