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.

w.

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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daveburton
December 22, 2011 1:18 am

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

December 22, 2011 1:26 am

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

December 22, 2011 1:29 am

Absolutely on the button. Brilliant as ever, Willis.

Sera
December 22, 2011 1:33 am

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

crosspatch
December 22, 2011 1:38 am

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:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agenda_21
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.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Precautionary_principle
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”.
http://www.un.org/esa/dsd/index.shtml?utm_source=OldRedirect&utm_medium=redirect&utm_content=dsd&utm_campaign=OldRedirect
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sustainable_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.

crosspatch
December 22, 2011 1:40 am

In fact, just a few days ago the EPA was asking for expanded powers in order to implement Sustainable Development (in the UN sense).
http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2011/12/19/epa-ponders-expanded-regulatory-power-in-name-sustainable-development/
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.

December 22, 2011 1:43 am

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
December 22, 2011 1:45 am

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
December 22, 2011 1:45 am

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
December 22, 2011 1:48 am

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

December 22, 2011 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.
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
December 22, 2011 1:53 am

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
December 22, 2011 1:56 am

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!

December 22, 2011 1:59 am

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.
Stu

Kasuha
December 22, 2011 1:59 am

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.

MarcH
December 22, 2011 2:02 am

Plenty of additional resources available off world!

Frosty
December 22, 2011 2:09 am

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?

Alleagra
December 22, 2011 2:10 am

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.

Espen
December 22, 2011 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)

crosspatch
December 22, 2011 2:23 am

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
December 22, 2011 2:25 am

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.

December 22, 2011 2:31 am

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.
Why?

December 22, 2011 2:32 am

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.

December 22, 2011 2:33 am

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.

Jon
December 22, 2011 2:34 am

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.

December 22, 2011 2:34 am

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.

jones
December 22, 2011 2:37 am

Is this to argue for de-population?

Urederra
December 22, 2011 2:43 am

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.

Tom
December 22, 2011 2:43 am

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
December 22, 2011 2:44 am

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:
http://www.un.org/esa/dsd/agenda21/
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.

December 22, 2011 2:45 am

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

Jasper
December 22, 2011 2:48 am

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!

December 22, 2011 2:49 am

Espen, is spodumene sustainable?

tmtisfree
December 22, 2011 3:03 am

“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.

1DandyTroll
December 22, 2011 3:05 am

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
December 22, 2011 3:06 am

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
December 22, 2011 3:11 am

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?
Chris

oldseadog
December 22, 2011 3:11 am

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
December 22, 2011 3:11 am

“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.

Urederra
December 22, 2011 3:14 am

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
December 22, 2011 3:14 am

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.

Allanj
December 22, 2011 3:15 am

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.

tmtisfree
December 22, 2011 3:19 am

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

Orkneygal
December 22, 2011 3:20 am

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

Oxbridge Prat
December 22, 2011 3:22 am

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
December 22, 2011 3:25 am

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
December 22, 2011 3:28 am

I said something similar a couple of years ago…
http://www.foresight.org/nanodot/?p=2998

ScuzzaMan
December 22, 2011 3:30 am

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

December 22, 2011 3:31 am

A very thought provoking post – Thank you.

December 22, 2011 3:32 am

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

Paul S
December 22, 2011 3:33 am

Many years ago when studying political theory, our class was required to write an essay on our obligations to future generations. My hypotesis was essentialy this; there are two classes of resource – renewable and non-renewable. Any use of non-renewable resources will ultimately lead to a loss of those resources at some point in the future, thus depriving a future generation of that resource. No single fututre generation can be said to have a greater claim to non-renewables than any other, or this one, therefore there can be no absolute moral/ehtical limitation vis a vis future generations on our use of non-renewable resources. Renwable resources by definition have an (for all practical purposes) indefinite fututre utility. this being the case, we have an obligation not to use renewable resources in such a way as to degrade them or otherwise render them unavailable to fututre generations. In addition, our use of non-renewables must not impinge on the future viablitiy of renewables.
It’s not a complete argument in itself, but I think it’s still a good place to start thinking about the subject

Luther Wu
December 22, 2011 3:34 am

Sustainability is but one of the three aspects of life: to create, sustain and destroy.
It’s all a question of balance.

