Sustainability lecture kicks off UNOrthodox


By Michael Wunder, News Editor

“I’m not trying to save the earth,” said John McCarty, director of the University of Nebraska Omaha’s Environmental Studies program to more than 100 people gathered in the College of Public Administration and Community Service’s commons area.  “We’re trying to help improve the lives of other people.”

The professor was addressing a concern raised by an audience member:  why do so many people in the United States reject environmentalism?  The answer, McCarty said, was that Americans often think of environmentalists as a “fringe group” aimlessly trying to save an indifferent earth.  

In actuality, McCarty said, environmentalism strives to improve the quality of human life in a fragile ecosystem.

McCarty’s comments came during a question and answer session after an engaging talk on the extent of younger generations’ influence over sustainable decisions in an increasingly unsustainable world. 

The lecture was the first of Student Government’s UNOrthodox fall semester lecture series, which gives students the opportunity to vote for potential speakers drawn from UNO’s faculty roster.

McCarty’s lecture began by declaring sustainability to be a serious issue deserving of unequaled attention, but not an insurmountable one.  For the purposes of the lecture, McCarty defined sustainability as “living in the environment and using resources in such a way as to not prevent other people or future generations from existing with a reasonable standard of living.”

The definition–and sustainability itself–is normative, McCarty said.

“It’s a statement of values,” the ecologist said.  “What we think is right and what we think is wrong.”

If one doesn’t accept any intrinsic fault in living unsustainably, then current trends will do nothing to assuage that perspective, McCarty said.  For the eco-inclined, though, the state of the world may seem dire.

“We live in a global world that is going to have a population of 7 billion sometime by the end of this month,” McCarty said.  “We are failing miserably at living up to this idea.”

Such a high population in an unstable global environment means a vast number of the planet’s inhabitants have pithy access to wealth, some living on as little as $2 a day, McCarty said.

“Imagine living on about $700 a year,” McCarty said, pausing so the idea could resonate.  Not a pleasant thought-experiment for inhabitants of a country where median household income is $49,445, according to 2010 census data.

In addition to unequal access to wealth, many populations on earth have paltry access to food or even clean water.  Diarrhea, often from untreated water, kills 2.2 million people a year.  A large number of those deaths are children.

“That’s like 20 jumbo jets of five-year-olds crashing on a daily basis,” McCarty said.

In the course of our lifetime, that situation could escalate as the result of the addition of 2 billion more impoverished humans to an already strained ecosystem, McCarty said.  “We have the potential for things to get worse in your lifetime.”

Despite such a grim outlook, giving up is not an option, McCarty said.

“Despair is not warranted,” McCarty said.  “We can’t just throw our hands up and say it’s unsolvable and I’m going to focus on something I can solve.”

Optimism, too, is unwarranted, McCarty added, as it too often leads to complacency.

“We need you to stay engaged,” McCarty said.  “We need you not to walk away from here and say ‘everything’s okay.'”

In order to engage the audience, McCarty shared his ecological footprint—an estimate of the area of land and ocean (in acres) required to support one’s consumption of food, goods, services, housing and energy, as well as assimilation of waste.  McCarty’s footprint: 28 acres.  The average American’s footprint:  24 acres.

“I’m not proud of the fact that I’m about average for this,” McCarty said jestingly.

If every person on the earth required 28 acres to sustain their lifestyle, 6.2 earths would be needed to supply the adequate resources, McCarty said.  Not everyone lives so lavishly.  In Bangladesh, for example, most people require 1 acre.  They’re not alone.  Most of the earth’s human inhabitants live in poverty.  Speaking in terms of equity, there are only 4.5 biologically productive acres available for every person on the earth.

Herein lies the question of limits, McCarty said.  The earth could feasibly support one billion average Americans; 2 to 3 billion average Europeans; 5 to 6 billion people from average countries, like Mexico; or, finally, 8 to 10 billion impoverished people.  The trick lies in finding a way to improve the lives of those most blighted without forcing the wealthy to give up too much.

The solution to that problem is difficult to find, and the earth’s carrying capacity continues to be strained.

“There’s too big of a gap between what we consume and what the world can provide,” McCarty said.

After pummeling attendees with a barrage of numbers, McCarty urged students to move toward sustainability through easy changes, like walking to school instead of driving or using energy efficient products.  McCarty, though, was quick to note that real change comes from influencing others.

“Nothing you do individually in your lifetime is going to solve the problem itself,” McCarty said.

McCarty urged students to become important, influential people with a lifestyle and value-judgment system grounded in sustainability.  “This is a part of your values system that should influence all of your decisions,” he said.

The increasing tide of sustainable living that would lift the boats of all the planet’s inhabitants will rise slowly, McCarty said.

“We aren’t going to get there tomorrow,” he said.  “We don’t have to.  What’s important is that we start.”