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Re: Further Changes: Pt.2 of 2; answers to Eric's questions.

by David MacClement

03 October 1999 21:51 UTC


[David: ]
>> **   I was looking for some sort of dynamic balance, with the number 
>> of new species roughly balancing the number of extinctions, averaged 
>> over a long enough time ...
[Eric: ]
>I assume that, grossly simplified, the number of species is actually
>_increasing_ over time, though perhaps slowly.  Otherwise how is it that 
>we have more species now than at the beginning of life on Earth?  Does 
>anyone have number on the total (guess) numbers of species at different 
>times throughout the eons?  That would be interesting.

**  We need to pay some attention to time scales here. A billion years,
comparable to life on Earth, is hardly relevant to questions involving homo
sapiens sapiens ( 1/10,000 of the time). Because we're
Johnnies-come-lately, there's no point in talking about more than a low
multiple of 50,000 years. On a somewhat longer scale, tens of millions of
years, an extinction event or the explosion of the number of
flowering-plant species after the Cretaceous period, are still far larger
'signals' than any long-term trend. So the "baseline" is flat.
**  I do have some numbers-of-species figures since I've just received the
Worldwatch Paper 148: "Nature's Cornucopia". The first complete paragraph
on (the top of) pg.11 is:
  "Although biological fluctuations are part of the ebb and flow of
evolution, the loss of species and other large swaths of the ecological web
are normally rare events. The natural or "background" rate of extinction as
calculated from the fossil record of life on earth appears to be on the
order of 1 to 10 species a year. By contrast, scientists estimate that
extinction rates have accelerated this century to at least 1000 species per
year. These numbers indicate that we now live in a time of mass extinction
-- a global evolutionary upheaval in the diversity and composition of life
on earth." 
[and there's a footnote saying where these numbers come from and the
assumptions used; ask if you want it. D.]

[Eric: ]
>-What you are doing may work well for you in your place and time, but is it
>something people should work toward, as a solution for sustainable living?
** Eric is (and many others are) looking for a specification,
models/examples of sustainable living, i.e. ways in which lots of people
could live. 
   As I've said before, I am trying to find such a low level of subsistence
that it is obviously sustainable (while living in a city since most will
be, in less than 10 years), so that you know you can at least stay alive
while you add this or that, aiming at pleasant sustainable living in your
particular circumstances. People are remarkably inventive, and if Amory and
Hunter Lovins can live through the winter in the Colorado Rockies without
central heating (sunny-day heating plus wood, I believe), then equally good
answers should be available in a great many places (though probably some
locations may have to be permanently evacuated).

**  So "is it something people should work toward?"; No. It's much too far;
tully's tipi is even too far. My guess is: someone living in an old
community (small town or part of an urban area) who's sharing an old
well-insulated house with quite a number of others, having a yard in which
vegetables, flowers and fruit and nut trees can grow (and a chicken or
rabbit pen), able to buy other necessities within walking distance, and
having 4 hours work a day within cycling distance (for all those who want
work), would be not far from sustainable. To leave more than half of
liveable land area untouched, the human density should be high, but no more
than in older parts of European cities (where they have no more than 4
floors, i.e. stairs not elevators). There are obviously other ways to live
sustainably, but what I describe is very recognisable, and I believe
relatively common in other, better parts of the world than the USA. I see
nothing difficult in living sustainably for most people in the world, so
long as the rich get onto it _really_soon_.  And population levels off; the
sustainable level goes down as the population goes up. What I've described
is almost certainly sustainable with 4 billion (when my son was born, at
the time of Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring"); there's more doubt now
there's 50% more people and far higher waste and pollution by the rich.

**  Since my grandfathers' time (late 19th century), there has been _far_
too much paving done; humans should pull out of all areas where wildlife is
still vigorous and bio-diverse. That's a longer-term goal; moving in the
next year or two to using-a-reasonable-minimum is _essential_.