Luther Wu
December 22, 2011 3:35 am

When the term “sustainable” agriculture was new and intriguing to me, it became apparent that if followed to it’s logical end, the movement’s advocates were really making a call for a return to a hunter- gatherer society, with emphasis on the ‘gatherer’.

Bryan
December 22, 2011 3:37 am

Cross country ski-ing is pretty near 100% sustainable.
Make sure you have kids who like the sport.
They can keep going when your gone.
Snow I’m sure (despite GAGW fears) will always be with us.
Take care of your ski’s they’ve got to last a long time

JohnL
December 22, 2011 3:39 am

Willis,
You missed one. Wind, Sun, Rainbows, Unicorns. The last consume no food and produce fuel grade poop.

Jon
December 22, 2011 3:40 am

I agree the word Sustainable is a central part of the Agenda 21 society.
A plan to destroy the market and democracy and create a society where only socialism and communism have a place. A plan society with mostly collective solutions only.
So for me sustainable means becoming socialist or communist.
Been there done that so no thank you.

Watchman
December 22, 2011 3:43 am

On social and cultural sustainability, these very ideas seem wrong. Unless there is some dead hand blocking their development, society and culture are both in constant flux. To try and make anything sustainable in terms of society or culture would therefore require stopping society and culture changing, which is a totalitarian or arch-conservative instinct.
Interestingly though, it does appear to be the underlying logic behind much ‘environmentalism’ – that society must be frozen in a perfect state. Unfortunately, as anyone who has studied history can tell you, humanity does not freeze societies for long – and the longer the old men with beards or the ideologues try to hold back change, the harder it comes (see recent events in the Arab world for example). People change; society and culture are not separate entities but simply the products of people interacting and expressing themselves; therefore society and culture cannot say the same unless people do. And people always change.

December 22, 2011 3:44 am

Sustainable development means what the participants in COP 17 want it to mean. You are of course correct; everything we do will impact the future availability of natural resources. The COP 17 members want to reduce economic development in rich nations of the west and demand that they become poorer by taxing them and redistributing the funds to undeveloped nations. It is their fault that the undeveloped nations are poor. Slogans like “hope and change”, “climate modification” and “cultural sustainability” don’t have any meaning inherent in the words. They are devoid of content. Therefore, their meanings depend solely upon the context it which they are used and therefore who is using them and why they are using the terms. Of course the context may not always reveal the hidden meaning of sustainable development. Sustainability of the planet sounds altruistic but the purveyors of this idea are more interested in sharing the wealth created by development and in using the wealth to foster their own well being as government officials.

Rob
December 22, 2011 3:44 am

Nowadays, it is science that is creating new religion. They may be intellectual based religions but their central theme is the same as every religion gone before. We are all sinners, we must repent, we must become sustainable(good) and Mother Nature(God) will pay you back if you are not good.
“Sustainable” is the most abused word in the english dictionary. But in the context of warmism and junk climate science, it really means monetary appeasement to Mother Earth and her disciples. It was invented by climate scientists to suggest if good will is shown by man to planet earth, that it will stave off bad weather events like hurricanes and floods in the future; in other words Gaia will lessen these natural events.
What makes “Sustainable” so utterly meaningless is that sustainability is dependent on monetary contribution. Everything is the same as before but now is sustainable. Coca Cola used to be Cola Cola, now it’s sustainable. Flying used to bad for the earth, now it is sustainable. To be sustainable you just make your offering payable to any of the disciples like World Wide Fund for Nature, to Greenpeace or purchase a carbon credit from a green prophet bank. In fact sustainable is the new currency that buys you exclusive right to belong in the church of Warmism, the more you fund the church, the more sustainable you become, the more you spend, the better Warmist you are.

TimTheToolMan
December 22, 2011 3:44 am

Roger writes “You are thinking too narrowly, Willis. Sustainable development is bigger than leaving some in the ground for the kids”
And is spot on. Its fairly obvious that use of fossil fuels is not sustainable unless they are used as a stepping stone to some other technology.

