Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Words: "Sustainability"

The university I teach at is very big on "sustainability." As best I can tell, what it means is doing things in such a way that you could continue doing them forever, or at least for a very long time. Use of fossil fuels is "not sustainable" since, eventually, we would run out. Use of windmills, on the other hand, is. Similarly for a variety of other issues.

It sounds very nice if you don't think about it. If you do, it may occur to you that belief in the vital importance of sustainability is based on an implicit assumption of stasis—a world where, whatever you are doing, you will keep doing it forever. That isn't the world we live in. The critical resource of today may be irrelevant fifty years from now; the pollution of today may be a resource then--consider manure—or the resource pollution. Rabbits were a resource—until they became, in Australia, a plague. Similarly for Kudzu in the U.S.

We don't know how we will doing things fifty or a hundred years hence, but that it will be the same way we are doing them at present is not a likely guess.


At 7:09 PM, February 09, 2010, Blogger Rick Morrison said...

Two thoughts come to mind.

First, you are correct that the world is constantly changing. One disturbing example is a potential shortage of phosphorus, and in turn fertilizer. It is yet another issue gov'ts don't think about when subsidizing ethanol: article

Second, the "implicit assumption of stasis" is partially responsible for many other problems that people face. For example, people not saving for retirement. Or people trusting that the US gov't can withstand any level of debt. Or preventing companies with stagnant code bases from taking the time to modernize.

At 10:26 PM, February 09, 2010, Anonymous Gray Woodland said...

There are actually two senses in which the word is used. One is that which you describe - trying to resource consumption from harvesting rather than mining, income rather than capital. To be sure this is not rational if mindlessly applied across the board, but I'm not sure it's a bad rule of thumb. It can certainly become a bad rule, if used as a stopping-place for analysis rather than a springboard.

The second is more like the sense in which letting the sewers crumble is not a sustainable strategy for city living. It will work for a while, but sooner or later either somebody is going to have to fix them, or people will have to start moving to towns where sewer maintenance is a reasonable economic proposition. That's gotta hurt! - Or, to be sure, somebody invents a technology that obsoletes sewers.

If nobody had a clue how to make city living sustainable in this sense, that would be a rather higher-order and more disturbing question than the modern sustainability of Roman-style sewer technology.

Yes, using the term 'sustainability' without defining either the term over which something is to be sustained, nor what it is you actually care about sustaining, is not helpful. I think that both the problem and the effectiveness of this kind of rhetoric is that the term is supposed to emotionally default to 'forever', and the stakes to 'life on Earth'. I doubt that most of those who sow this particular confusion are doing so consciously.

Perhaps distinguishing between means-sustainability and end-sustainability would be a good start? Something like, "We can't sustainably produce amber jewellery, but we don't really give a toss, as the rising tide of ordure suggests that high-density urban living is becoming unviable with our present technology?"

At 8:51 AM, February 10, 2010, Blogger Ecacofonix said...

Interesting perspective David.

I think there are some things that are going to remain the way they are right now, for many, many decades to come - water, requirement of oxygen for our survival, to name but two.

We all know how with our current practices we could be having serious trouble with the former, and in the country I live (India), the latter is becoming scarce in cities where uncontrolled human pollution is choking us off.

NS @ Enexions - Enabling Sustainability - http://www.enexions.com

At 9:25 AM, February 10, 2010, Anonymous matt said...

One irony is that modern wind and battery technology depends on exotic rare earth materials which are extracted chemically from huge quantities of low grade ore. This is a very dirty and energy intensive process, not to mention that known supplies are finite and running down in the same sense as fossil fuels.


Windmills are in no sense sustainable technology: Thermodynamics has a very sick sense of humor.

At 3:45 PM, February 10, 2010, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Some things are clearly unsustainable in a bad way - Ponzi schemes, for example. They seem to work for a while, but it's an illusion.

On the other hand, China's growth is unsustainable, but not because it's a Ponzi; it's because they are playing catch up.

At 5:07 PM, February 10, 2010, Anonymous Lo Statuz said...

