Friday, April 22, 2011

Sustainability: Empty Rhetoric or a Bad Idea?

As I mentioned in an earlier post, my university is big on "sustainability;" it has just been having an extended event designed to boost the idea. I responded to an email urging faculty members to introduce sustainability into one of their classes by asking if it was all right if I argued against it in mine, and suggesting that a program which consisted entirely of presentations on one side of an issue looked more like propaganda than education.

To the credit of the people who received my response, their response was not to tell me to shut up but to offer me a time slot in their program to present my views. I did so, with the title I have used for this post. The audience was tiny—so far as I could judge, the talks were mostly attended by the classes of the professors giving them, and I did not tell my classes to attend mine—but friendly. I recorded the talk and webbed it, along with the powerpoints I used.

Sustainability: Empty Rhetoric or a Bad Idea?


My first post on sustainability

Sustainability: Part II


Perry Metzger said...

Very well done!

That said, I think there are portions of the "sustainability position" you might want to discuss more directly in the future.

For example, take the "using oil today means the future won't have it" argument: to some people, a goal of 100% recycling and using no net natural resources seems realistic. To those people, it is okay to use up materials only if you can then replace them, which is how they argue for eliminating all oil burning, since oil is a non-replaceable resource, but using a modicum of wood would be okay because more wood will appear in the form of new trees.

Now, I disagree with that position, but it deserves to be addressed more directly. You touched on it briefly in discussing what happens to food prices if we only use biofuels, but I think concentrating on it for a few more minutes would have been worthwhile.

I'd like to repeat that this was really, really good overall.

Eitan said...

Great talk! I enjoyed listening.

jdgalt said...

The UN/Agenda 21/"smart" growth notion of "sustainability" is worse than a bad idea -- it's phony science, part of a campaign to force the rich world to give up major parts of our wealth, in particular our growing economy and the plentiful energy supply that makes it possible to keep it.

I'm active in the anti-urban-planning community, so our opponents have been arguing "sustainability" since the '70s. So I now take it as an opportunity to show that many of their preferred alternatives, especially welfare-state programs such as subsidized housing, are "unsustainable" in the true, economic meaning of the word. I urge all supporters of liberty and prosperity to do likewise.

Anonymous said...

A point you could have made is that maximizing the well being of future generations is almost certainly not accomplished by minimizing the use of depletable resources, since the use of those resources is not only for current consumption but also investment that future generations will inherit.

Anonymous said...

An excellent talk and about as good as could be done in 50 minutes. Unfortunately I have been thrust into this "sustainability" charade at an academic level. The types of people involved in these issues understand fully well that the term and concept of "sustainability" is utter nonsense. But they use the fact that it is utter nonsense, to say that we need clear goals and measures and policies. Guess who gets to set those goals and policies. The ambiguity of the nonsense, I fear, is intentional just as with the other side of this coin: CSR.

It seems your university is a late-comer to this charade and grant game. We started early, but have utterly failed to produce not only anything of value, but also students in such programs that are worth anything in the market. So the natural evolution of this nonsense is to marry the concept with just about everything involving increasing efficiencies (say, a program in some engineering department). This leads to some peculiar and ridiculous results, where the "sustainability" people write papers on the behalf of such a department, and then get a reply saying "It is not in the interest of our center, or its members, to promote the reduction in use of xxx product". So much fun.

Andrew Hallman said...

I enjoyed the talk very much. I agree that the problem of global warming is overstated, and that biofuels are a scam, but I wonder if there are harder cases. I'm thinking of overfishing. Do the environmentalists have a point there? What would be the free market solution? To privatize the oceans?

In his book "Simple Rules for a Complex World," Richard Epstein argues that property rights in water have to be very different from property rights in land, because the two resources are so different.

On page 69, Epstein writes, "The owners of land may exclude all others and hold their property inviolate. The owners of water have to share and share alike, and must reduce their take proportionately during the dry season."

I read and enjoyed your essay on Ronald Coase, and how even a seemingly intractable problem as air pollution can be solved through a contract between the polluter and the houses downwind.

You wrote:

"The second step in Coase's argument is to observe that, as long as the parties involved can readily make and enforce contracts in their mutual interest, neither direct regulation nor Pigouvian taxes are necessary in order to get the efficient outcome. All you need is a clear definition of who has a right to do what and the market will take care of the problem."

I agree, but isn't the "clear definition of who has a right to do what" the hard part? Do you have any suggestions for how to apply Coase's insight to water rights?

Tal said...

I agree with Anonymous at 12:52pm. I listened to the 'short version' of your argument and I'm guessing a lot of smart people who hear it will think you don't know what you're talking about, because clearly the using of resources of everyone throughout history until today has made us more able to get what we want now, not less.

mike said...

In the "Sustainability II" post there was a claim that solar power, were it to continue getting cheaper, could replace fossil fuels for most of their uses. That depends entirely on geography, since the basic problem with solar energy is that it is dilute, so even with better solar PV tech (e.g. 80% rather than 20% efficiency), solar cells would still not be able to produce power by the TW hour unless you cover enormous tracts of land with them. That may become possible in the southwestern U.S., but it is not possible elsewhere in regions with very different geographical conditions such as Taiwan.

Were the government of Taiwan to cover every square inch of every rooftop of every kind of building in all major and minor cities on the entire island with solar PV cells (at an efficiency of <20%), the average energy this would produce over a year would be < 9 TW hours (probably somewhere closer to 3 TW hours). With total annual electricity consumption at 230 TW hours, that means an ambitious, national solar power project could at most make between 0.39% and 0.13% of Taiwan's electricity needs. Even a fivefold improvement in PV efficiency would be insignificant at this scale.

That quibble aside, I enjoyed the talk and both sustainability posts and echo Perry Metzger's comments about how good it was.

Jubal Harshaw said...

Very good. Some ideas get very silly very quickly if you only question them. I think "sustainability" is one of them.

neil craig said...

Very good Robin.

Sustainability is a political buzz word with no measurable meaning. I once pointed out that the term "sustainable building" literally means one that doesn't fall downn not one with wood paneling.

Julian Simon who has been repeatedly proven right on almost everything pointed out that the only real limited resource is human ingenuity. With that we can find ever more resources of materials or power (note how the recent discovery how to extract shale gas has knocked all the last decade's prophecies of peak oil into a cocked hat)(the 1960s,70s, 80s & 90s & indeed back to the 1850s prophecies having previously been proven wrong).

Jumper said...

I would say it all boils down to energy. Or more precisely, the energy per person ratio.

Anonymous said...

Sustainability of a university is indeed a strange idea. On the other hand, sustainability of the agriculture is vital.