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Preparing for Peace

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Peace and Sustainability: Nurturing Complex Systems

Professor John Cairns Jnr.


Most wars are attempts to acquire more resources (e.g., oil, land, diamonds), although the justification for the war may be expressed quite differently.  For the first time in human history, the world’s population has doubled within a human lifetime—resources have not.  In addition, human expectations for increased per capita consumption have increased dramatically.  Finally, the range of per capita resource consumption worldwide has increased tremendously.  These and related factors have markedly increased the likelihood of resource wars, which substantively deplete natural resources.  All these trends are unsustainable.  Living sustainably should reduce the probability of resource wars, benefit posterity, and provide hope for a quality future for all humankind.  Sustainable living should also reduce the disparity between the “haves” and the “have nots.”  Both human population size (now 6.3 billion and rising) and distribution (increasingly urbanized) have increased dependence upon the technological/economic life support system which, as now managed, threatens the much older ecological life support system.  The survival of human society now depends on the nurturing of both of these complex, multivariate systems so that they are mutualistic rather than antagonistic.  Living sustainably should benefit both systems and reduce the probability of resource wars.

  For every complex problem there is a simple, direct solution - and it is invariably wrong.                                                                         H. L. Mencken

  There is a lot wrong with our world.  But it is not as bad as people think.  It is actually worse.

                                                                                                                               Michael Meacher

                                                                         Former Environmental Minister, United Kingdom


1.  Foundations of Sand

            Wars between humans are devastating, but the human war being waged on the environment will have a far greater effect on humankind.  Peace for humankind is a superb vision.  However, if humankind does not cease making war on, or in other words destroying, Earth’s ecological life support system and the species that comprise it, peace will be built on a foundation of sand.  Paul R. Ehrlich, Professor of population studies at Stanford University, Stanford, CA, USA, notes:  “We’re waging a war on the environment, a very successful one” (quoted in The Guardian, Friday, October 24, 2003).  If natural capital is destroyed or impaired, ecosystem services, such as maintaining atmospheric gas balance, will be lost.  This loss will reduce the planet’s carrying capacity for humans and per capita resources.  The inevitable result is resource wars.  Exponential population growth reduces per capita resources such as water, forests, croplands, etc.  Another cause for concern is mass migration from countries that have exceeded their carrying capacity to countries where resources appear to be more abundant.

            Individuals who believe that humankind is immune from natural law need only become informed about the recent effects when Hurricane Isabel hit the 100+ miles of barrier islands (the “Outer Banks”) on the east coast of North Carolina, USA.  The hurricane washed out much of the main road for the islands, destroyed motels and million dollar houses, and even divided one island into several islets.  A whole town, Hatteras Village, was cut off, temporarily at least, from the mainland.

            One persistent belief, especially in the United States, is that nature can be vanquished.  At the core of this belief is a conviction that there are no limits to growth.  Proponents of unlimited growth consider certain ideas subversive:  that limits exist, that finite limits exist on a finite planet, and that humans are subject to a finite carrying capacity (as with any other species).  Peace is more than the absence of war.  The probability of peace will be dramatically increased if Earth’s life support systems are nurtured and natural capital is not squandered, thus markedly reducing the likelihood of resource wars.  If humankind’s war on nature continues, humankind will suffer grievous harm.


2. The Pivotal Role of Peace

            Peace is an essential precondition for sustainable use of the planet.  However, to be truly effective, the word peace must include the 30+ million other life forms with which humankind shares the planet.  The war on other life forms is transforming Earth at an exponential rate (e.g., McNeil 2000).  This process is driven by rapid human population growth (e.g., Nelson 2003), corporate exploitation of natural resources, climate change, and an unjustified faith in technological solutions to ethical problems, such as the assertion by some economists that resources are infinitely substitutable.  Humankind is waging resource war on natural systems by damaging habitat, which results in biotic impoverishment, including species extinction well beyond evolutionary replacement of lost species.  Old growth forests, coral reefs, wetlands, and other important ecosystem categories are at risk worldwide.  Waging war on the planet’s ecological life support system is suicidal.  If the 21st century wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are harbingers of future conflicts, the “shock and awe” attack by a major military power will be followed by a sabotage and anarchy campaign by a significant number of indigenous people that may be aided by volunteers from other countries.  