Mardler
December 22, 2011 3:50 am

The earliest use of “sustainability” that I have found was by the Third Reich. Yup, sustainability = fascism.

Old Goat
December 22, 2011 3:54 am

And what do women (people) do when faced with the starvation of their children? They produce more children in an effort to continue the family (and sub-species), thus there are more mouths to feed. Same as it ever was – danger of annihilation of species, reproduce, reproduce – more chance of someone surviving if you increase the numbers.

Walter
December 22, 2011 4:00 am

Thanks for that. It’s like in Australia we have Aboriginal Reconciliation. Trouble is nobody has ever defined what that actually means. So now we have a Reconciliation Process. Because there was never a defined outcome. Its all just layer upon layer of bull@#$t.
And Roger Carr: “Working the land so it is more productive” is more BS.
When you grow ANYTHING in land, the growing takes things from the air and the soil – nutrients of various kinds, as well as carbon, water, and such like. The crop (or animal) so grown is then usually taken away from that land and consumed, making urine and human excrement, as well as energy for moving, breathing, exhaling CO2, writing blog posts, and so on. The urine and excrement goes to sewage treatment plants and usually ends up as solid material which may or may not be used as fertiliser or land fill, and nutrient-rich water which goes out to sea.
The nett balance here is that nutrients go from the land to the sea, via kidneys and bowels.
In the long term claiming you can work the land to make it more productive is complete codswallop. Short term maybe. Long term. Simply not possible, by analysis from first principles.

kbray in california
December 22, 2011 4:01 am

As child, I cut down a tree planted by grandpa and build a dingy to go fishing.
I plant 3 more trees for my grandchildren so they can do the same.
Won’t that work and be considered “sustainable” ?
I like your shovel.

Anteros
December 22, 2011 4:14 am

Willis –
Nice post, but I think you’re just scratching the surface of ‘sustainable’. Yes, sometimes it is only meaningless, and sometimes merely unnecessary. Many times, though it is insidious and pernicious. It allows a whole menagerie of nefarious ideologies to creep into our discourse undetected. It allows the most misanthropic disposition to masquerade as ‘caring’ and the most fear-soaked as forward-looking.
Nothing whatsoever that we cherish in our lives arrived by way of the ‘sustainable’. Every step along the way, every resource, every technology, every process was in some way unsustainable – but a stepping stone to the glories of the modern age. Discovering and utilising in short order islands built of guano was hopelessly unsustainable, but brilliant – and fed millions of people. Digging up fossil fuels could only ever end up an unsustainable error….apart from it transforming life on earth, doubling the span of man’s existence and thrusting us into the future of beautiful clean thorium reactors and energy stored in caverns of molten salt.
Without unsustainable practices we would be nothing – cowed and afraid to put our feet on the ground for fear of leaving ‘footprints’.
Down with the sustainable! Let us live fully today and make our descendants both proud and thankful!

Symon
December 22, 2011 4:15 am

Choosing iron as an example of a depleting resource was a mistake. If you wait long enough, everything turns into iron-56.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iron-56

A physicist
December 22, 2011 4:15 am

Willis Eschenbach quotes the Brundtland Report: “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

Willis, one of the main tenets of science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and medicine (the STEM professions) is “There’s always someone smarter than you.” The point being, you have to figure out who those people are, and study their best work.
So maybe we all can learn more, and learn faster, not by cherry-picking the worst analyses of sustainable development, but by studying the best analyses?
On a local scale, my father taught me that farmland regenerates on a scale of a few thousand years — a long but not immeasurably long time. And therefore, a good farmer conserves soil, and plants trees, and learns the science of soil conservation and forestry, and imagines how the land will evolve on a time-span of centuries.
It’s true that there are some mighty sobering lessons associated to land husbandry on a time-scale in which a century is a fairly short time. That’s why a good farmer needs to be not only well-learned and foresighted, but courageous too, to face up to these lessons.
For example, I definitely don’t agree with all that Wendell Berry writes, but any person who wants to learn more — and think more — about the sobering challenges associated to sustainable development is far better off studying Wendell Berry’s writings, than reading reports written by UN bureaucrats. That much is obvious, eh?
The best and greatest traditions of American independence and foresight — and respect for science too — are alive today in independent thinkers like Berry. Good.
Let’s keep those traditions alive.

