Saturday, November 13, 2010

Sustainability

My university is very big on sustainability. A quick search of its web site failed to produce any clear definition of the term, but I think a reasonable interpretation, based on the word itself and how I see it being used, is that it means doing things in such a way that you could continue doing them in that way forever. If so, the idea that sustainability is an essential, even an important, goal strikes me as indefensible.

To see why, imagine what it would have meant c. 1900. The university existed, it had a lot of students and faculty. None of them had automobiles. Many, presumably, had horses. Sustainability would have included assuring a sufficient supply of pasture land for all those horses into the indefinite future. It might have included assuring a sufficient supply of firewood. It would, in other words, have meant making preparations for a future that was not going to happen.

The same is true today. Making sure we can continue our present activities into the indefinite future makes sense only if we believe that we will be doing those things into the indefinite future. Judged by what we have seen in the past and can guess about the future, that is very unlikely. We do not know what the world of forty or fifty years hence will be like, but it will not be the same as the present world, hence it is very unlikely that we will be doing the same things in the same way and requiring the same resources to do them with.

The issue was recently brought to my attention when a colleague at a faculty meeting gave a glowing description of all the good things that were being done or planned in support of sustainability, up to and including a future teach in. I asked him one question—whether any part of the plans included presentations of arguments against sustainability. His answer was that any arguments against sustainability would be presented by speakers who were in favor of it.

That is not how universities are supposed to function.

21 Comments:

At 1:03 AM, November 13, 2010, Blogger Joe said...

Yes, conditions will be different in the future, but an advocate for sustainability could argue that certain resources will always be necessary, like say drinkable water and breathable air.

I think the naivete of those who advocate sustainability is how markets manage information and incentives for scarce resources. When there is a shortage of something prices go up, which encourages people to produce more of it or find economical alternatives. So far, market forces have managed scarce resources very well when there is a market for them. The tragedy of the commons is probably the most serious threat to sustainability, as well as other market distortions like subsidies and tariffs.

 
At 2:35 AM, November 13, 2010, Blogger cultureulterior said...

but an advocate for sustainability could argue that certain resources will always be necessary, like say drinkable water and breathable air.

And they would be wrong. In circa 20 years I expect my mind-state to be hosted on on a digital substrate which would see oxygen merely as a corrosive pollutant.

 
At 4:43 AM, November 13, 2010, Blogger randian said...

an advocate for sustainability could argue that certain resources will always be necessary, like say drinkable water and breathable air

We're already there. You may have noticed LA's smog problem is gone and there's no more acid rain in the Northeast. Despite this environmentalists demand even stricter emissions regulations on automobiles even though they will not result in measurable improvements in air quality. That is because recent cars don't pollute, old ill-maintained cars do, and they are not affected by new car mandates. If you were CA, for example, you could encourage the retirement of old cars by increasing the annual registration fee every year of ownership and giving sales tax incentives to turn in older cars (the bigger the older) and buy new ones. Instead, CA does the exact opposite, encouraging drivers to keep older cars because they're a lot cheaper to register and there's no sales tax overhead. It is also because current regulations are so strict that the absolute value of the emissions reduction in future regs is meaningless.

 
At 7:02 AM, November 13, 2010, Anonymous Simon Dickinson said...

I think you're right to point out that the definition you give is flawed. However it's not quite the definition that I've come across in my research on the subject.

The generally accepted definition comes from the Brundtland Report, which defines sustainable development as: "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs". This doesn't include an idea of doing things the same way indefinitely, and so I hope you agree that this is a much more satisfactory definition.

 
At 9:47 AM, November 13, 2010, Blogger randian said...

I hope you agree that this is a much more satisfactory definition

Hardly. It's so vacuous as to be useless.

 
At 10:14 AM, November 13, 2010, Anonymous js290 said...

Fundamentally, sustainability starts with population control.

 
At 2:10 PM, November 13, 2010, Anonymous Simon Dickinson said...

"It's so vacuous as to be useless"

How so? And what would you take as a better definition?

Bear in mind that it's essentially *the* standard definition of the word. Every paper or report I've read which concerns sustainability in some way (and which was written by someone who know what they're talking about!), cites that definition. If it's been good enough for the engineering and scientific communities for 20-odd years, I'm genuinely intrigued to hear why you think it's "vacuous".

From my perspective, it seems like a valid and concise definition of the word, and is usefully applicable to many issues.

 
At 4:14 PM, November 13, 2010, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs".

Sustainability is meaningless without the assumption that future generations will be doing the same things in the same way, hence have the same needs. In other words, no progress. If progress is possible, then it's hard to say whether "sustainable development" helps or harms future generations!

 
At 6:00 PM, November 13, 2010, Anonymous Simon Dickinson said...