            In Iraq, occupying forces have cut down date trees, burned crops, drained wetlands, destroyed irrigation systems, and burned grassy knolls in areas thought to be harboring terrorists (Al-Atraqchi 2003, http://www.islamonline.net/English/In_Depth/Iraq_Aftermatch/2003/10/article_13.shtml).  Given the close association of local people with the land, reprisals appear inevitable.

Collateral environmental damage caused by humankind’s life styles results in global climate warming (e.g., Usha Lee McFarling, 24 October, 2003, Los Angeles Times), desertification, water and air pollution, and changes in basic ecological cycles (e.g., nitrogen).  Except possibly for a massive nuclear war, no war could be more devastating to natural systems.

Sustainable use is closely linked to the health and integrity of Earth’s ecological life support system, which consists of natural capital (living systems) and the ecosystem services it provides.  The condition of the ecological life support system depends, in turn, on a mutualistic, harmonious, coevolutionary relationship with humankind, its societies, and organizations.  Above all, a positive coevolutionary relationship between these two complex systems based on eco-ethics and sustainability ethics (Cairns 2003a) and a transdisciplinary synthesis merging environmental monitoring information across large temporal and spatial scales is essential.  Effective use of environmental quality control data requires effective communication between and among the traditional disciplines and an enormous array of special interest groups.  Coupling societal (including technological/economic) and natural systems to produce a sustainable, mutually beneficial relationship will require creativity, empathy, and the capacity to adapt quickly to the inevitable evolutionary changes in both of these complex multivariate systems.  Humankind is so enamored with the technological/economic system that it needs neither explanation nor defense.  However, the ecological life support system needs both an explanation and defense so that both systems are fully understood and a mutualistic relationship can be developed between them.  Resource wars will not cease until use without abuse of natural systems is a sine qua non.  Living sustainability does not ensure peace but living unsustainably will lead to resource wars.

            Although synthesis has occurred within the traditional disciplines, transdisciplinary synthesis is rare.  The term “interdependent web of life” recognizes the many connections in the environment. Humankind asserts that it respects the web, although human practices continue to cause grievous, possibly fatal, damage to the web.  Although humans may become extinct long before life on Earth is extinguished if present unsustainable practices continue, severe damage to ecological and evolutionary processes is highly probable (e.g., Myers and Knoll 2001).  This damage, in turn, will have deleterious effects on humankind.

Capra (2002) has undertaken to extend the new understanding of life that has emerged from complexity theory to the social demand, with particular attention to sustainability.  As Capra (2002) remarks, humankind is surrounded by massively complex systems that increasingly permeate almost every aspect of human lives.  The fact that these complex industrial systems and their unsustainable practices are the primary threat to the ecological life support system upon which sustainable use of the planet depends is alarming.


3.  Doubletalk

As Hausman (2003) remarks, deception and doubletalk are common in advertising, politics, and the news media.  Effective communication requires trust in the sources of the information (based on a reputation for accuracy, objectivity, and a systematic, orderly approach to issues important to sustainable use of the planet), which, in turn, requires a high level of literacy about nurturing humankind’s life support systems.  Special interest groups that are reaping profits from these unsustainable practices will regard high levels of literacy about current unsustainable practices with disfavor.  War is also profitable to many special interest groups, so the path forward will be contentious and controversial.  The issue of cigarette smoking in the United States often focuses on the economy and lost jobs.  However, many of the costs (i.e., health and loss of working time) are predictably downplayed because of the pressure of special interest groups.