Cold Englishman
December 22, 2011 4:22 am

As we see so often, Willis puts his finger on the spot.
As a retired Engineering Surveyor, I used to often deal with ‘Sustainability’ issues in highway and drainage design, to name just two areas. You don’t actually do anything differently, you just add the term ‘sustainable’ in several places before submitting designs to city hall. So long as it has the magic words, it will pass. ‘Simples’.
Which is proof positive of Willis’s point here, it is just meaningless. Nobody really knows what it means!

December 22, 2011 4:23 am

Agh, stop the spaceflight stuff. Mining minerals on Mars or Venus will require so much energy and material for transportation that it’s waaaaaayyyyyyyy beyond a dead loss.
You’re forgetting the truly renewable part of Earth, which is Life. The nearest hope, both spatially and temporally, is technology based on cells instead of rare metals.
Google ‘bacterial nanowires’ if you’re not familiar with this line of research.

Pete in Cumbria UK
December 22, 2011 4:27 am

Is ‘moral blackmail’ the term to describe this gumpf. Like most opinion polls on The Environment – the questions are so loaded as to elicit the required response.
eg: take a look at UK supermarket shoppers. When quizzed, going into the shop, you’ll hear how they’ll support British farmers, Fair Trade, Organic producers etc. But, when they’re in the shop and think no-one is looking, they pick up the cheapest old tat they possibly can, regardless of where it came from. Especially witness the rude, almost feral behaviour around the ‘Reduced price- nearly out-of-date’ shelf when a new trolley load arrives. Hypocrisy rules UK
And, when we have saved all this goodness (oil, coal, rare earths etc) for ‘The Children’, WTF are The Children supposed to do with these inherited riches? Sit on them also? Having watched how their parents carry on, I doubt it somehow.

Jack Thompson
December 22, 2011 4:30 am

An even bigger oxymoronic oxymoron is “Renewable Energy”

KPO
December 22, 2011 4:34 am

With regards to the world’s large poorer population, it is surely a matter of time before their standard of living begins to simulate the current standard of “modern” first world populations. However by that time those enjoying the current standard will have moved/progressed to something as yet unknown, so in effect there may always be a divide between the two. I further believe that the most energy intensive period is from the “bottom of the barrel to just making it” phase. As access to improved, more efficient technologies increases (wealth dependent) I feel that energy use per capita should actually decline in those more technologically advanced populations. Note: most first world populations are still currently in the just making it/slowly getting ahead phase with only a small percentage able to access relatively expensive efficient technology. When/if more efficient energy/goods/services becomes common place and whether current poor populations will be able to leapfrog the conversion remains a question. So my feeling is that current attempts to limit growth disguised as “sustainable development” may actually hamper the transition to lesser resource/energy usage via improved technologies. Perhaps I am way off, but this is my reasoning.

December 22, 2011 4:40 am

How many generations are included in-
“Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
Until the sun explodes- that’s billions of generations- try assessing that.
We have no idea which we will or will not be able to do. If nanomachines and space travel doesn’t work out- we’re stuffed- so that says almost absolute STOP- let’s barely subsist so there is a next generation.
You definitely need a better definition.

AndyG55
December 22, 2011 4:40 am

In nature, “sustainability” is all really about reaching a point of balance between food and feeder.
With humans, this becomes a lot more complicated because we seem to have the ability to alter the balance as we need to. When we needed more energy, we found ways of producing it. We found ways of producing food more efficiently. Water recycling uses water more efficiently, thus increasing security against drought.. etc etc
Where is the end point to all this progress ? I sure don’t know, but I am pretty sure we have a lot more left in us, so long as we are not stiffled by idealist in-efficiencies such as solar and wind .
We should be getting more efficient in things we do, NOT LESS !!
We also need to be very sure that words such as “morally” and “ethically” are not misused to constrain progress (as they seem to be in the AGW scam).

