Nothing is Sustainable

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.


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The definition of a boat is that it is a hole in the water into which money is poured.

Every (used) condom is thousands of people being prevented from being born, and their children and grandchildren etc etc. It’s a crime against intergenerational justice. /sarc

Absolutely on the button. Brilliant as ever, Willis.


Does a bamboo slide rule count as sustainable? And 50 points for using ‘onanism’ in a sentence.


There is a difference between sustainable development and “Sustainable Development” (note the capitalization). One is the concept of doing things in such a manner as to be considerate of your neighbors and future generations. The other is a mechanism by which governments abdicate their representative responsibility and allow their planning boards, zoning commissions, and environmental agencies to be run by policy set by the UN. “Sustainable Development” as set forth in Agenda 21 of the Rio conference:
and includes such concepts as the “Precautionary Principal” where something must only be a “plausible” threat to the environment and scientific uncertainty is not to be a factor in limiting action.
We have zoning compliance boards now throwing people out of their homes in LA county in the name of Sustainable Development. It works kind of like this:
You develop high density “affordable housing” along transportation corridors. Then you start making it unaffordable to live in rural areas or to live “off grid” by mandating that you must be connected to the grid and you must be connected to a municipal water supply of that your water supply meet the same standards as a municipal water supply. In other words, they make it unaffordable but anyone other than the very rich to live in rural areas. The poor are “stacked and packed” into “high density” housing while low density areas are condemned as “under utilized” and people are forced to move out.
But more importantly, national governments, states, and localities are encouraged to “internationalize” their policies. This means they are encouraged to go lock-step with UN policy recommendations such as the UNFCCC recommendations. This means that a group of unelected bureaucrats who are for the most part appointed by third world despots get to dictate policy directly to the local level without anyone who is an elected representative of the people being involved anywhere in the process. And they do this under the Orwellian name of “Sustainable Development” knowing that anyone who opposes it will be accused of wanting “unsustainable development”.
So basically, some political crony of the President of Bolivia gets to set zoning standards for people living in South Carolina.
It is complete freaking crazy and the first thing we need to do after this next election is to extract ourselves from the Rio treaty.


In fact, just a few days ago the EPA was asking for expanded powers in order to implement Sustainable Development (in the UN sense).
The UK’s DEFRA has already “internationalized” and simply follows UN guidelines in lock-step and pays the University of East Anglia (via Tyndall Centre) to help them implement it.

Willis: Yup. The old Marxist five-year-plan drone, dressed up in sheep’s clothing. (Fill in appropriate socioeconomic construct) will be (fill in postulated better condition) in the future, if we (engage in such-and-such process) today. Which guarantees that none of it will happen.

Cirrius Man

But hang on…
We emmit CO2, it gets absorbed by the oceans and taken up by phyto-plankton, sinks to the bottom in the sediment layers and in a few million years it becomes a future source of fossil fuel.
And the cycle continues…..
This seems very sustainable !

D. Patterson

Famine has been a traditoinal delimiter for economic and cultural sustainability. Another has been neglect of the aged, neglect of the infirm,, and the selling of children when the limits of sustainability have been reached. Of course, The latest Lotus Eaters, of course, are contemplating nothing less than the establishment of the Rule of the Airmen, where the limits of Sustainability is found within their own boredom with Paradise

D. Patterson

Famine has been a traditional delimiter for economic and cultural sustainability. Another has been neglect of the aged, neglect of the infirm,, and the selling of children when the limits of sustainability have been reached. Of course, The latest Lotus Eaters, are contemplating nothing less than the establishment of the Rule of the Airmen, where the limits of Sustainability is found within their own boredom with Paradise

This is the first time that I have seen anyone tackle the subject of what is meant by “sustainable development”. I have some theories about what it can partially mean based upon some of the architectural practices here in Canberra.
Another one that really irks me is the use of “ethical”…. e.g. “ethical insurance” where the ad reads like an advert for being a watermelon. It is also used by small farmers who are making their own wool etc. Or “fair trade”, which used to have one kind of meaning but now seems to mean something else.
I had not thought about what is meant by “sustainable development” except that it seemed to be aimed at the coal miners, or other minerals mining. Yet the truth is that if it boils down to farming that it should refer to leaving one field fallow every year!!!