4.  World Governance

Assuming that it is possible to diminish deception and doubletalk, which appears utopian at present, how can any world governance emerge that is capable of eliminating unsustainable practices that lead to resource wars?  Capra (2002) believes that the present form of global capitalism is both ecologically and socially unstable in an era of economic instability.  The ecological and social disequilibria are already quite apparent, and the global economic system is quite fragile.  Badly needed is an organization capable of sustainably managing the global system so that it is protected from exploitation by nation-states, special interest groups, and individuals.  Exploitation is an obstacle to both peace and sustainable use of the planet.

The United Nations has a broad mandate and transparent decision-making processes with prospects of giving guidance in implementing sustainable environmental practices and the social processes that support them.  Enforcement powers, however, are well below the necessary level.  There is hope that the information age will produce an unprecedented political movement.  Capra (2002) postulates that use of the Internet by non-governmental organizations will foster development of a network capable of mobilizing members with unprecedented speed.  Castells (1997) proposes that social change in the network will be a result of the rejection of present dominant values and, thus, will not originate within traditional institutions.  Cairns (2003a) proposes a set of eco-ethics based on a sense of belonging to the interdependent web of life and a preliminary declaration of sustainability ethics based on a wish to leave a habitable planet for future generations of the human species and those of other life forms.  Environmentalists usually assume that these two sets of ethics are identical—they are not.  Peace within the human species will not be sustainable unless humankind makes peace with the interdependent web of life and the species that comprise it.  Even though the two sets of ethics are not identical, they must be compatible.

Human aspirations change, but natural laws do not.  Indefinite use of the planet by one species, Homo sapiens, does not conform to the paleontological record, which shows that species come and go, although some persist for considerable periods of time.  The living network endures, but its component parts (i.e., species) do not.  Without the system, the species cannot survive. The system is the aggregate of all living species, but not any particular one for an indefinite period of time.  At present, humans are both inflicting major damage on the system and simultaneously expecting to persist as a species indefinitely.  This war on nature will have consequences for humankind.

The glorification of materialphilia (love of material possessions, see Cairns 2003b) is now carried to the point of creating severe disequilibrium in the ecological life support system.  An uncharitable person might understandingly conclude that humankind is suicidal.  Ecological ethics is an attempt to establish a more harmonious relationship with natural systems and is clearly ecocentric (Cairns 2003c).  Sustainability ethics attempts to be both homocentric and ecocentric (Cairns, 2003c), based on the assumption that they are compatible.

It is difficult to imagine protecting the global ecological life support system without a fair, equitable, effective system of world governance.  As Hoffman (2003) remarks, the very complexity of the international scene makes it unlikely that such a system can develop.  McNeil and McNeil (2003) assert that, to preserve what is here now, humankind and its successors must change their ways by learning to live simultaneously in a cosmopolitan web and in various and diverse primary communities.  Reconciling such opposites is the defining question of the present time, and probably into the future.  McNeil and McNeil (2003) conclude that humankind is living on the crest of a breaking web; however, with luck, intelligence, and tolerance, it may be possible to keep the web from breaking.  I am convinced that a systems level approach, combined with compassion for local and regional issues, is essential to both peace and sustainability.


5.  The Age of Synthesis

Sustainable use of the planet requires a level of synthesis unprecedented in human history.  Arguably, humankind must accomplish synthesis in the first half of the 21st century because of both exponential population growth and rapid depletion of natural capital.  Without peace, this transition will be exceedingly difficult, arguably impossible.  Information about the components of sustainability (such as sustainable energy, agriculture, water use, and the like) has promise, but the connections between them at the system level are almost non-existent.  In short, “bottom-up” sustainability strategies are progressing satisfactorily, but “top-down” (i.e., system level) sustainability strategies are not.  Furthermore, the connections between these two strategies are largely unexplored (Cairns 2003c).  Worse yet, there is strong opposition to abandoning unsustainable practices.  Sustainable practices are more favorable to maintaining peace because they diminish but do not eliminate resource wars.


6.  Policy Issues

The policy of expecting perpetual growth on a finite planet is no longer tenable and should have been abandoned in the 20th century.  Although Ruth Patrick advocated “use without abuse” of natural systems in 1948, the concept of sustainability originated with Brown (1981).  He defined a sustainable society as one that is able to satisfy its needs without diminishing the options of future generations.  Years later the definition (somewhat modified) was used by the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED 1987) in a report that received much international attention.