December 22, 2011 4:41 am

All of the resources humans use are 100% sustainable except for nuclear reactions in which matter is converted into energy. Humans are simply rearranging or moving around the atoms here on earth and putting them to use for people alive today. Those very same atoms will be here for the people alive tomorrow to move around and do with as they wish. What each generation of people need to do for the next is to make technological progress so that we can eventually move off this planet and start to colonize the universe, because if we do not get off this planet, we will eventually become extinct due to the sun/asteroids/other natural or man-made disaster.

DirkH
December 22, 2011 4:46 am

Don’t worry. Iron should be easy to make. There’s some research about transmutation going on in Jülich and Mol.

JJThoms
December 22, 2011 4:47 am

Hmmmm!
So you want to bring the energy consumption of the world to the same level as you enjoy now. I would agree that this is the ideal.
But… Just how long will your fossil fuels, your copper last then! As the shortage of resources grows the price increases. How is the new high consumption members of society going to pay the new inflated prices. Nuclear you may say – but then you have to develope new reactors and you still get a shed load of radioactive debris at the end of life.
Wind and solar may not be the continuous supply desired but the cheap energy for many generations would be better than cheap continuous energy for a few decades, and then back to the stone age.
I showed on another thread that wind at 28% of rated capacity currently produces energy below UK user price taking all costs into consideration. Enercon turbines do not use gears or rare earth magnets, so only copper is a problem.
Is there coal in central Africa? Oil? Gas?. Is there wind/sun?

Steeptown
December 22, 2011 4:50 am

In the UK, development nowadays has to be sustainable. But the Government refuses to define “sustainable”. We are in a quandary.

geography lady
December 22, 2011 5:05 am

Sustainable, going green, green… all these are just buzz words that people follow without thinking. It is highly fashionable to use and “think” they are following the popular thought. In 10 years, there will be new buzz words used and to follow.
My favorite color was green. I am thinking about a new color to favor. I am personnaly tired of these new terms. I teach geography and the use of these terms is used often in the texts.

Kevin B
December 22, 2011 5:07 am

Most people who use ‘sustainable’ do so as a buzz word:
“My new mansion on the coast is sustainable as it has a windmill in the grounds and solar panels on the roof, and my new business jet is sustainable because I buy carbon credits, (from my carbon credit sustainability business) when I fly round the world to sustainability conferences”.
But there are those who use it and mean it and they are talking about population. They want to control your breeding, and possibly your right to life as well. I usually associate sustainabilty with eugenics. These people want to decide if you are worthy of living on their planet.

JimBrock
December 22, 2011 5:07 am

Economic sustainability seems to be off the agenda. Our children and grandchildren are bequeathed massive debt and an unbalanced budget. Note that the Solyndra debacle alone wasted more money than my children and grandchildren will earn in their entire lifetime.
JimB

theBuckWheat
December 22, 2011 5:07 am

The left loves to demand that everything in life is “sustainable”, yet not a single one of their economic proposals ever is. In the end, leftists demand that we all must live at the expense of others and turn our private decisions over to central planners who will also be given guns and prisons to coerce and compel compliance.

A physicist
December 22, 2011 5:13 am

Willis Eschenbach quotes the UN’s Brundtland Report: “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

Willis, as an example of what “sustainable development” really means — written not by UN bureaucrats but by a practicing farmer, committed Baptist, and authentic American individualist — please let me commend to your attention, and to the attention of WUWT readers, Wendell Berry’s celebrated essay Solving for Pattern.
Our family’s Iowa farmland has been in our hands for 150 years, and it is still in good shape. When we shape our plans for the future of our farm, do we think on timescales of 1000 years and more?
Yes, indeed we do. Are we foolish, Willis?

Tom in Florida
December 22, 2011 5:14 am

The self proclaimed “saviors of the world” clan are more worried about sustainability of the flow of public money that keeps them from actually having to work for a living than anything else.