**  Eric had questions about whether the details of what I do are
sustainable. It's worth asking about them, but my goal is "finding the
minimum price of staying alive", and that dollar value is only a little
affected by changes in the details.
[Eric: ]
>-Are the few things you _do_ buy (I think I remember you saying that part
>of your "experiment" is to see how little money someone can live on while
>still buying everything they need.) sustainably produced and transported?
>Do you buy your peanut butter, etc. in bulk or mass produced in jars?
**  Currently in jars, from the main peanut-butter maker in Auckland
(Sanitarium, within walking distance), but the bigger question is: is the
supply and process sustainable? I believe the technology's pretty basic and
not energy-intensive (anyway, NZ has 70% of its electricity from hydro),
while the peanuts come either from the Pacific Islands or eastern
Australia, and are carried by ship (which could be sailing ship, if it was
necessary to go the whole hog). And if I became convinced that I should
move away from peanut butter, I would be sure of cheese (the major
alternative), since I'd be walking past dairy herds if I went in the
opposite direction. I could even do without, since I drink quite a lot of
milk (from organic farms). I've drunk milk all my life, so I have no
trouble digesting it - I presume my gut flora are constantly secreting the
enzymes needed; I drink it because it tastes very good, but keeping my
system working well is an extra reason.

[Eric: ]
>mass transportation (bus?).  Again, this may be easily avoided, but 
>using it and therefore the infrastructure it requires is not sustainable, 
>the way I use the word. 

**  Answering the general point, since when I'm living in one place (either
here or the Coromandel) I would have no use for carbon-fuelled transport. I
think you're either over-simplifying ("no mass transport with its
infrastructure") or are drawing a different balance then I would, i.e.
saying that the materials, energy and land area required for a minimal
public transport system would be more valuable for some other aspect of
living sustainably. I can't think what, though the thought comes that you
may hope to retain quite a lot more of the current US way-of-life than I
see as valuable, "paying for it" by cutting mass transit to zero. In NZ our
long-distance busses carry goods in the normal way, partly since the
biggest carrier was originally the road extension of our national railway
system.


[Eric: ]
>-Humans living in dense populations seems inherently unsustainable, or 
>at best very difficult to accomplish and probably not worth the effort.
>Doesn't impact increase as the population get more dense?

**  Once again, too much of a generalization, and this time from cities in
relatively recent times. I refer to the industrialised agriculture system
with huge monocultural farms a long way from their markets, in contrast to
small to medium towns fed from their hinterlands, but having far more
people in them than is typical in the New World (including most of New
Zealand). Other aspects of "impact" include solid waste and a water-borne
sewerage system, and there are clear answers to both of these, though a
major change in the latter may not be necessary (just the non-inclusion of
hazardous material), in parts of the world that aren't water-stressed.


[Eric: ]
>- Are you considering that some (though perhaps unnecessary for you) of
>what you use comes from others (wife, roommates, community, etc.) who are
>not living sustainably?  Using other's wastes and leftovers is fine, but 
>if the lifestyle requires an unsustainable society then it may not be
>sustainable.  You touch on this in your post on diversity in small groups,
>but where does sustainable fit in?  I don't know if one can truly consider
>one's own lifestyle sustainable if it relies on the unsustainability of
>others.

**  I thought I had dealt with this, in my "diversity in small groups"
post. Also, you imply that "not living sustainably" means that they should
stop, or at least that such ways will have no place in a future sustainable
world.
**  I don't believe sustainable living can be judged on the scale of the
individual, with some exceptions (including most Americans over 14 and
similar over-consumers) where the individual consumption is clearly too
high to be balanced by someone else living at below "the sustainable
level". The furthest you can go below is just above zero, so the highest
level someone can live at is something less than double that level. That's
on a one-for-one basis. A person may be able to live higher still, with
some kind of agreement with more than one other person. As in our family,
and the other examples I gave. 
**  This is actually how the American-and-other-over-consumers way of life
is being supported now: there are at least dozens of people living at below
subsistence level (and some dying) to make up for the over-consumption of
the rich. Those dozens can't go any lower, so the rich have to come down to
a modest, reasonable level of consumption, if there's to be any approach to
sustainability.

David.

(David MacClement) d1v9d @ bigfoot.com (remove spaces)
http://www.emucities.com.au/member/davd/index.html#top
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