It is abundantly clear, however, that most individuals and their leaders the world over have little or no literacy in sustainability.  Most people would probably endorse Brown’s (1981) definition of sustainability. Many more, including corporations, would endorse the WCED (1987) definition, since the word sustainable is used as an adjective to define the noun development and this noun is strongly associated with growth, which is the world’s dominant paradigm at present.

In the United States, a major belief is that present practices need only be modified to be sustainable—hence the term “smart growth.”  This conviction is usually accompanied by the concomitant belief that technology will provide the solution to even the most intractable problems, i.e., biotechnology will solve the food shortage and even the water shortages (e.g., treating unpotable water).  As a consequence, few (if any) nation-states have in place and are implementing a broad, “top-down” sustainability strategy.  Furthermore, effective implementation will require more knowledge of component parts (e.g., sustainable transportation) than is now available.  Fortunately, there are a number of steps toward sustainability that could be implemented at once while a global, “top-down” sustainability policy is being developed.


7.  Achieving Peace Via Sustainable Use of the Planet

            ●Diminish the probability of resource wars by moving toward a more fair and equitable allocation of resources.

            ●Preserve Earth’s ecological life support system by allocating more than 12% of the total resource to this purpose.

●Cease immediately all environmentally perverse government subsidies (Myers and Kent 2001), but expect a fierce fight from the special interest groups that benefit from subsidy dollars.

●Stay within carrying capacity.  The carrying capacity of ecoregions, nation-states, and the planet should be more precisely defined in terms of sustainable use, focusing on maximum capacity (low quality of life) and optimal capacity (high quality of life).

●Stabilize human population size and even reduce it if it exceeds carrying capacity.  With regard to exponential growth of the human population size, one is reminded of the tale of an elephant in a small room—everyone sees it, but no one wants to talk about it.

●Achieve zero net immigration.  Zero net immigration should be enforced by all nation-states (e.g., Browne 2002).  Mass immigration, both legal and illegal, makes a mockery of attempts at population stabilization.  Arguably, even more serious is that immigration encourages nation-states to export people to avoid solving their population and sustainability problems internally.

●Control ecological footprint size.  Careful analyses of ecological footprint size (Wackernagel and Rees 1996) should be made at all levels of social organization.  (Useful websites on ecological footprint size are www.envionment.govt.nz/footprint/input.html or www.bestfootforward.com.footprintlife.html or www.mec.ca.apps.ecoCalefood.jsp or www.lead.org/leadnet/footprint.default.html.)  Important issues to consider are:  (1) global disparity in ecological footprint size; (2) impact of the total human population on the ecological life support system is more important than related subissues of poverty, racism, and individual rights; (3) Biosphere II (Earth is Biosphere I), a 3.1-acre airtight mesocosm in Arizona, USA), illustrated quite well that an ecological life support system cannot be created and kept functional for a long period of time.  Humankind should not think that an ecological life support system could be created with present knowledge.  The lesson from Biosphere II is that the ecological life support system now functioning must be protected because a replacement is not possible at present; (4) ecological footprint size is not a robust measure of quality of life; (5) unsustainable practices damage the ecological life support system, which results in a per capita reduction in ecological footprint size; (6) incentives to overuse resources (large ecological footprint size) must be markedly diminished; (7) a sustainable quality life does not depend on material goods consumption.  The United Nations Development Programme asserts that a sustainable quality of life is achieved by “creating an environment in which people can develop their full potential and lead productive, creative lives in accord with their needs and interests.”


8.  Nurturing the Technological/Industrial System

            Nurturing is exceedingly difficult without peace among humans and the other life forms with which they share the planet.  The war on (destruction of) the world’s ecosystems is, arguably, more important than wars between nation-states.  Lasting peace requires inclusion of all life forms.

