Sure thing - these 4 principles can appear vague, or even simplistic, but they're actually pretty involved, and can be tricky once you dig into 'em, so I appreciate the question. We’ll be revisiting all of these core concepts again and again as well, so they’ll start to make more sense.
So probably one of the most high-profile examples of violations of the first principle in our society today is CO2 from the fossil fuels we pull up from the crust. But anything that is brought up from the Lithosphere (basically the solid bedrock level of the earth, as I understand it) and introduced into the biosphere falls under this category - things like metals, uranium, mercury - the things we mine and drill for.
It's important to note that it has to be a systematic increase in concentration to violate the principle. The biosphere is able to deal with fluctuations in concentration of all kinds of substances and restore balance. But time is a key element. It took the earth billions of years to develop life forms that provided order to the "toxic stew" of the original atmosphere and make it all livable for highly developed, sensitive life forms like mammals.
Photosynthesis is the key driver to this process with plant cells - originally (and still a big player) it was blue-green algae doing all the work - converting the sun's energy into structured, more valuable (for our purposes) forms. Turning energy into exergy, which is basically energy with the capacity to perform work. It is this little miracle that makes earth livable for us and maintains the balances in the atmosphere.
A couple of things to consider here:
1) Systematic increases in concentration in anything will theoretically cause problems eventually (if for some reason we were systematically increasing concentrations in Oxygen in the atmosphere we’d eventually reach a point where it would be toxic). The big question is where that threshold or tipping point is – when the system can no longer absorb the imbalance. Imagine you’re speeding down a highway on a dark cloudy night, and you know there’s a cliff into a big abyss somewhere ahead on that road – but you’re not exactly sure when you’ll reach it. You’d probably stop driving on that road and take another one instead of assuming that it’s miles away and continuing to drive.
2) We are no threat to nature, only to ourselves. Unless we can build the Deathstar and blow up Earth, anything we do will just make the planet unlivable for humans and other advanced, sensitive higher life forms. The blue-green algae and cockroaches are tough enough to survive anything we do – they made do in that toxic stew. So the concern is that we disrupt the natural systems (by violating the basic sustainability principles) to the point where they can no longer maintain the balances that we need to survive. Resources will become scarcer – like pure air and water, the sub-systems (like forests, rivers, lakes, oceans, wetlands) in the overarching system of the biosphere will systematically start to fail. We’ll be forced into some form of barbarism where the social fabric breaks down as we find it necessary to ruthlessly compete for these scare resources (think
It becomes increasingly clear as you work with all this, that the 4th principle is central. At first I thought it was a sort of a nice little add-on, basically saying “oh yeah, and while we’re at it, let’s see what we can do to help the poor people out too.” But it’s really imperative that we have some shared understanding of our role in this system, ‘cause we’re all in it together, and we need everyone taken care of to make it work. (Again, remember that the 4th principle says “systematic undermining of people's ability to meet their needs” – we’re not really talking about a utopian future, as nice as that might sound, and there will still be poor people, murders, starvation, wars, etc in a sustainable society. It’s when it is systematic, as it is today, that we’re in real trouble).
Luckily there are more and more really smart people – like you all – realizing that these problems are real, even if there imbedded in confusing, complex systems that make them hard to quantify and prove (the problems are all tangible out in the “leaves” – but they are the result of violations of the core principles at the “trunk and branches”). And there are more and more success stories, where organizations, municipalities, and companies are creating solutions and working towards sustainability where they meet their needs without violating the basic principles. And they’re doing it in a way that saves money, creates competitive advantages, and makes them more profitable and successful. And that’s where the really sweet juice is.
How’s that for making a short answer long? …CO2 would be an ie for the first principle.