4 eyes

I wrote exactly the same thing to my federal conservative politician last year and got a response that said to me he didn’t want to go anywhere this sort of philosophising. And he is quite a pragmatic person. Maybe a sensitive issue to a politician these days when we are are all pressured into feeling guilty about possibly making the world a worse place (via AGW) for people who don’t even exist but who will have incredible technologies available to them if current rates of progress are allowed to continue. There’s no doubt in my mind if we don’t look after the 7 billion already here the future generations won’t have a chance – they may not even get born. I guess someone will find a way of making us feel guilty for all those don’t even get born…

Roger Carr

You are thinking too narrowly, Willis. Sustainable development is bigger than leaving some in the ground for the kids
Sustainable development is working the land so that it becomes increasingly productive. It is using iron ore, nickel and cadmium (to use your examples) to build to go to the stars to get more — and that is exactly what the best of the breed are doing.
Viewed that way your quote from the UN’s 1987 Brundtland Report makes sense:

“Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

It does not mean Stop!

In the architecture business that word has become a ‘must use’ term and I have sought to find a meaning from those using it – to no avail… I am forced now to treat any sales literature with the S word in it with great suspicion…
Thanks Willis for setting out the situation with your usual clarity.


Back in time when the atmosphere was all CO2 and no oxygen, life forms evolved which photosynthesized CO2 to oxygen. Was that sustainable development? No way! They would sure experience peak CO2 and then all die out if enough non-photosynthesizing organisms hadn’t evolved right in time when they were needed.
Even life itself is not about sustaining. It’s about evolution.


Plenty of additional resources available off world!


See Agenda 21.
“generally, more highly educated people, who have higher incomes, consume more resources than poorly educated people, who tend to have lower incomes. In this case, more education increases the threat to sustainability”

Can you believe these people?


In terms of just the objects, it’s merely a reallocation problem, Give or take a few atoms that are lost to outer space, we have the same quantity of the 90+ odd elements on our planet as were there four billion years ago. I say ‘merely’ but that assumes the availability of boundless energy with which to undertake any required re-reallocation. Doubtless someone can provide us with an estimate of the number of spades which could be made given the amount of iron on this planet. Enough, I suspect.


Willis, if you have a cell phone with a NiCd battery, you’re really a “sustainable guy” reusing obsolete technology 😉 (All modern ones – AFAIK – have lithium-based batteries these days)


One thing that has proved again and again to not be sustainable is central planning. It doesn’t work. One mistake leads an entire nation over the cliff. We must learn to treat economies as ecosystems with economic microclimates. We need millions of individual micro-decisions to be made that all have a synergistic and symbiotic relationship with each other. Attempting to manage ANYTHING on a central basis is destined to fail. History shows us that every single time. Yet every single time the people proposing it seem to believe they are smarter than everyone else that has ever come before them in history and the result is always catastrophic.
read a book called “this time is different”.

John Marshall

Excellent ‘Back to Basics’ post which all of these dreamers should read.
The developing world is held in limbo at present by these fools who are denying the needy the resources to help themselves. On a recent visit to India my wife discovered that the best thing to give the poverty stricken children in rural villages was not sweets but a pencil and writing book which was immediately taken with thanks and used to help writing practice. It would appear that education is not free in India as it was when we left in 1948. If the West does nothing else we must make sure that education is free in the developing world.
Knowledge is everything.

It is something that baffles me also.
Look at recycling, iron, steel, lead, copper, aluminum, huge savings on raw resources and growing.
look at massive savings on weight and materials using modern techniques.
Look at massive declines because of change use, such as newsprint and paper.
Look at renewable sustainable materials such as wood for building.
The adaptability, flexibility and ingenuity of man knows no bounds.
Love it or hate it, every liter of bio fuel replaces and reduces demand for fossil fuel.
Yet Water Melons wish to hear none of it.

Sustainability is one of those flexi-terms that bends and twists to suit the user’s wishes. It’s also the poisoned rapier of choice for the watermelons. As w. notes, the term “unsustainable” can be used to condemn any kind of productive activity. But the “sustainable” alternatives are all illusion and selective accounting.
The greatest real force for maximum return on any resource is efficiency.

Espen says:
December 22, 2011 at 2:15 am
Willis, if you have a cell phone with a NiCd battery, you’re really a “sustainable guy” reusing obsolete technology 😉 (All modern ones – AFAIK – have lithium-based batteries these days)

It also happens that the lithium is almost entirely recyclable and reclaimable.


This argument comes from the far left and radical enviro’s. They are totally and compleatly against today’s Western growth and comsumption as the communist’s in USSR or religious leaders in the Muslim world. And the reason they are against it is because they can’t offer the same with their ideology or religion. They can’t compete so the only way they can get to power is to annihilate the ideologies behind economic growth and consumption. They are only looking for problems and don’t want solutions for the problems they have made up or found.
Their main objective is to get to power, global power. And with the treaty they have put forwards in Copenhagen and Durban it look”s more and more like global enviro socialism. That easily can become enviro communism.
All their arguments to achieve their main goal, power, is mostly unscientific rubbish.
And so is also their sustainable doctrine. Bjorne Lomborg showed that in the book skeptical environmentalist.