            If humankind aspires to both lead the “good life” and leave a habitable planet for posterity, it is essential to preserve both the ecological life support system and the more recently developed technological/economic life support system.  Present population size, demographic distribution, and level of affluence do not permit any other alternative.  Cooperation of all humankind in this effort will only be possible if there is a vastly improved social equity and peace.

            The definition of the “good life” is critical.  If it is based primarily on acquisition of material goods, the ecological life support system will continue to be degraded.  If based on a sense of community with both members of one’s own and other species, the good life may be possible.  Prugh and Assadourian (2003) believe that the survival of Homo sapiens is not in much danger from anything humankind might do to the global ecological life support system.  This belief is dangerous because paleontological records show that the typical fate of a species is to become extinct.  The assumption of indefinite survival for humans is probably untenable if there is both massive global climate change and a significant change in the evolution of new species more suited to new environmental conditions.  It is not prudent to gamble with extinction while the alternative of living in a mutualistic relationship with the present ecological life support system appears possible.

Precautionary measures are always preferable to assumptions of invulnerability, as the passengers and crew of the Titanic discovered too late.  On the other hand, as Prugh and Assadourian (2003) remark, most people would not choose a society in which a few people control resources.  Mutiny is the likely outcome if the resources are disproportionately distributed, unless a totalitarian state maintains the maldistribution by force.  This situation is certainly not the scenario that most people would describe as the good life.  Nurturing both the ecological life support system and the technological/economic life support system appears to offer the best prospect for living sustainably and achieving peace.


9.  Cultural and Religious Conflicts, Resource Wars and Terrorism

It seems probable that nation-states will endure for at least the 21st century.  As a consequence, conflicts between them will occur and almost certainly increase as the global population increases and natural capital diminishes.  The world’s only superpower can defeat militarily countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq but cannot easily control terrorists and saboteurs, as the situations in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2003 illustrate.

In Iraq, the oil pipeline to Turkey was badly damaged, as were electrical and water supplies.  In September 2003, there was no effective civil government in Iraq, nor is it likely that one will appear soon.  Cultural and religious conflicts suppressed by Saddam Hussein are emerging as a major problem, and civil disorder is rampant.  These situations are not satisfactory conditions for nurturing Earth’s life support systems or achieving peace.


10.  Ethics at the Core

The most basic ethical question is:  Should humankind ignore the future of its descendants?  Cultural evolution has expanded the ethical treatment of other species, first to domesticated species and then to other species of commercial or recreational value.  However, extending ethical responsibility to the ecological life support system and posterity is not yet a major commitment for humankind.  Meeting these responsibilities requires ensuring that the integrity of the ecological life support system is not impaired and that the condition of the technological/economic life support be maintained and preserved to the maximum degree possible without endangering the ecological life support system.  There is robust justification for this position because natural capital is the ultimate source of all other capital.  In addition, the ecosystem services provided by natural capital are essential to the ecological life support system.  Without adequate resources per capita, peace is unlikely.

At present, nurturing the technological/economic life support system, even at the cost of severe damage to the ecological life support system, is called progress and economic growth.  However, anything that compromises the ecological life support system is not sustainable.  There is no justification for the statement “you can’t stop progress” since, as defined at present, it damages the ecological life support system.  Natural capitalism provides an economic alternative that nurtures the ecological life support system (i.e., natural capitalism consists of sustainable economic/technological practices), and unsustainable practices are poor management and unethical.


11.  Catastrophes

Although much can be done to prevent anthropogenic short-term catastrophes, the long-term prospects are less encouraging.  As Leakey and Lewin (1999, as quoted in Kosmicki 2001) note:  “Since the Cambrian period the life on Earth has had its booms and catastrophes, the species developed and changed and then were all killed in global annihilation.”  Humankind has little likelihood of addressing these long-term issues until unsustainable practices are replaced with sustainable ones.  Stacewicz (2001) believes the “turning point” in the creation of new cultural patterns of Western civilization has been evident for some time.


