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Transition Matters

This section is used to list tried or potential practical solutions for individuals and communities across North Cornwall and beyond. To get more details or to arrange a trainig session/ seminar on one of the Solutions, just contact the originator of the message.

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Thinking about and explaining sustainability

One of the main problems with the word "sustainable" is that it is vague. Even with the better standards given to organic farming, it is hard to put your arms around the topic.

Two parameters need to be included when talking about the sustainability of some resource or activity:

1) Time an activity can be maintained
2) Rate of the activity

The example I often use is the Hummer vehicle. One person on Earth using a Hummer (that burns fossil fuels) is sustainable until the next extinction event. Thus, for this given example the Time parameter is 65 million years at a Rate of use of 1 Hummer / day.

The second example I use is eating sushi (The Chinese are now just starting to love this Japanese tradition). If 7 billion people start eating sushi then the ocean fisheries will collapse in only a few years. Thus, for this example the Time parameter is around 2 years at a Rate of 7 billion people / day.

As this demonstrates, these two parameters are necessary to fully understand the concept of sustainability. I no longer say something is sustainable. I say something is more sustainable when comparing two activities or state the units of sustainability using Time and Rate parameters.

If we all start using this system, it will take out the vagueness of the word "sustainable" and add credibility to any debate on the subject. It quickly transforms the feel of the discussion from being "green" to being scientific. That is the best way to defend arguments about sustainability.

Now, when you say burning fossil fuels is unsustainable you can make very specific arguments like - at our current rate of using 87 million barrels of petroleum per day, this resource is only sustainable for a few years or about one decade, at best. This will really get the attention of a room. When someone shouts back that we have 150 years of petroleum in the ground. You can counter that by saying, "Yes, while it is true we humans will be extracting and burning fossil fuels for 150 years or so, the rate at which we will burn them can be expressed as a negative exponential curve - the second half of a bell curve." Showing this graph to people and then explaining that in 75 years humans will only be burning around 44 million barrels of fossil fuels a day and that the likely global population level will be around 3.5 billion people (even with alternative energy sources because we have drawn down all our other important resources like fresh water, arable land, clean air, ocean fisheries, forests, etc., well past the ability of Earth to support).

If someone else comes back to challenge your numbers, you can simply ask them to show everyone else what they think the curve will look like. That is when they will shoot themselves in the foot, just like the IEA did in the past and why they have had to modify their charts to get closer to reality every year.