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Bon Appetit!


This planet cannot support this many people for very much longer.

Perhaps it is just the word "sustainability" that I have issue with. To pretend that our planet can sustain seven billion humans for any appreciable length of time seems naive—to say the least. I always sound like the proverbial devil's advocate, the cynic, the pessimist. I am only endeavoring to be the voice of reason. This planet cannot support this many people for very much longer.

If people weren't consumers, there would be no problem (or at least a lot fewer problems). But consume we do. The consumption of the world's population of humans is the sum of all consuming communities. Put that way, what can each community do to reduce its consumption? As I asked myself this question, I could detect a faint glimmer of hope growing within my sardonic self.

How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.

In 2003 science professors from the University of Maryland had an interesting opportunity to test air-quality under highly unusual circumstances. For thirteen years, pollution in the Baltimore-Washington metro areas had been monitored. A major blackout, which affected eight states and parts of Canada, shut down fossil-fueled power plants. After just 24 hours of these plants losing electricity and shutting down, sulfur dioxide in the air was down by 90%; ozone had decreased by 50%; and there were 70% fewer light-scattering particles than when the plants were operational. Visibility increased by 25 miles—in one day!

As this experiment was an accident, which isn't likely to be repeated in the foreseeable future, I decided to look around and find out what community-wide, environmentally positive steps were being taken around the world. It seems every community has programs. But here's the thing: individuals are participating in these programs and activities; I wanted to look at something where the entire community was involved.

A town is a microcosm, a smaller representation of, and analogous to, the big, bad world. I needed to find a town involved in an experiment—and it had to be something that is doable, immediately implementable, that almost everyone everywhere could do.

As I was looking at all these things people are doing, from replanting forests to putting solar panels on their homes, one thing kept niggling me. One type of program kept appearing, and it kept saying, "This is something that people did for thousands of years, and could do again!" The human animal existed for millennia without many of the luxuries that we consider "necessity." I knew- scratch that!- I know we could do it. Every one of us could do it. We could do it in one day, like some amazing Maryland power outage. We could do it with very little cost, and with great health and environmental benefits.

"Use our own muscle power to get around? Our communities are too spread out! It'd take too long to get anywhere! Walk? Bike? Bus? Skate? Board? Motor-less scooter? Ride a horse? What an insane idea!"

Everyone could use muscle power to get around. There are documented health benefits. Plus, there is the family time factor. People walking (or any of those other alternatives) with their spouses and kids get quality time that is probably missed on a jaunt to the store with the A/C and stereo on. But health and family aren't the core reason why we should do this. They are bonuses that we get when we endeavor to save the planet. Admittedly, factories are major polluters, not just vehicles. But I was looking for something whole communities could do today.

Satellite data now suggests that particulate air pollution in Earth's atmosphere is worse than prior estimates based on ground measurements. Using our own muscle power just makes sense.

I started surfing the web for car-free towns. I wanted to learn of a place where the burning of fossil-fuels to get from point A to point B was the rare exception, not the rule. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) classifies air toxins from fossil-fuel-burning vehicles as carcinogenic. Wow, think of the stuff that's floating over Maryland from their fossil-fuel-burning electric generators, and that's not even counting the stuff coming from vehicles! Imagine the differences that might have been measured if vehicles, in addition to the power plants, had shut down. Each year 5.50 metric tons of CO2e are released by each average passenger vehicle, according to the EPA.

I don't want to beat a dead horse (or eat a dead elephant, but hey, a metaphor is a metaphor), so I will admit that we all know the problem. Here's another problem: I found many, many cities that had car-free zones, but only a couple places that were truly vehicle-free.

The Old Town of Rhodes, Greece is vehicle-free! They are doing it! People live and work there. Okay, to be completely fair, it is a medieval city. It's a fortress, with high walls, a castle and ancient columns. It's a fantasy land for any eight-year-old boy. It's touristy. But still…when I attempted to look up air quality for Rhodes, I got pollen level reports! That says volumes, doesn't it?

I am trying to envision the ramifications of a city going car-free. I think a lot of people would change jobs, work radically different hours, or do as much of their jobs from home as they could. It might create real local living economies!

There were huge cities before the advent of the car. In 1750 London was over 2/3 million people strong. People used animal power or their own power to get around.

Picture the stereotypical image we have of settlers in the USA (not so long ago). People were economical about all travel, even going to the store, which was often a daylong, pre-planned important monthly (or so) event. As pointed out in the documentary, The Story of Stuff, by Annie Leonard, we have become convinced of the need to consume, and stuff has become symbolic of status, maybe nothing more so than the automobile, which drives us to the store several times a week. And not just one store. Where did you go this week? The market? A box store? A specialty store? Fast food? A book store? A coffee shop? The mall? A restaurant? The auto parts store? A travel agent? The pet shop? The days of the mercantile seem long, long ago. Would you have gone to all those stores, spent all that money, if you were walking or bicycling?

The air would be cleaner. Your butt would be firmer. The town would be quieter. Accidents would decrease. Life would slow down. 

But we're spoiled. I don't know if you could find a whole community anywhere that would voluntarily, unanimously agree to give up this "necessity." Could the whole world of communities be convinced to do so? Or to do all the other things now called "sustainable?"

Could you get everyone to recycle? Could you get everyone to stop wasting paper products? Could you get all big business to stop producing, using and selling chemicals? Could you get all people to stop throwing away perfectly usable items? Could you get the Earth's whole population to stop killing old growth trees? Can you get seven billion humans to even give up the automobile, or do anything else cohesively?

The book Natural Capitalism tells us we've already used up a third of all the natural resources of the planet. There are too many people and we are consuming too much.

According to the theoretical experiment postulated by Daniel Quinn in his novel, The Story of B, if space isn't an issue, and you provide caged mice with enough food for 300 mice, the population will level out at approximately 300 mice. If you gradually reduce the amount of food (not quickly enough to cause starvation) then naturally, gradually the population will decrease. If human food production could very slowly be decreased, we would see a gradual decline in human population—to a level that actually could be sustainable. Humans increased levels of food production and human population increased. Logically, this would also work in the reverse direction. The world's population was three billion in 1960.

In the meantime, while we work on getting the population to a level that is sustainable, steps must be taken to ensure that we begin curtailing the nearly irreparable damage we are causing.  

One bite at a time. Hmmm. Pass the salt.

We must aim to reduce the population. Perhaps communities can unite in unprecedented ways, to mitigate the damage we've done, and lower the impact of our lives.

I hate to be the naysayer, the dissenter, the doubter, the cynic, the sardonic, the pessimist, the devil's advocate, the voice of reason, but really, we cannot sustain this planet under these conditions for very much longer. We have got to reduce the population. We have got to reduce consumption. In the meantime: walk, bike, bus and reduce, reuse, recycle. Start today. Ask your family, friends, co-workers; ask everyone—to start today.

Bon Appétit!

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