12.  Will Reason Prevail?

Great deeds require resolve, persistence, literacy, reason, and a strong commitment to ethics.  Arguably, sustainable use of the planet is the ultimate great deed because it involves peace among humans and other life forms.  Sustainability is probably the greatest experiment ever undertaken by humankind.  It cannot succeed in an atmosphere of war, anarchy, or petty bickering between unilateralists and internationalists (and one might add between the academic disciplines).  It cannot succeed if fear and force are the primary motivators.  Sustainability cannot be achieved by force, even by a superpower whose leaders feel obligated to uphold world order.  A consensual global set of values expressed through new international institutions is essential.  Such a set of values will require the support of all of the powerful nation-states and the financial support of the wealthy, who cannot escape to another comparable planet if this one is damaged.


12.  Mobilizing by Catastrophes

The worst-case scenario is that humankind will fail to respond adequately to the inevitable catastrophes that will result from continuing unsustainable practices (including war) on a large scale.  One or more major catastrophes may be necessary to cause a global paradigm shift from unsustainable practices to sustainable practices.  One hopes that the catastrophe will not exceed the resilience of the global life support system.  Even then, an effective response will require world governance beyond what now exists.

This world governance, in turn, must be guided by shared ecological and sustainability ethics based on a much higher level of environmental literacy than now exists.  Emerging world leaders must be well informed about how Earth’s life support systems work and be able to communicate new paradigms to all humankind.  As Paterson et al. (2003) note, governance has become one of the key themes in global environmental politics.  They further state that much of the strength of this concept derives from its capacity to convey a sense of an overarching set of arrangements beyond the specificities of individual issue areas or thematic concerns that encompass a broad range of political foci.


13.  Establishing Feedback Loops for the Ecological Life Support System

The suggestion that a nation-state, such as the United States, manage its economy without feedback loops providing information (e.g., inflation rates, consumer confidence, housing starts, and unemployment) would be ridiculed.  The continual feedback of information enables economists to determine the health of the economy and nurture the system when its health is impaired.  The level of detail required is impressive.  However, no comparable feedback loops provide detailed, continuous information about the health of the ecological life support system, which is at least as important as the economy and, arguably, more important, since natural capital is the basis for all other forms of capital.  The purpose of monitoring each system, either economic or ecological, is to confirm that pre-established quality control conditions are being met.  If not, remedial measures should be taken quickly.  The methods and procedures are available for monitoring the condition of the ecological life support system, but the motivation to do so at the level of detail provided for the economy is lacking.  Nurturing the ecological life support system requires that a monitoring system be established.  Without adequate feedback loops, the destruction of other species will continue.


14.  Nurturing the Ecological Life Support System while Nurturing Old People

Achieving sustainability in an unsustainable world will not be possible if all unsustainable practices are not replaced with sustainable practices.  Population stability in all nation-states and eco-regions is essential to the quest for sustainable use of the planet.  Humankind in developed countries faces two major problems:  (1) an increased population of old people and (2) excessive consumption of material goods.  These seemingly unrelated problems could be addressed concomitantly.

If the consumption of material goods were diminished, the ecological footprint of developed countries would be closer to the world average.  The many workers who have two jobs to maintain a materialistic life style could reduce working hours and spend more time with their families (including caring for the elderly), on recreation, and volunteer social work.  No nation-state or ecoregion should solve labor problems by encouraging immigration from nation-states and eco-regions that have exceeded their carrying capacity because these immigrants will age.  If this practice continues, population problems will become even more acute globally since it permits nation-states and ecoregions to avoid facing the fact that they have exceeded their carrying capacity.  Exporting humans to solve national and local problems is an unsustainable practice.  The Middle East and North Africa have 6.3% of the world population and only 1.4% of the water and one of the world’s highest birthrates.  The region cannot export people indefinitely to avoid addressing carrying capacity problems since this will accelerate problems in the host countries.

In contrast, the United States has 4.6% of the world’s population, but is responsible for nearly 25% of the world’s anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions.  Both overdeveloped and third-world countries must address carrying capacity issues in a different way.  Neither exporting nor importing people is a sustainable practice for either group.  On a global scale, both overpopulation and over consumption of resources are severely damaging other life forms and driving some to extinction.

