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Monday, April 18, 2016

How to Save the World

How to Save the World

In my family, both of my parents are dying and my grandchildren are about to inherit the earth. Dad spent many years on an assembly line making cars. I worked at refineries making gasoline. He enjoyed traveling and drove to California 23 times, just for starters. I live in a very small rural town and don’t think twice about driving 60 miles round trip just for a special supper out. Have we made it more unlikely that our children’s children will have a world worth inheriting?

Thinking about the many issues of ecology and economics makes my head want to explode. Nevertheless, somehow, it still seems important enough to try to wrap my mind around it. If not for me, than for the ones I love. It turns out that smart people of good will are actually starting to get a handle on all of this. Some scientists are focusing on barely-imaginable details. Other researchers are backing off far enough to get an overall picture of the entire forest of environmental and social issues.

Surely, it is obvious that our finite world cannot sustain infinite growth. We must discover, meet and deal with limits to growth. Yet, we continue to expect that every nation’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) must always continue to grow to provide improving standards of living for a growing percent of our populations. Something has to give.
We need to maximize security and quality of life without excessively depleting the resources we depend on to sustain that life.

Our societies also have certain minimum economic and social expectations. The list may include good health, accessible and nutritious food, available clean water, equitable personal income, universal access to education, strength of our institutions, opportunities for personal expression, satisfying and sustaining work, available and affordable energy, and broad social equalities. Without these societal benefits, we are unhappy and feel insecure.

On the other hand, our environment has certain maximum limits that are being challenged. Without effectively managing our consumption of resources, we’re all doomed to face disaster. We have to solve problems of freshwater use, agricultural methods, ocean acidification, pollution, aerosols and particles in the air, ozone depletion, buildup of methane and carbon dioxide producing climate change, loss of biodiversity, deforestation and weapons of mass destruction.

Each of these issues represents a compelling need or threat. But, trade-offs between our minimums and maximums are available if we summon the collective will to make the effort. There is a middle area, like the circle of a donut, that forms a “safe and just space for humanity.” We need to keep working on balances and compromises in order to hit, and stay within, that sweet spot.

It’s likely that many of our children will suffer terribly before we decide that survival will require major changes. The more of us that accept that fact, and the sooner we commit to needed change, the less long-term damage will accrue. Our issues of satisfaction are no longer just personal or community problems; our survival requires us to think and act as a species.


Perhaps there is hope that the world will not end… yet. To learn more, try a web search for “A Safe and Just Space for Humanity.” What will our children’s children inherit?

David Satterlee

The original article in "Nature" on nine planetary boundaries (on which this concept builds): A Safe Operating Space for Humanity