Anteros
December 22, 2011 5:26 am

Alleagra –
We produce about a billion tonnes of iron a year, and given there is approximately 10(18) tonnes of iron in the earth’s crust, we can carry on producing it at the current rate for a little more than 2 billion years.
However, there are a couple of problems – one obvious, one a little bit unexpected. Firstly, we’ll have to dig through the whole of the earths crust which will require something of a concerted effort. Under mountains and cities and everything..
Secondly, when we have dug up just 1% of the iron, we will [assuming there are 10 billion of us] have a million tonnes of iron each. I’m not sure the concept of some of it being ‘dispersed’ or ‘lost’ makes much sense does it?
As a side issue [because idiots like Lester Brown keep saying we’re going to run out of Copper in 25 years] with elements that are more rare like copper, we should be a bit more circumspect. Oh yes – when we have brought into circulation 1% of the copper in the earth’s crust, we will have only 1000 tonnes of copper each and only one million years will have elapsed. Obviously, some rationing will be in order…
As far as spades are concerned(!) I think with a kilo of iron per spade and a wooden handle, before we get to that 1% extraction we’ll have spades across the earth 1000 feet deep.
You’re right – ‘running out’ of elements is an impossibility – where are they going to go?
And as for energy, how many hundreds of millions of years of energy pouring out of the sun before we notice any change?
Elements and energy? – forever.

Doug
December 22, 2011 5:32 am

Roger Carr says:
“Sustainable development is working the land so that it becomes increasingly productive.”
Increasingly productive as compared to what? Do you really believe that a “sustainable” farm is more productive than a modern “non-sustainable” farm? If that was the case, then all farms would be moving towards “sustainable”. After all, productivity is today’s driver for almost everything. If all farms were practicing “sustainable” farming, I’m afraid an even greater portion of the world’s population would be hungry.
Perhaps these “sustainable” farms use less herbicide and fertilizer, which the “sustainable” crowd loves, but more productive? I don’t think so.

SayNoToFearmongers
December 22, 2011 5:36 am

@Roger Carr
“Sustainable development is working the land so that it becomes increasingly productive.”
Yay, Norman Borlaug is my hero too!

CarolineW
December 22, 2011 5:36 am

Iron, like many other metals, have been recycled for many years. It is not true that your shovel is not going to be available – the atoms of it – for future generations. Metals can be recycled over and over and over and over again. This makes them sustainable.

Babsy
December 22, 2011 5:37 am

Ahhhh! Entropy!

Lars P.
December 22, 2011 5:41 am

Thanks WiIlis! Sustainable development is a buzzword that is used devoid of significance. It assumes we know what future development will be – what we do not. We only dream about it. The same error the socialists/communist did with their development plans, planning more and more of the same. Not understanding there is change in the development, there is evolution.
And what do they sell for it?
Back to old type agriculture using farm animals and human labour? What is sustainable? Stone age?
You are right, important is to focus on solving the big problems we human still have, access to resources, food, cheap energy, to be able to think further then only to feed and find shelter for the rain and cold.
Roger Carr says:
December 22, 2011 at 1:56 am
“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”
Interesting what you are telling Roger. Can you deliberate or point to some links or information from where you have this understanding?

john
December 22, 2011 5:44 am

The other day I commented here at WUWT that Copper and Zinc markets were taking a hit. I mentioned that Aluminum plays should be watched. This morning….
http://www.zerohedge.com/news/barclays-hit-immense-copper-trading-loss-50-sigma-move-cancelled-aluminum-warrants

Gary
December 22, 2011 5:51 am

Sustainable is a buzzword chosen precisely because it’s vague. Meaning is in the mind of the hearer and is as fungible as the terms “organic,” “improved,” “green.” Most people probably take it to mean, as you say, “we should live as lightly as possible on this marvelous planet.” At least that’s the way it’s being applied to the construction of new buildings and energy use on my campus. However, I agree that the shallow-thinking don’t make the connection between some so-called environmentalist beliefs and the effect they have on the impoverished. So the criticism applies to the radical end of the spectrum, and less so of the general public.

