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At the Crossroads of Sustainability: A Conversation with Bill Ryerson

Jan 17, 2012 – January 9, 2012

By Michael Charles Tobias

Imagine a country like French Guiana or Vanuatu – with human populations of 225,000 to 235,000 – emerging, every day! That is the conundrum facing humanity and the natural world. The human population explosion, multiplied by its cumulative consumption, represents what many believe to be the most significant challenge ever faced by life on Earth in billions of years. This is an equation that forms the basis for most rational analysis of global environmental issues. It is a starting point. In the absence of dealing with it, most other techno-fixes or alleged ecological “solutions” are unlikely to produce much traction.

I spoke with Bill Ryerson about this essentially fundamental reality we are all grappling with. Ryerson is President of Population Media Center (Shelburne, Vermont) and CEO of the Population Institute (Washington, DC). He has endeavored to help solve the population problem for 40 years, including 25 years of using social change communications worldwide.  You can read his chapter in the Post Carbon Reader, “Population: the Multiplier of Everything Else.”

During his career, Ryerson has served as Director of the Population Institute’s Youth and Student Division, Development Director of Planned Parenthood SE Pennsylvania, Associate Director of Planned Parenthood of Northern New England and Executive Vice President of Population Communications International.

Michael Tobias: Bill, most corporations and students of the environment– consumers, people everywhere – seem to be paying some lip-service to the word “sustainability.” What is the underlying reality, in your opinion?  Is human civilization moving in a sustainable direction?

Bill Ryerson: Michael, sustainability is the ultimate health issue, the ultimate human rights issue, and the ultimate environmental issue.  Books like “Collapse” are ringing alarms for the public, while numerous scientists are now debating not whether the collapse will occur, but when – and how bad it will be.

Michael Tobias: Arguably, humankind is exceeding the Earth’s biological carrying capacity. Our global footprint enshrines a multitude of economic impacts that are bundled together. Oil and agriculture, for example, are linked in problematic ways people often ignore, no?

Bill Ryerson: Absolutely. Industrial agriculture and our industrial way of life depend on non-renewable resources, particularly cheap oil. Consider what happened in 2008 when the price of oil rose to $140 per barrel.

The price of food went so high that there were food riots worldwide.  Remember, oil is used in pumping irrigation water, plowing, planting, fertilizing, harvesting, transport to market, refrigeration, transport home, and cooking.  Modern industrial agriculture is the process of turning oil – and water – into food.  While the recession reduced demand for oil, and prices dropped, the “recovery,” such as it is, has led oil prices back up to over $100 per barrel, and food is now near all time peak prices.

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