2000 2050

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Time (days)

Figure 1.1 Use of a resource and the degree to which it approaches the available stock (a) during a seven-day period in which all parameters are well known and (b) for a time period of a century in which the stock and rate of use are imperfectly known.

processes. More water could be supplied by desalinizing seawater, but this, in turn, is a very energy-intensive process. Is our energy supply adequate to support such a major new use? The problem thus becomes one of optimizing multiple parameters, of deciding what is possible. This cannot be achieved without doing the best job we can of putting numbers and ranges on key individual resources related to sustainability; comprehending the potential of the resources in isolation is not enough.

Understanding how best to move along the road toward sustainability, as contrasted with understanding the levels and types of unsustainability, is an issue that has not yet been addressed in detail. Sustainability is a systems problem, one that defies typical piecemeal approaches such as: Will there be enough ore in the ground for technological needs? Will there be enough water for human needs? How can we preserve biodiversity? Can global agriculture be made sustainable? These are all important questions, but they do not address comprehensive systems issues, neither do they provide a clear overarching path for moving forward, partly because many of these issues are strongly linked to each other.

It may help to picture the challenge of sustainability as shown in Figure 1.2, where the physical necessities of sustainability are shown as squares and the needs as ovals. It is clear that a near-complete linkage exists among all of the necessities and all the needs, yet tradition and specialization encourage a focus on a selected oval and all the squares, or a selected square and all the ovals.

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