I favor sustainability.

Living in one solar system is not sustainable. There are just too many things that can go wrong. The star can go nova, or another star can pass too close, or self-reproducing von Neumann machines can show up and try to turn all the mass into more self-reproducing von Neumann machines.

At 9:01 AM, February 11, 2010, Blogger mygamebest said...

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At 9:01 AM, February 11, 2010, Blogger mygamebest said...

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At 9:01 AM, February 11, 2010, Blogger mygamebest said...

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At 2:22 PM, February 11, 2010, Blogger Feddi said...

This is an intriguing point...more generally we could argue that the urge to seek sustainability is a clear sign of the intrinsic human conservatorism...the same urge that explains why people tend to plan their life according to their current lousy job or marriage, instead of looking for alternative options...
the status quo is usually more confortable than the outside options. Could it be a further broad example of the alleged human bounded rationality?

At 12:13 AM, February 12, 2010, Anonymous Kevin said...

Very curious statements on many levels. Let me see if I can break this down:
1) we can’t know the future.
2) since we can’t know the future we can’t know what we should do today.

Is really the best we can offer??? We endeavor to study, instruct, model, inform, lead about issues based on what we DO know. What we CAN understand. What we THINK might happen based on what has happened in the past. These are not just the basis of science, but of most of the humanities as well. I find it a completely irresponsible and dangerous argument to simple say “well, what if?” and then throw our collective hands in the air and hope things work out well. We have basically been doing that on most environmental issues for the last 100 years and it has not been a great strategy so far! Let us focus instead on what we do know and not on what is unknowable. Perhaps your view works (?!) for economics, but science demands much more from us.

At 10:23 PM, February 13, 2010, Blogger Chris Bogart said...

I think you have it exactly backwards... the sustainability argument against fossil fuels hinges on the recognition that stasis is *not* possible. It's not physically sustainable to use gasoline forever, because the supply is finite. So it makes sense to start thinking ahead about what energy source we'll turn to next. You might prefer that this planning be driven by price signals rather than environmentalist handwringing, but the logic is more or less the same, isn't it? When a practice is unsustainable, we adapt.

At 9:37 AM, February 15, 2010, Blogger Ruth Ann Barrett said...

It seems to me that you are on the path to educating yourself on the concept of sustainability, so I would like to suggest you use EarthSayers.tv, the voices of sustainability and hear from professors, experts, business and civic leaders, and citizens what sustainability means in terms of programs and issues at the personal, local, regional, national, and international levels. For me, it is a turn from from the practices and principles of the industrial age.

At 6:53 AM, February 16, 2010, Anonymous Hammerhead said...

So glad you wrote this post. Second Law of Thermodynamics and increasing entropy ensure that any 'sustainability' scheme loses in the end. :-)

But, in the pragmatic concerns of the short run you also rightfully point out how new resources, new solutions completely can change the socioeconomic 'landscape'. I found myself wondering the following thing when watching the film Avatar: Pandora is presumably many light years away, not just six years - so the big space ship experiences significant time dilation probably. Our hero was cryogenically asleep for six years, but maybe time on earth passed like two hundred years, or so. The question then is: the mining company on Pandora assumes this substance they want is worth 20 megabucks an ounce or whatever. By the time they return to earth, maybe the substance is a curio, no longer relevant to anything industrial or economic. Science fiction writers don't spend enough time on the economic implications of the worlds they envision.

At 3:46 PM, February 18, 2010, Blogger Andrew said...

"Sustainability" is a term like "free market".

At 3:14 AM, February 19, 2010, Anonymous Ian Eisenberg said...

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At 10:31 AM, February 25, 2010, Blogger neil craig said...

However from an economic point of view "sustainable" shoulf mean "making sufficient profit to be able to continue doing this without outside inputs - normally government subsidy". In fact almost all "sustainable" projects do demand subsidy & are thus not sustainable that way. I also see architects talk about "sustainable buildings" which should mean ones that stay up but insofar as it has a definable meaning, means ones that are sufficiently politically correct they will get planning approval.


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