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8. From myth to science to Sustainable Development.

8.1 The human myth of unlimited growth.

Until very recently, many of Earth’s humans have followed a pattern of thinking grounded in scientific-untruth. In full fairness, we acknowledge that this thinking arose from simple human ignorance. This thinking followed a line of reasoning similar to: Earth’s resources are unlimited and so then too is economic growth unlimited. Similarly, humans had come to think that what we did on one part of Earth could not affect another part of our planet and so, in effect, we thought we could act on different parts of Earth without any thought being given to the planet as a whole.

Through the science we discuss below, humans now know scientifically that such early thinking was mistaken. And so humans must now begin to change our thinking ways from old thought to new. So let us be clear in what we are saying. This early thinking is similar to when people of old once thought that all planets in our heavens revolved around Earth. Such thoughts had value as an opinion, but as rationale thinking they were shown to be misguided and not based in scientific fact.

Similarly, the opinions of those humans of today who believe that Earth’s resources are unlimited and so then too can economic growth be unlimited, or those people who believe that activities on one part of Earth can have no affect another part of the planet, all have beliefs that are not-grounded in scientific reality and so they simply think in ways unreflective of rationale thought.

In observation of this dynamic, Rees interestingly notes that our modern human society is as “unconsciously myth-bound as any more ‘primitive’....culture...”, and refers to our current human myth of unlimited growth as the “perpetual growth myth”.[57]

8.2 The science of physics: Three Laws of Thermodynamics.

In the plainest of language, the science of physics and its established Three Laws of Thermodynamics tell us why it is wrong to think that Earth’s resources are unlimited and so then too can economic growth be unlimited. These same laws also tell us why humans cannot think that activities on one part of Earth can not affect another part of the planet. Our brief and simple explanation follows, for people such as us we who are not trained in the physical sciences:

Through the First Law of Thermodynamics we learn that our Earth is a contained (closed) system, possessing mass and energy (which includes us humans) that is finite (limited) to what is already found on our planet.[58] Additionally, that “[t]he amount of matter on Earth has stayed the same for billions of years...” and that matter on Earth which is burned (whether in the form of plants, animals, minerals like coal, liquids like oil or petroleum, etc.) is not destroyed, but simply takes on a different form, mostly changed into waste in the form of visible or invisible gases.[59] The Second Law of Thermodynamics, the Law on Entropy, says that everything spreads (both matter and energy), and that while the quantity of energy and matter on Earth may remain the same, the quality of the energy decreases over time and with each change.[60] While Newton’s Laws of Physics are said to apply only in certain conditions, the Laws of Thermodynamics are said to “have no exceptions” and so “stretch across every form of science known to humankind”. [61]

What does this mean in the simplest of terms? For science, Earth’s matter and energy is finite. When matter, such as non-renewable oil resources, are used-up or burned-up they do not disappear but simply change form to usually become polluting gases. Additionally for science it understands that, through the Law of Entropy, what happens on one part of Earth can indeed affect life on another part of the planet.

Simpler still. To hold a belief in unlimited economic growth arising from a scientifically unsupported belief in unlimited resources on Earth is to believe in a modern myth. It is a child’s dream not supported by the hard, cold, reality of the science of physics.

Simpler yet. Earth is one, shared, planet. Humans need to care about what happens anywhere on Earth, for impacts on one part of the planet can have direct effects on other, seemingly distant, parts of Earth.

One, shared, finite planet Earth as seen from space.

Since the 1970´s, humans have become increasingly aware through science and the United Nations that Earth’s resources are indeed finite and, more importantly for us, that human patterns of development can and do have impacts on Earth’s natural environment. Science has also helped humans of today to understand that Earth is, in effect, an interconnected system or organism, with impacts experienced on one part of the planet having the potential to affect other parts of Earth. The United Nation’s WCED - Brundtland Commission spoke to the reality of Earthly limits and interconnexions in Our Common Future:

  • “The concept of sustainable development does imply limits - not absolute limits but limitations imposed by the present state of technology and social organization on environmental resources and by the ability of the biosphere to absorb the effects of human activities.”[62]

With this new knowledge in mind, science and the United Nations have both helped introduce humans to our species’ need for the practice of sustainable development.

8.3 The next step: Sustainable Development.

We see it as being increasingly important that our human species publicly recognise and acknowledge that our previously-held belief in the myth of unlimited resources and non-harm to Earth from human development patterns was built on a false foundation. We see this need for human public recognition and acknowledgement of our mistaken thinking as being a first psychological step toward our being able to change our previously learned and unhealthy patterns of behaviour.

This public recognition and acknowledgement will then open the door for humans to begin to explore and experiment with new types of thinking around finite resource availability, our species’ need to care for Earth’s natural environment, and that humans cannot take Earth’s environmental health for granted.

What would then next follow would be collective human efforts at understanding and practicing sustainable development: our striving to balance each of its three social, environmental and economic parts.

[57] Rees, William E.. 2008. Toward Sustainability with Justice: Are Human Nature and History on Side? In Soskolne, Colin L., ed. SUSTAINING LIFE ON EARTH. Plymouth, UK: Lexington Books (Page 81 - 93). (Quote on pages 87-88).
[58] All About Science. (2008a). Three Laws of Thermodynamics [online]. Available from: http://www.allaboutscience.org/three-laws-of-thermodynamics-faq.htm . [Accessed: 21 April 2008].
Farabee, M.J. (1992). Laws of Thermodynamics [online]. Available from: http://www.emc.maricopa.edu/faculty/farabee/BIOBK/BioBookEner1.html . [Accessed: 21 April 2008].
[59] The Natural Step. (no date). Basic Science [online]. Available from: http://www.naturalstep.ca/basic-science.html . [Accessed: 21 April 2008].
[60] All About Science. (2008b). Second Law of Thermodynamics [online]. Available from: http://www.allaboutscience.org/second-law-of-thermodynamics.htm . [Accessed: 02 May 2008].
[61] All About Science. (2008a). Three Laws of Thermodynamics [online]. Available from: http://www.allaboutscience.org/three-laws-of-thermodynamics-faq.htm . [Accessed: 21 April 2008].
[62] UN Documents Cooperation Circles. (1987b). Our Common Future: From One Earth to One World - An Overview by the World Commission on Environment and Development: Section 1.3.27 The Global Challenge - Sustainable Development [online]. As available from: http://www.un-documents.net/ocf-ov.htm . [Accessed: 03 May 2008].

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