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Critically important issues remain off the table

The words sustainable and sustainability are showing up in more and more places these days, and nowhere more visibly than in association with discussions about the world’s forests. These two terms are the focus of increasing numbers of people who are concerned about the long-term effects of human activity on the global environment. 

Many writers have sought to define the meaning of the term “sustainable.” A favored definition is that from the groundbreaking 1987 report of the World Commission on Environment and Development (the Brundtland Commission report) which defined sustainable development as ". . .development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." Fundamentally, the question is whether or not the totality of human activity is altering the earth’s biosphere and natural systems so as to degrade them over time. Stated differently, can humans continue on more or less the current path for a long time – say, hundreds or even thousands of years – to come?

In view of the high and growing interest in sustainability issues, it is something of a curiosity that people throughout much of the world appear unwilling or unable to address in any substantial way the pressing reality of population growth. What is most interesting about the exclusion of population growth from planning for sustainability is that the sustainability equation becomes extraordinarily challenging when rapidly rising human numbers are treated as a given. As uncomfortable as these discussions may be, it is worthwhile to consider whether it is possible for the population to double, or more, while simultaneously maintaining the world’s biodiversity; the world’s remaining indigenous cultures, hunting grounds and sacred areas; the world’s current expanse of tropical forests. 


How, then, do the answers to these questions change if the global economy increases seven to eight fold within this century, something that the preponderance of economic forecasts suggest is likely? What if per capita consumption continues to rise in developed and developing nations alike?

Forest land managers, government agencies, and wood-using industries in the United States and around the world are increasingly expected to protect and preserve forests and associated values, including biodiversity and indigenous peoples, while at the same time fulfilling the world’s need for wood and wood fiber. They are expected to do this, moreover, by a public that is almost totally disinclined to face up to the daunting issues of population growth and rising consumption.

Where will the next century take us? A key question is whether society’s leaders will be willing to address or able to influence current trends. As things now stand, it appears that the world will add another four to five billion people within this century.. It appears likely that the U.S. population will double within the same time frame. And as the domestic and global economies grow even more rapidly than the expansion of population, the combined effect will be a need for more space, food, housing, clothing, energy, durable and nondurable goods, and raw materials of all kinds. While this is occurring, environmental concerns will be magnified even further. Sustainability questions will loom even larger. And in the absence of a new approach to environmental planning, disagreements over what to do are likely to become even deeper and conflicts sharper. It is not hard to imagine a future in which interest groups are more prevalent, larger, better financed, and even less willing to compromise than today, yet just as reluctant as society at large to take on the major factors underlying sustainability concerns. In such a future, the ability of future generations to meet their own needs will almost certainly be compromised, despite the rhetoric of today that suggests intentions to do otherwise.

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