River Cleanup

Volunteers help clean up the Rivanna River. Sustaining the environment, locally as well as worldwide, is an increasingly urgent concern for many people.

A recent poll found that roughly 80% of Americans now recognize that human activities are causing climate change. That’s great.

The survey also found that over 60% of Americans believe that problems stemming from climate change can be addressed with little to no personal sacrifices. That’s dismaying. Here’s why.

At a 2015 meeting in Paris, many nations agreed to work to limit the global temperature increase above pre-industrial levels to less than 2 degrees C and to aspire to contain the increase to 1.5 degrees C. In 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported that under both increases, the biosphere and human societies would suffer serious disruptions, with disruptions worse at the higher temperature.

Moreover, holding temperatures at either level would require both massive reductions in greenhouse emissions soon (estimated at 45% by 2030 to hold at the 1.5-degree rise) and large programs to draw down greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere.

Drawdown programs likely will include a massive mix of ecosystem restorations and engineered solutions. They will cost a lot of money and include controversial actions (for example, new government debt).

Adapting to climate changes already baked into our future (hotter weather, bigger storms, worse droughts, coastal flooding) will require widespread changes in our societies.

Clearly, scientists are not talking about low- to no-sacrifice actions that most Americans believe will cure climate change.

If climate change were our only urgent ecological crisis, we could zero in on it. But there are other environmental crises — widespread species extinctions, degradation of agricultural lands, spreading deserts, disappearing wetlands, floating islands of plastic in our oceans and more.

Just saving species will require many actions — for example, protecting habitats and providing movement corridors. The recent report on the species extinction crisis by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services goes further, saying that sustainable use of nature will require “transformative changes across economic, social, political and technological factors.”

Here again, scientists say that fixing an ecological crisis will demand much of us.

It’s no accident that so many environmental problems exist now and that scientists think we must live differently to fix them. Since 1950, the global human population has roughly tripled in size and the economy has expanded 13 times. All this growth has come with increasing impacts and demands on our natural support systems. Analyses indicate that mankind’s demand for ecological products and services now exceeds the biosphere’s capacity to regenerate them.

If we are to prevent continuation of the current plague of ecological crises, mankind also must transit to living sustainably — within the limits of our finite natural support systems. We must reduce our impacts and demands on natural systems to a degree that allows natural systems to coexist with us. We must live in a way that allows persistence of sufficient natural systems for support of our future generations. Pursuing sustainability is crucial because it provides us with a proactive environmental strategy, one that helps us to avoid crisis mode decisions on environmental actions.

It’s impossible to know now all the steps we must take to dig out of our self-imposed ecological mess. But broad strokes of the process and some further necessary steps for our community can be identified.

First and foremost, further shifts in public beliefs are needed. Most of us still need to recognize that fixing climate change and other crises requires large expenditures and major adjustments to our lifestyles. A necessary level of recognition may come with time, but time for this to happen is short.

The attitudinal shifts required to make our societies ecologically sustainable involve shifts in entrenched cultural values and thus are likely to be more difficult. Most critically, we live in a society that generally accepts ongoing population growth and celebrates economic expansions. If we are to become sustainable, we will need to pursue stable-sized populations and economies. Stable-sized, “steady-state” economies have been studied by economists, but selling these as the future is clearly challenging.

We now need examples of communities resolutely facing current environmental crises and pursuing sustainability. We should be heartened by the fact that Albemarle County and Charlottesville already have robust climate action programs and the county recently adopted an extensive biodiversity protection plan.

Twice previously, our community considered sustainability (the Thomas Jefferson Sustainability Council and the Optimum Sustainable Population Size Project by Advocates for a Sustainable Albemarle Population). Both ended at the flirtation stage.

Hoping the third time might be charmed, and given the great need, ASAP recently released a challenge to the Albemarle-Charlottesville community to commit to pursuit of sustainability. As first steps, the challenge proposes additions to city and county comprehensive plans. Feedback from the public is being solicited.

We might well ask whether actions of the breadth and depth I’ve described lie within the capabilities of mankind. World War II illustrated that when great threats clearly exist, very different nations can form effective alliances, top-to-bottom mobilizations of societies are possible, and breathtakingly rapid advances in technologies can be developed.

At present, mankind faces enormous threats stemming from our long mistreatment of nature. The key question is: Can we find the will soon to recognize the severity of these threats and repair our relationships with nature?

While we fail to act quickly and resolutely, life prospects for both our planet — and our children — are dimming daily.

Advocates for a Sustainable Albemarle Population (2019), “Our Sustainability Challenge: Local Responses,” retrieved from https://static1.squarespace.com/static/566f015b7086d79e18b7913b/t/5d6fed646ee6740001968e2c/1567616360427/ASAP+sustainabiity+challenge+09-04-2019.pdf

Advocates for a Sustainable Albemarle Population. (n.d.), ASAP Research Reports, retrieved Sept. 23 from http://www.asapvirginia.org/research

The research reports on this page were produced in the course of ASAP’s Optimum Sustainable Population Size project.

Earth Overshoot Day — Global Footprint Network (n.d.), retrieved Sept. 23 from https://www.footprintnetwork.org/our-work/earth-overshoot-day/

Earth Overshoot Day is the day of the year when mankind is estimated to have used the planet’s biological productivity for the year, using Ecological Footprint methodology.

Global Footprint Network (n.d.), FAQ: Global Footprint Network, retrieved Aug. 29 from https://www.footprintnetwork.org/faq/

This FAQ provides much explanation of Ecological Footprint methodology, widely used to estimate the overall biological productivity of an area of landscape and the biological demands of a human population.

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (2018), “Global warming of 1.5°C Summary for Policymakers,” retrieved from http://www.ipcc.ch/report/sr15/

Intergovernmental Science — Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosyste

m Services, (2019, May 6), IPBES Global Assessment Summary for Policymakers, retrieved May 10 from https://www.ipbes.net/news/ipbes-global-assessment-summary-policymakers-pdf

Roser, Max, (2019, June 25),

“Which countries achieved economic growth? And why does it matter?”, retrieved Aug. 14, from Our World in Data website: https://ourworldindata.org/economic-growth-since-1950

The Paris Agreement | UNFCCC (n.d.), retrieved Feb 26 from https://unfccc.int/process-and-meetings/the-paris-agreement/the-paris-agreement

Thomas Jefferson Sustainability Council, Cvillepedia. (n.d.), retrieved Sept. 23 from https://www.cvillepedia.org/Thomas_Jefferson_Sustainability_Council

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Tom Olivier is a retired biologist and currently president of Advocates for a Sustainable Albemarle Population. He and his wife reside in southern Albemarle County. Tom received a B.S. in biology from Tulane University and a Ph. D. in biological anthropology from Duke University.

Disclosures: The author represented Albemarle County on the Thomas Jefferson Sustainability Council and participated in ASAP’s Optimum Sustainable Population Size Project, participated in developing Albemarle County’s biodiversity protection plan and assisted in developing climate action recommendations recently presented to the county Board of Supervisors.

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