One finite planet: beyond sustainability.
We cannot even properly define sustainability without giving time much more thought.
The first core problem with ‘sustainability’ is clear from the Wikipedia page:
Sustainability is a societal goal that broadly aims for humans to safely co-exist on planet Earth over a long time.Sustainability: Wikipedia
Just what is ‘a long time’?
To a five-year-old, an hour is a long time. As we get older, the perception of ‘a long time’ stretches with our time horizons. Perhaps it is the same with humanity, and the distance into the future we look will also grow to the point we feel the need to define ‘a long time’.
Defining ‘a long time’ remains abstract, while still thinking of the planet as existing for infinite time, but a bigger problem is that people have to look elsewhere for purpose for their existence.
Unlike the thinking of ‘sustainability‘, one finite planet, as a problem to be solved. To genuinely provide for the future, humanity has to sustain the planet, whilst finding solutions to the time limit.
The Finite Planet of the 21st Century.
The increasing perception of land and resources as finite.
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.
Reality is, our planet will only remain habitable for as little of 25 million years, can only house a finite number of people at any one time, and no resource is truly infinite. However, we do need to ensure resources that would otherwise be consumed in the time available, have a pathway to being renewed or recycled.
This is a revolution from the approach that has worked for 300,000 years.
The planet has always been finite but dealing with that is new.
Every resource on the planet is finite, but for most of history, every resource was assumed to be at the planet level inexhaustible.
Once we set a time frame of even 25 million years, then we can determine which resources, such as iron, we can genuinely assume to be inexhaustible, and which others, such as oxygen in the air, that we have been treating as inexhaustible so far, do still need consideration.
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 to fit within people’s time horizons.
Some are still even thinking about a finite earth with respect to plastic waste or greenhouse gas pollution even today. For many people, there is no timeline.
History of understanding our planet is finite.
The 20th Century: Enter Sustainability.
While it had always previously appeared that there would always be new areas of land for housing, new oceans to fish, and more place to store any waste, in the century more realities became clear. While previously pollution was a problem only within a local area, and the solution was simply to move the waste elsewhere.
People started to fear a resource that became scarce in one location, may not forever just be able to be found given elsewhere and not always only a matter of new exploration.
Before 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 world’s resources.
We can’t really even properly define ‘sustainable‘ without a framework that provides a bigger picture.
Consider the mission:
One Finite Planet is a societal goal that broadly aims for humans to safely co-exist on planet Earth whilst all working towards overcoming the limits of existing on only one finite planet.
Humanity needs goals and this is more a mission statement than tangible goals to pursue, but if the mission could be adopted by enough people, then there can be collaborative work on the goals.
- *2022 October 2:
- 2021 December 12: First version.