Iran’s family planning initiatives, including contraceptive use, have reduced fertility rates from a high of 5.6 in 1985 to 2.0 in 2000.  Regrettably, the United States, which should be a world leader in working toward population stabilization, has withheld US$34 million from the United Nations Population Fund and cut off aid to international family planning organizations whose services include (but do not use US funds for) informing women of legal abortion options.  In an overcrowded world, a point has been reached where each population increase means less resources per capita, which will push more impoverished persons into starvation and even death.  Earth can only support a finite number of people, beyond this point the primary issue is how people will die and at what age.  These are not circumstances that favor peace.

Population stabilization will not be fully effective until urban sprawl is eliminated.  Then, more space will be available for natural systems (i.e., natural capital and the services it provides).  The policies espoused by “smart growth” proponents does reduce per capita land consumption but, unless coupled with population stabilization, merely saves land for the present generation that will be lost in succeeding generations (i.e., it is an unsustainable practice unless the reduction in per capita land consumption is coupled to population stabilization).


15.  Homo Sapiens:  An Endangered Species?

            Initially, a question about Homo sapiens being an endangered species appears preposterous, but the statement does have merit.  Humans inherited a storehouse of natural capital that took 3 billion years to accumulate; they have greatly depleted it in just a few centuries.  For most of their existence, humans were a small-group species spread thinly over Earth.  However, recently in evolutionary time, they have become a large-group species living in high densities over a substantial part of the planet’s land and exhausting the fisheries of the world’s oceans, which cover a larger part of the surface.  The planet has been turned into a common ground from which any individual or corporation with sufficient money can extract resources, all too often in an unsustainable way.  These activities have resulted in a biotic crisis that is likely, if these practices continue, to precipitate a sixth mass extinction of species.  Extinction terminates lineages and removes genetic material valuable to the ecological life support system.  Biodisparity (the biota’s morphological and physiological variety) would be in serious decline (e.g., Russell et al. 1995).

            The fossil record provides substantial evidence about extinction events that have covered various spatial scales and degrees of biotic impoverishment.  It is quite clear that there is recovery from even major biotic impoverishment over geologic and evolutionary time.  These are not time scales that human society has had experience planning for.  Furthermore, disequilibrium conditions do not favor sustainable use of the planet by one species.  Sustainability is more probable if human society had a peaceful, mutualistic relationship with natural systems upon which it is dependent.

            Lessons from the past show that, when large numbers of individuals are weakened by famine, disease, emotional stress, and social disorder, the larger population of which they are a part is likely to experience severe disequilibrium.  If this adversely affected the technological/economic life support system, recovery would be problematic since humankind has utilized much of the huge inventory of natural capital from which the present social system was built.

            The most dramatic evolutionary effects of mass extinctions are that they remove successful incumbents (Jablonski 2001).  Surely, Homo sapiens fits this description very well indeed for large species.  Biotic consequences are not likely to be of major concern to species that have gone extinct.


16.  The Prospects for Peace

            Resource wars will continue until humankind learns to live sustainably, which, in turn, requires peace with both the human species and with other life forms.  Since resource wars are primarily caused by unsustainable resource consumption, much attention must be given to the ecological footprint size of both individuals and nations.  Excessive resource consumption generates enormous profits for corporations and a few individuals on a short-term, unsustainable basis.  These profits divert attention from protection of the resource to short-term benefits to the exploiters of the resource.  The result is the extraction of resources as rapidly as possible and then shifting monetary capital to other resources.  The power elite uses this procedure as a dominant paradigm; however, there are alternatives.  Hawken (1993) has shown that corporate profits are possible even in the present global economy and are compatible with long-term benefits.  Weston (1995) has produced an excellent overview of the situation that focuses on both environmental and corporate concerns.  The US National Academy of Engineering (1996) addresses the pivotal issue of how to maximize the benefits of technological innovation with an emphasis on preventing environmental damage.