Justin Ert
December 22, 2011 5:52 am

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:
http://www.un.org/esa/dsd/agenda21/
The Agenda 21 ideological ethos finds itself everywhere, from national curriculum for 7 year-olds to local LA21 council initiatives, to intergovernmental 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 at 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.

bwanajohn
December 22, 2011 6:01 am

Willis,
You are looking at the wrong “sustainability”. Quite simply it means the ability to maintain or increase funding from OPM (other people’s money) in the UN sense of the word. That much is obvious to me.

Steve C
December 22, 2011 6:05 am

Eh, careful, lad, we can’t have people questioning the greenie weenies’ lexicon. When they use these words, they mean whatever they want them to mean – usually, that whatever you’re doing is wrong and that you must learn instead to do what you’re told by some petty box-ticker. After all, if we don’t know what they’re talking about, we can’t argue about it … which is just what they want. A good call, Willis.
@Frosty (2:09 am) … Unfortunately we have to believe them. They’re really out there, and just as nasty as they seem. Everybody should read Agenda 21 and take heed.

mkelly
December 22, 2011 6:09 am

I am glad these sustainable ideas did not exist hundreds if not thousands of years ago when people were going place and doing things. We would not be where we are today if our ancestors had worried about sustainability before going forward. Still living in mud huts I would think as there is more mud than wood.

Dave Springer
December 22, 2011 6:10 am

Tom says:
December 22, 2011 at 2:43 am
“I’m disappointed to see this from you, Willis. I thought you were a clearer thinker.”
What led you to think that?
[REPLY: Perhaps he compared me with you … on a more serious note, Dave, do you have to work hard at being such an unpleasant jerk, or does it just come natural to you? How about you try to contribute something to a conversation, instead of insisting on exercising your god-given right to be a jerk? -w.]

harleycowboy
December 22, 2011 6:16 am

I think they were talking in code about the sustainability of their paychecks.

Babsy
December 22, 2011 6:16 am

bwanajohn says:
December 22, 2011 at 6:01 am
You’re exactly right. Sustainability to these cretins means how long they can be in control of tax dollars funding their projects. I live in West Texas. There are THOUSANDS of windmills out here, and to my knowledge, not a one of them produce enough electricity to make a profit. They’re all subsidized by tax dollars. Using wind energy is a great idea if only they would pay for themselves.

Urederra
December 22, 2011 6:16 am

Babsy says:
December 22, 2011 at 5:37 am
Ahhhh! Entropy!

Exactly!
Sustainable development is the new perpetual motion machine. A chimera.

December 22, 2011 6:18 am

Willis, you miss the entire premise of “sustainable”. They want us to voluntarily return to a hunter-gathering lifestyle. That, they will claim, is the only time in history when humans were sustainable. They look at that as some romantic time in human history when we were one with nature.
Of course they completely ignore what that means in the real world. We were sustainable then because of the brutality of natural selection. But then they argue that natural selection isn’t brutal. They do live in a wonderland…

Curiousgeorge
December 22, 2011 6:19 am

The phrase (sustainable development) is merely a club with which to beat people into submission. Theoretically it could be used to justify genocide. Suppose the EPA gets their wish with this (as noted up-thread) and proclaims that a population of over 300 million in the US is ‘unsustainable’ (current population is ~307million)? China already did this many years ago with their ‘one child’ policy’, did they not? Didn’t work out quite as they had hoped, but many millions died because of it.
‘Sustainable development’ is the most dangerous, evil and frightening phrase ever voiced.

