Guest Post by Willis Eschenbach
People have this idea that sailing is cheap, because of the low fuel costs. But blue-water sailors have a saying that goes like this:
The wind is free … but everything else costs money.
Reading the various pronouncements from the partygoers at the Durban climate-related Conference of Parties, I was struck by the many uses of the words “sustainable development” and “sustainability”. It’s pretty confusing. Apparently, paying high long-term subsidies for uneconomic energy sources is sustainable … who knew?
Anyways, I got to thinking about how I’ve never been sure what “sustainable development” means, and of how much it reminds me of the sailors saying. One of the first uses of the term was in the UN’s 1987 Brundtland Report, which said:
“Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
I never understood that definition. How could I use a shovel to turn over the earth for my garden, for example? Every kilo of iron ore that is mined to make my shovel is a kilo of iron ore that is forever unavailable to “future generations to meet their own needs”. It’s unavoidable. Which means that we will run out of iron, and thus any use of iron is ultimately unsustainable. My shovel use is depriving my great-grandchildren of shovels.
Oh, sure, I can recycle my shovel. But some of the metal will inevitably be lost in the process. All that does is make the inevitable iron-death move further away in time … but recycling doesn’t magically make iron extraction sustainable.
Figure 1. Example of unsustainable development.
And if me using a steel shovel to dig in my own garden is not sustainable … then what is sustainable? I mean, where are the “peak iron” zealots when we need them?
So other than sunlight, wind, and rainbows … just what is sustainable development supposed to be built of? Cell phones are one of the most revolutionary tools of development … but we are depriving future generations of nickel and cadmium in doing so. That’s not sustainable.
Here’s the ugly truth. It’s simple, blunt, and bitter. Nothing is sustainable. Oh, like the sailors say, the wind is free. As is the sunshine. But everything else we mine or extract to make everything from shovels to cell phones will run out. The only question is, will it run out sooner, or later? Because nothing is sustainable. “Sustainable Development” is just an airy-fairy moonbeam fantasy, a New Age oxymoron. In the real world, it can’t happen. I find the term “sustainable development” useful for one thing only.
When people use it, I know they have not thought too hard about the issues.
Finally, there is an underlying arrogance about the concept that I find disturbing. Forty percent of the world’s people live on less than $2 per day. In China it’s sixty percent. In India, three-quarters of the population lives on under $2 per day.
Denying those men, women, and especially children the ability to improve their lives based on some professed concern about unborn generations doesn’t sit well with me at all. The obvious response from their side is “Easy for you to say, you made it already.” Which is true. The West got wealthy by means which “sustainable development” wants to deny to the world’s poor.
Look, there could be a climate catastrophe in fifty years. And we could hit some sustainability wall in fifty years.
But when a woman’s kids are hungry, she won’t see the logic of not feeding them to avoid “compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”. She won’t understand that logic at all.
And neither do I. Certainly, I think we should live as lightly as possible on this marvelous planet. And yes, use rates and R/P ratios are an issue. But nothing is sustainable. So let’s set the phrase “sustainable development” on the shelf of meaningless curiosities, go back to concentrating on feeding the children we already have on this Earth, and leave the great-grandchildren to fend for themselves. Everyone says they’ll live to be a thousand and be a lot richer than I am and have computers that can write poetry, so I’m sure they’ll figure it out.
PS—Theorists say that it’s not enough that development be sustainable in terms of the environment. They also demand sustainability in three other arenas: social, economic, and cultural sustainability.
Socially sustainable? Culturally sustainable? We don’t even know if what we currently do is culturally or socially sustainable. How can we guess if some development is culturally sustainable?
I swear, sometimes I think people have totally lost the plot. This is mental onanism of the highest order, to sit around and debate if something is “culturally sustainable”. Like I said … let’s get back to feeding the kids. Once that’s done, we can debate if the way we fed them is culturally sustainable.