Prospects for peace with natural systems will be enhanced by:  (1) not discharging or producing wastes that cannot be beneficially assimilated by natural systems, (2) taking nothing from Earth that is not renewable in quantities that can be extracted indefinitely (i.e., efficient use of resources), (3) anything that benefits neither consumers nor natural systems is unacceptable waste, (4) embracing natural capitalism (Hawken et al., 1999), which espouses an economic system that does not plunder Earth, (5) restoring damaged ecosystems at a higher rate than they are being damaged until there is sufficient natural capital for sustainable use of the planet, then, a balance between damage and repair should be adequate, (6) monitoring natural systems to confirm that previously established quality control conditions are being met.  Present unsustainable practices can be replaced now with practices available now!  Thus, there is no excuse for not making peace with natural systems and the 30+ million species that inhabit them, including Homo sapiens.


17.  Security and Sustainability

            Adams (2003) comments about the failure of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) to convince the US Congress not to approve the most far-reaching rollback of marine mammal protection in the last 30 years.  The rollback exempts the US military from obeying core provisions of the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act.  This change permits injuring and killing whales, dolphins, and other marine mammals with high intensity sonar and underwater explosives.  It also permits the military to exempt itself entirely from all environmental review under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.  In addition, the military can destroy the habitat of endangered birds and mammals that live on the 25 million acres of land under the military’s jurisdiction.

            These drastic steps were considered necessary because environmental laws were compromising combat readiness for the war on terror.  Adams (2003) notes that even the administration in charge of the military cannot name a single training session anywhere in the country that had to be delayed or cancelled because of environmental restrictions.

            These actions will clearly endanger Earth’s ecological life support system, which is essential to sustainable use of the planet.  This major threat to both national and global security will impair security far more than any act of terrorism.  These unsustainable practices cannot continue indefinitely.


18.  Conclusions

Nurturing complex systems for sustainable use of the planet requires a different perspective of humankind’s identity, both as individuals and as nation-states.  Since humans are dependent on Earth’s ecological life support system, it is essential to ensure that the technological/economic life support system does not impair the health and integrity of the ecological life support system.  Furthermore, the cumulative impact of individual decisions must also not damage natural systems.  Unsustainable practices will be stopped either by changes in human behavior or, more brutally, by nature.  Harsh penalties will be exacted by nature for disregarding nature’s laws, such as exceeding the global or regional carrying capacity for humans.

Some older cultures regarded natural systems, such as water, as sacred, including the manner of use and the waste of water.  In the 13th century, Sinran, a Buddhist priest, wrote, “Nature was not made by any outer forces but was made of its own accord.  Buddha or all religious absolutes are means of understanding the state of nature.  After real understanding is reached of nature and Buddha, it should not be open to discussion.  If it becomes, then nature would not be made naturally and by its own accord.  This understanding is the miracle of Buddhism” (as quoted by Kawanabe 2003).

The view of nature at present is nearly a polar opposite of the 13th century one.  Nature is sacrificed to keep the economy growing or as a means of disposing of anthropogenic wastes.  Respectful observation of nature still appears to be desired by many humans, but political leaders, both elected and appointed, fail to design projects in harmony with natural systems.  Under the guise of progress and economic growth, humans destroy, bit by bit, the biospheric life support system for short-term benefits.  The technological/economic life support, which supposedly benefits from unrestrained economic growth, is indeed a complex system, but it is merely a subsystem primarily designed for only one species—Homo sapiens.  However, Homo sapiens and its complex technological/economic subsystem are embedded in a much more complex system of millions of species upon which, in the long term, its survival depends.  As a consequence, it should be abundantly clear that the subsystem and the species that created it cannot flourish unless the larger, more complex system is nurtured.  Doing so will enhance the prospects for peace.


19.  Acknowledgements

I am indebted to Karen Cairns for transcribing the handwritten first draft and to Darla Donald for editorial assistance.  Paul R. Ehrlich called The Guardian article to my attention.  Colleagues suggested that a companion piece to “War and Sustainability” should be written about peace and sustainability.


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December 2003

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