Very good Willis, but we really must avoid “feeding the seed corn to the hungry children”.
This isn’t a criticism of your article. The “sustainability” folks are going to make sure there is no seed corn.


Is this to argue for de-population?


I hate the word “sustainable” and I hate the way greenies, mass media and politicians use it.
I have been saying that nothing is sustainable for years. It all depends on how many factors you put in the equation and the weight you want to give to each of those factors. What I say now is that the best energy source available right now is natural gas, It is cheap and produces plant´s food, It has a net positive ecological effect.


I’m disappointed to see this from you, Willis. I thought you were a clearer thinker. You confuse sustainable with infinite. Have you been reading the Bulletin of Atomic Energy recently, perhaps? They ran a very similar, though more pointed, op-ed a few weeks ago.
You confuse materials with consumables. When you mine that iron ore for that shovel, what you want is iron. You take four kilograms of that iron and turn it into a shovel. You use the shovel for twenty years and at the end… you still have four kilograms of iron. Even if some of it has rusted, that oxide is still convertible back to iron, given the right process and enough energy.
Oil and gas are fundamentally different. When you extract oil and gas, what you want is the energy potential in their chemical bonds. Once you’ve used that energy, you can’t get it back. Of course the energy is still there, but you can’t put it back into a useful, high-density form without expending more energy than you’d usefully recover – that’s called the second law of thermodynamics, and from it derives the Carnot limit.
Shovels are sustainable, because after you use it, you’ve still got one. Oil and gas are unsustainable because after you use them you’ve got something else less useful instead. Is the distinction that hard?
And, to poke about with a stick a bit, windmills are sustainable, because after their 20-year life you’ve still got all the materials you used to build them. Neodynium is not infinite, but it is reusable. Oil is not infinite, and it is not reusable (as an energy source, at any rate).

Justin Ert

You’re right that “sustainable development” was first used as a phrase by Gro Harlem Bruntland for the UN’s Commission… But to suggest that it is just an “airy-fairy moonbeam fantasy, a New Age oxymoron”, does not do justice to its frightening reach. Sustainable development is the parent of climate change; the political context within which global warming – and a whole host of green legislation – is framed; the focal point at which global warming science meets policy recommendations; a political initiative upon which the entire United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs is based:
The Agenda 21 ideological ethos finds itself everywhere, from national curriculum for 7 year-olds to local LA21 council initiatives, to intergovermentmental global legislation. Sustainable development is an extremely powerful political meme, that has permeated all facets of political and economic thinking – think Keynesian, interventionist, environmentalism – and consider how powerful it has become in the push towards putting a price on carbon, global energy policy and placing environmental issues to the heart of all political decision making. The “sustainable development” meme has become an ideological cornerstone of the global governance mechanisms directed and implemented by the United Nations. Big sustainability even.

Undefinable Buzz-Words and Catch-Phrases eventually lose their meaning; if you know what I mean.


Thanks, Willis. The whole idea of sustainability seems to come from the same mindset as AGW (about which came first, I am not clear) with the same underlying sense of guilt for being alive on this planet. It’s clear that politicians seem now to be intent on playing on that guilt by emphasising the sin and offering increases in taxes as a way of assuaging it (much as the Roman Catholic Church has been doing since its inception).
As an architect I have been bemused by architects apparent desire to persuade everyone they practice ‘sustainable’ design. The ultimate seemed to be achieved by one firm that advertised it was doing the ultimate in sustainable design by designing its buildings underground so you couldn’t see them!

Espen, is spodumene sustainable?


“Sustainable development” is an element of language forged to hide out but convey the same underlying agenda one could find embed in other terms like “intergenerational justice” or “economical equality” or “global consciousness” or “global cooperation” which meanings are as ambivalent as cryptic to sound positive to uninformed people but are in fact the pinnacle of a highly hidden politicized agenda of the worst kind you can discover when the polish is removed.


Why have we been able to mine one of the scarcest metals for some 7000 years and still we’re not running low?
What is found in jewelry, computers, cellphones, stereo/home cinema, cars, … and even some bathrooms, is gold. Most seem to end up in bank vaults, but still the supply keep coming with the demand.
Enter oil and people shrieks about running out of oil. Yet, apparently, by ODAC’s numbers, we’ve only used less than 0.0005 percent of cubic kilometers of oil compared to the Greenland ice sheet, since 1850. Paint that little speck on a world map and you get a visual representation of how little man is, no matter the hubris sized ego of the alarmist.
If we even out the climate, make it more cozy like, won’t we suffer wind depravation? :p

Pete H

Willis, the best advice I got about boats was after I purchased mine. I seem to remember it went something like, “You are happy for only two days with a boat. One is the day you buy it and the other is the day you sell it”! I like to sit in my ski boat outside my house and just throw paper money in the wind. Save all the hassle of launching it!