"Sustainability is meaningless without the assumption that future generations will be doing the same things in the same way, hence have the same needs. In other words, no progress."

I sort of get what you're saying, but I don't agree at all. Sustainability is all about progress! We need to make progress in order to be sustainable, and sustainability absolutely doesn't - and shouldn't - impede future progress and development. That's basically the point. I know that there are some people who would say the opposite (generally the kind of people who eschew globalisation...), but in my view they are utterly wrong.

 
At 9:31 PM, November 13, 2010, Blogger randian said...

I'm genuinely intrigued to hear why you think it's "vacuous".

It means anything you want it to mean, and it implies nothing about what you should do to accomplish it.

That's why when you try to pin down the average eco-activist on what "sustainability" actually means, they hem and haw and change the subject. Mostly, it's just an excuse to indulge their desire to control other people.

 
At 12:27 AM, November 14, 2010, Blogger Ilíon said...

Of course, 'progress' is an empty word unless you know where you're going, or at minimum, know where you want to gp.

 
At 4:32 AM, November 14, 2010, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Bit of a straw man here.
Should the university require real debate on feel-good subjects, like sustainability? Obviously, if it is serious about being a scientific institution.
Is sustainability a good thing? Yes, its a form of adaptation. If what you have today and plan for tomorrow is horses, it is reasonable to take steps not to drown in horseshit. It turned out to have been a mistake to plan for it for a few years when the cars started arriving and horse cartridges went into the decline. But it sure was a good thing for several hundred years before that.

 
At 7:33 AM, November 14, 2010, Anonymous Anonymous said...

SCU is also big on "social justice" and like "sustainability", I have yet to find anyone that could define it.

 
At 8:04 AM, November 14, 2010, Blogger Ilíon said...

When you have to use a qualifier with 'justice,' you can be sure it ain't justice you're talkin' 'bout no more.

(I'm sorry ;) sometimes "down homey" language just feels right for what I want to say)

 
At 6:47 PM, November 14, 2010, Anonymous albatross said...

The definition Simon gave seems to me to be pretty reasonable. It leaves a lot of detail out, but that's true of every definition. (Suppose I tell you I want to work toward greater individual liberty. Will the quick definition catch all the nuance of what I mean there? That's the subject of essays and books and lifetimes of thought.)

The feel of this definition is almost as a kind of externality across generations or times. Perhaps we can get a lot richer by setting up our grandchildren to be a lot poorer. We ought not to do that. (I wonder how it would work to discuss the deficit as a sustainability issue....)

The problem, as David implies above, is that it's really hard for us to know what our great grandchildren will wish we'd done and not done.

My wife used to work cleaning up toxic waste sites, and it was very common for people to dispose of wastes like coal tar, around the turn of the previous century, by burying them in a hole. Coal tars apparntly have various nasty chemicals in them, and this caused a lot of headaches cleaning up the mess. And yet, nobody running a coal gas plant in 1900 thought they were doing anything that would cause anyone trouble at all--here's a smelly, dirty kind of sludge, so we're getting rid of it. They were dumping costs on the future, but they had no idea they were doing so.

 
At 7:47 PM, November 15, 2010, Blogger Doc Merlin said...

"That is not how universities are supposed to function."

Universities are nothing like what they are supposed to be. Dissent is generally silenced and free speech is often relegated to free speech zones.

 
At 2:09 PM, November 18, 2010, Anonymous Hammerhead said...

Brilliant post! I favor concepts like 'resilience' and 'innovation'. 'Sustainability' sounds grim and fearful, a wish for stasis and inevitable stagnation.

 
At 1:50 AM, November 25, 2010, Anonymous Andrew said...

If you know how to run a university better than these losers, why don't you start or run one?

 
At 3:39 PM, April 25, 2011, Blogger Christopher said...

The only truly sustainable path for humanity is to constantly expand its technical and resource base. The idea that anything could be ordered in a way that it can be done the same way indefinitely is without merit. All resources are finite over a long enough time span, the only solution is to constantly find and develop new resources and expand the definition of what counts as a resource.

 
At 2:55 PM, May 05, 2011, Anonymous lynn chu said...

You're right. "Sustainability" is an anodyne marketing buzz word. It is too meta- meta to mean anything much, so its real purpose is to leave a warm and fuzzy impression, such as: "all that is good and virtuous." It is clearly another spin on political correctness, and it should be viewed with deep suspicion as possible sheep's clothing masking a wolf.

 
At 2:28 PM, August 02, 2013, Anonymous Dan Mclaughlin said...

Whenever I hear the word "sustainablility" I immediately get suspicious of the motives of the speaker.It generally means sustaining anything but human progress and prosperity.

 

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