The Politics of Personal Virtue, Sustainability, and Population Growth

“Conservation may be a sign of personal virtue, but it is not a sufficient basis for a sound, comprehensive energy policy.”
Vice President Richard Cheney, 2001

I have begun wonder lately whether anything I personally do can be considered sustainable. I live at 9,000 feet in the Colorado Rocky Mountains and I’m in the process of converting my home to a zero energy standard powered completely off-grid with a hybrid wind and solar system and transforming my 3 acres into model of permaculture capable of providing all of our food requirements. At a personal level that seems “sustainable” and at least provides a sense of satisfaction and security, however from a global perspective of 6.7 billion people it amounts to nothing more than a personal fortress. A fragile island of self-sufficency, in a world racing toward ecological overshoot and collapse.

Is Cheney right about conservation being no more than a virtue? Is what we do at a personal level no more than a greener than thou ego fantasy? Is nothing we do personally sustainable in the larger context of a growing pop of 6.7 billion people and the equivalent 2 to 3 more earths required support a Chinese, Indian, and Brazilian population determined to achieve the American standard of consumption?

It is likely that we have already exceeded the carrying capacity of the earth. The point at which the combination of the world’s population and that population’s average level of consumption exceeds the capability of the earth to provide sustenance. Individual actions to achieve a sustainable level of consumption are no longer meaningful. Actions and policies of entire countries are only slightly more meaningful.

I don’t agree with world view embedded in Cheney’s cynical quote, however one word speaks to the truth. Our continued survival on this planet will depend on a comprehensive world policy of sustainability and living within our planet’s carrying capacity and that policy must address and include the politically explosive issue of population growth.

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3 responses to “The Politics of Personal Virtue, Sustainability, and Population Growth

  1. It is likely that we have already exceeded the carrying capacity of the earth.

    I have a BS in environmental horticulture and my masters included a year of urban ecology. I think I am minimally qualified to say: oh, yes, definitely.

    The point at which the combination of the world’s population and that population’s average level of consumption exceeds the capability of the earth to provide sustenance.

    Yes.

    Individual actions to achieve a sustainable level of consumption are no longer meaningful.

    No.

    This is incorrect.

    In my profession, I leave behind patterns for others to follow. I am speaking this fall at two (as of today) national conferences about Green Infrastructure.

    What smart, committed individuals do matters a lot, as our patterns that we leave behind will teach future generations. They will see what the smart people did and what the masses did, and learn from the smart people.

    No, what we do won’t do much today. Or tomorrow. But the next day? Yes.

    We will have either a soft landing or a hard landing. A soft landing will be hard for maybe 1/3, 1/5, 1/6 of us, then we will slowly decline in number. A hard landing will be hard for far more than half of us, then more will decline in number until our numbers stabilize. This will come about due to cheap energy (that caused our population boom) going away, and our overexploitation of resources.

    Either landing will require things left behind for others to learn from. I am at ~ 6400 ft on the Front Range, have a horticulture degree, and struggle with the climate for food production down here, so I’d like to see what you do. I’ll figure it out eventually and someone may stumble across it and be happy. See? It matters.

    Best,

    D

  2. Dano,

    Grim predictions, but probably and sadly true.

    I don’t discount the power of a single person to inspire and create or at least plant the seed of meaningful change by way of example. However my pessimism comes from the realization that my individual and physical contributions to a sustainable lifestyle are offset by a factor of 10 in the emerging economies of the world.

    It’s the optimist in me that keeps writing this blog, and in that endeavor I am encouraged and thankful for your reasoned and thoughtful contributions.

    John

  3. everydaythomist

    Aristotle, and neo-Aristotelians like myself believed that virtues are what sound public policy is based on. A good society is a society that fosters virtue in its citizens. Cheny’s comments reflect a neo-Machiavellianism or neo-Hobbesian philosophy which I think is fundamentally flawed. If conservation is a virtue, then the government should be encouraging it.

    Moreover, shouldn’t Cheny’s administration be in favor of conservation-based public policy? Aren’t they conservatives? Don’t the two words have the same etymological root?

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