Chris Wright

As has been pointed out already, North Korea is a shining example of “sustainable development”.
In order to give future generations a good future we should concentrate on building up our stores of wealth, technology and knowledge. Of course we should try to be efficient and not waste resources, but on the other hand we shouldn’t be obsessed by it. As wealth and knowledge increases, new resources will be unlocked. By the end of this century mankind may be capable of unlocking the almost limitless mineral resources of the asteroids. And by that ime we will almost certainly have an almost limitless and clean energy source: fusion.
But mankind is faced by a very real danger right now: if the global warming delusion continues unchecked then the lights will go out and North Korea will represent our future. I think that’s worth fighting against, don’t you?


Very good paper.
Over here the definition of any kind of recreational boating is the sensation of standing under a cold shower tearing up 50 pound notes.
And how did you get a photo of MY garden spade?

Stephen Skinnner

“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. ”
Thats not exactly true. Metals can and are recycled and if they’re not now, they can be. Most of the Aluminium used to build the vast amount of WWII planes was recycled. I recall hearing a car crusher on Toronto Island in the 70s. My brother pointed out that it ran 24 hours a day and was crushing Detroit built cars, sending the metal to Japan and then came back in as Japanese cars. Buckminster Fuller pointed out that the metal used to produce one 1950s 2 ton car was eventually used to make two 1 ton cars.


Aussie says:
December 22, 2011 at 1:52 am
This is the first time that I have seen anyone tackle the subject of what is meant by “sustainable development”. I have some theories about what it can partially mean based upon some of the architectural practices here in Canberra.

Sustainable, ethical, fair. Aussie, you left out the most obnoxious adjective used by these people. social, as in “social justice”. Another oxymoron even older than the “sustainable development” itself. Social justice negates what it is regarded as justice for the last 2500 year. Justice it is supposed to be personal, not social.
These people are using adjectives to corrupt the meaning of the substantives they don’t like. They are against development, against trade, against justice so they have to come up with an oxymoron that destroys the meaning of the substantives they hate. And once they find one, they use the mass media to bombard the populace with it until the substantive itself loses the original meaning.

Ken Hall

Sustainable forestry is possible. So is sustainable farming. You get the plants and animals to reproduce and replace themselves. Using a finite and irreplaceable resource until it is all gone, is not sustainable.


To some people the term, “sustainable development” means use of wind and solar panels to harness energy. I wonder, if we ever got there on a massive scale, if there is not some unintended consequence that would cost future generations dearly. Perhaps the change in surface drag from wind farms or surface albedo from solar farms might do something unpredicted. My brother-in-law (economist) once pointed out that unintended consequences come in predictable and unpredictable forms and that too often we fail to consider the predictable ones,
As a old sailor I remember that the definition of a sailboat is a hole in the water into which you pour money.
Nice topic Willis. It needs more discussion.


Some lovely ‘sustainable’ quotes:
“Current lifestyles and consumption patterns of the affluent middle class – involving high meat intake, use of fossil fuels, appliances, air-conditioning, and suburban housing – are not sustainable.”
– Maurice Strong, 1972’s Rio Earth Summit
“Global Sustainability requires the deliberate quest of poverty, reduced resource consumption and set levels of mortality control.”
– Pr Maurice King
and do not forget the always funny Club of Rome:
“… the resultant ideal sustainable population is hence more than 500 million but less than one billion.”
– Club of Rome, Goals for Mankind
“In Nature organic growth proceeds according to a Master Plan, a Blueprint. Such a ‘master plan’ is missing from the process of growth and development of the world system. Now is the time to draw up a master plan for sustainable growth and world development based on global allocation of all resources and a new global economic system. Ten or twenty years from today it will probably be too late.”
– Club of Rome, Mankind at the Turning Point


I thought the saying was-
“A boat is a hole in the water where you sink money.”

Oxbridge Prat

Alleagra, if you seriously mean the amount of iron on the planet, then your answer is about 10^24 spades. However much of that iron is in the core, and thus probably inaccessible.

Jim Barker

Maybe if we could develop “Zero Point” energy, but then there’s always the heat death of the universe to whine about:-)

J Storrs Hall

I said something similar a couple of years ago…


One thing is certain; NOT feeding your children is definitely not sustainable.
Not culturally, socially, or economically.

A very thought provoking post – Thank you.

“If you want to know what sailing is like, stand in a cold shower while shredding $ 100 bills.”