Is Sustainability Even Possible?

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Some questions to ponder on Earth Day: how much of an environmental problem is the growing human population? And is the problem too many people or the throwaway culture of too many things?

A new paper in the journal Science attempts to assess the burdens placed on people and the planet by individuals’ decisions to have large families and/or consume a lot.

A key factor in the creation of large families is young women without access to schools or family planning. So one way to address population growth is to educate and empower women.

Good news. That's happening. In fact, the rate of population growth peaked back in the 1960s and has been falling ever since.

What about consumption? Our global economy's toll in pollution and degradation of the environment remains high, though its focus has shifted around the globe. For example, the current uptick in Brazilian deforestation can be traced largely to exports of beef and soybeans to China.

The conclusion of the Science paper: "contemporary economic growth is unsustainable." And true sustainability has to be long-term: it means ensuring that whatever decisions we make now do not lessen the ability of future generations to have at least as good a life as we enjoy today. We can't buy our way out of the problem.

—David Biello

[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]

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