- Hasn’t The Planet Always Been Finite?
- The Finite Planet Of The 21st Century
- Pre-1650 and “Sustainability”, A Seemingly Infinite Planet.
- The Economics of Finite Planet.
- Enter Sustainability.
Hasn’t The Planet Always Been Finite?
Theoretically “yes”, but in practice for humans “no”.
Every resource is finite, but for most of history, every resource, at least at the planet level, seemed infinite.
Some resources are still effectively infinite such as iron, others, such as oxygen in the air, still seem infinite for now, but may not for ever.
We are becoming aware that fresh water is not infinite, and nor is the ability of the environment to absorb plastics or the air absorb CO2 without ramifications, but as recently as within the 20th century, neither of those problems seemed possible.
Some are still not convinced of a finite earth with respect to plastic waste or greenhouse gas pollution even today.
The Finite Planet Of The 21st Century.
Today in the 21st century, we all know of the entire planet, and we recognise all territories as either ‘owned’ by some country, or under international treaty.
But for the whole of human history until very recently, it seemed there would always be the possibility of new territories to claim, and undiscovered parts of the globe to explore. For almost all of history, for us humans the planet has been so vast, with so much of it unknown, that the planet felt infinite.
Modern humans have existed for at least 300,000 years, but it is only in the most recent 350 years, that any human has known even known the shape of the continents of the world, and yet for the last around 30 years every individual now see a photo image of every square kilometre of each of those continents.
A key part of what it is to be human has been exploration. The line from Star Trek: ‘to boldly go where no man has gone before’. While there are still places to explore in the depths of the oceans, prior to the 20th century, there were still explorers on land reaching previously unexplored or unreached destinations.
When we think of the great explorations of the future, we are now looking beyond our own planet.
Pre-1650 and “Sustainability”, A Seemingly Infinite Planet.
To most life on Earth, including people prior to around 1650 CE, the planet appears effectively infinite. For people in the past, it seemed that it did not matter what they did to the environment, because the environment could always recover and there were always new and unexplored lands.
From Infinite Planet To Finite Planet.
Before 1650 CE, people lived on an ‘infinite’ planet:
- Living sustainably seems to require zero restrictions.
- The earth had not been fully explored and mapped – no individual human even knew of all the continents, and for every society, there new continents of unknown size to be discovered.
- There was always more ‘unused’ land, not just as nature reserves but land considered unused and available to be used if the need ever arose.
- As populations slowly increased, there would then be additional people to unlock additional resources, as sufficient labour is already available for farming, mining etc
- The earth had not been fully explored and mapped – there even new continents of unknown size to be discovered. to discover
- There was ‘unused’ land, not just as nature reserves but considered unused becaus only nature reserves remain in their natural state, and we need those nature reserves as they are
- additional people no longer unlock additional resources, as sufficient labour is already available for farming, mining etc
1650 to 2000: The Transition To A Global Society.
As recently as 1650, there were still entire societies unknown to each other.
The ‘New World‘, at least to Europeans, of North and South America was joined by Australasia, as huge areas of land that, although fully populated by their established societies, were seen by Europeans as effectively unoccupied.
Most of the world had no enforced borders, or rules of citizenship as we know them today, and immigration meant deciding to go to a new land.
As European society expanded into new territory, there was land to be farmed, mineral wealth to be discovered, for a time, every additional person in the new societies of the new world allowed for increased utilisation of natural resources and access to new wealth.
However, but the end of the 20th century, the situation had changed. More people no longer are required to access all available resources, and now the only question is who is to be allowed access to which of the worlds resources.
The Economics of A Finite Planet.
There is a tipping point for any given community, where more people results in less natural wealth per person. Once there are sufficient people to access all available natural resources, it becomes the total of all natural resources being shared by the total population.
This tipping point could be considered to be when land resources become seen as finite.
Then adding more people no longer results in access to more resources, and there can be reduced openness to further immigration.
Life On A Seemingly Infinite Planet:
- more manpower allows farming more farmland, mining more minerals, catching more fish and developing more technology
- more technology allows increasing the productivity of farmland, accessing more minerals, more advanced fishing techniques and greater resource efficiency
But then the point is reached where there are sufficient people to farm all the land there is, access all the minerals, and fish all the fish from the seas. The planet is now seen as a finite planet. Then, equation changes.
Life In A Finite Area Of A Finite Planet.
- as adding more people cannot no longer result in accessing use using more resources, so more people just means a smaller share for all. Symptoms of decreasing living standards gradually migrating up the economic ladder and only sparing an every decreasing percentage of the most wealthy.
- technology results in a continuingly deceasing number of people required to farm the finite amount of land, fish the finite number of fish and extract the finite amount of minerals, contributing to a breakdown of wealth distribution which further exacerbates the gap between rich and poor
The reality of the planet being finite means the ‘pie’ stops expanding automatically as needed to cater for new arrivals.
While it seemed there were always new areas of land, and new oceans to fish, waste could always find its way eventually to ‘unused’ areas of land or sea. Pollution was a problem only within a local area, and the solution was simply to be able to move the waste elsewhere.
Any resource that became scarce in one location, would be able to mined elsewhere and it was only a matter of new exploration.
Reality is, the our planet will only remain habitable for as little of 25 million years, and can only house a finite number of people at any one time, and no resource is truly infinite. However, we do need to ensure those that would otherwise be consumed in the time available, are renewed or recycled.
This is a revolution from the approach that has worked for 300,000 years.