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The Macroecology of Sustainability

That's the title of a recent open-access paper in PLoS Biology by Joseph Burger and colleagues. They argue that "sustainability science" has focused too much on local issues, ignoring the importance of large fluxes of materials and issues of global supplies. For example, Portland, Oregon is considered "sustainable" because more residents ride bicycles than in other US cities, yet the city imports and consumes fossil fuels and other resources at rates similar to other cities of similar size. So we need to ask whether those imports can be sustained.

Their Figure 3 is particularly interesting. Global use of land for agriculture, withdrawal of fresh water from surface and underground sources, harvest of wild fish and wood, and mining of phosphorus are all similar today to what they were 20 years ago. Is this because we all decided to conserve scarce resources or because we are reaching the limits of what can be obtained at reasonable cost? Increasing production of coal and copper seem inconsistent with the "conservation hypothesis."

I learned of this paper by reading a post by Jeremy Cherfas in the always-interesting Agricultural Biodiversity Weblog. Some of these issues are discussed in my just-published book on Darwinian Agriculture, particularly in Chapter 2.

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