Archonix
December 22, 2011 6:21 am

A physicist says:
December 22, 2011 at 5:13 am
You seem to be confusing bottom-up and top-down, sir. Your farmer family are acting on what they know about their environment in order to maintain that environment; that is sustainability as most people understand the word. However, the word “sustainability” means something very different in the context of any sort of official proclamation on the subject, where its meaning becomes “whatever the state decides”.
Your family know their land and can care for it. Can a bureaucrat who spends his entire life in an air-conditioned office know anything about maintaining farmland, even with advisors? Even if he used to work on a farm, he can’t know what land in other areas would need.
Farming practices that work in Europe and North America don’t work in South America at all, so even if you have the perfect UN official who was raised on the perfect farm and knows exactly what that farm needs, he would be useless deciding what’s “sustainable” in a south-american milieu. The discouragement of semi-nomadic slash-and-burn farming in favour of European permanently-sited farm practices is the perfect example of this: slash and burn looks ugly, so it is declared “unsustainable” even though it’s been practices for thousands of years. European practices produce nice neat fields that look sustainable but destroy nearly the entire biomass of an area of land, resulting in the very thin topsoil floating away into the air and washing out to sea in huge torrents. The end result is the UN decides that farming itself is “unsustainable” in large parts of south america, and attempts to discourage it entirely, or pushes reliance on “natural” methods that amount to little more than hunter-gatherer foraging and which are not remotely sustainable over any length of time, but which are called “sustainable” because they force a reduction in human population.
Bottom up would have maintained the use of methods that were best suited to living in a tropical environment. Top down just buggers everything up. Your example of your family’s farm is a bottom-up approach that would be essentially wiped out by the top-down, dictatorial approach you seem to support.

Dave Springer
December 22, 2011 6:22 am

Sustainability in Willis’ definition would be like some laws in physics like the ideal gas law or the frictionless surface or absolute zero. They are theoretically unobtainable in reality yet can be so closely approached that, for all practical purposes, they are acheived.
For instance, if one doesn’t abandon one’s shovel to the elements as the one in the picture one may keep it in perfect repair so when one goes to hitchhiking surfer sailor strummer afterlife one leaves a perfectly serviceable shovel for the use of those still bound to the mortal coil. Sustainability may be approached even if it may not be perfectly acheived.
Of course most people know that and don’t write pedantic nitwittery about it just to see their prose and pictures filling column space on blog and hear their dimwitted cheerleaders sing praises about it.

December 22, 2011 6:24 am

“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.”
Making this claim is common, usually as an attempt to make our lifestyle some kind of glutonous waste. But it’s a bogus comparison. It’s like claiming that a mouse eats less than an elephant, so the elephant must eat less.
The claim is bogus because the elephant (the advanced first world) requires more food (money) just to keep going. The mouse (third world) needs less food (money) because it is smaller (not as advanced). Forcing the elephant to eat less (reduce consumption) would starve the animal to death. Forcing the mouse to eat more, will just mean more mice to feed.
It takes time for mice like organisms to evolved into elephant like organisms.

Douglas DC
December 22, 2011 6:26 am

To be heretical -“sustainable” to me is a fast breeder reactor. Supplemented by a
series of Thorium pebble bed reactors….

Spector
December 22, 2011 6:28 am

RE: Main Article
“Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
I presume that this was meant to point out the possibility that conventional nuclear power may, by a continual chain of Chernobyl and Fukushima style events, render the world so contaminated with dangerous long-lived transuranic wastes as to be uninhabitable for almost a million years.
As for resource depletion, since there will be an indefinite number of future generations, there is no way we can preserve exhaustible resources for them short of complete abstinence of their use. This would presume that we could establish a rational for saying that some future generation might have a superior claim on using them. In the case of carbon power, we are well past the time when such a decision could have been made painlessly.
At some time in the future, the exhaustion of resources may render the current population ‘unsustainable.’ Nature, operating in the guise of the ‘four horsemen of the Apocalypse,’ or perhaps a future ‘United Nations Intergovernmental Panel for Population Control’ will enforce a number of very unpleasant and probably very controversial measures to reduce world population to solar-sustainable limits.
I believe it is our duty, as users of temporarily abundant resources, to do our best to provide succeeding generations with one or more effective low-cost alternatives to carbon power *before* it is depleted. With an inexhaustible source of low-cost energy, such as *might* be obtainable from liquid-state thorium nuclear reactors, the iron from that shovel would be continually restorable to its original state, even if it has to be extracted from seawater.

December 22, 2011 6:34 am

“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
A multi-millionaire who lives in China inside a walled compound. Wanna bet he has steak for dinner? The man is a gross incompetence. He almost destroyed Ontario Hydro, we are still paying off the debt from that company, and that was almost 30 years ago now. He’s classic Marxist.

Steve Garcia
December 22, 2011 6:43 am

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.

Willis, did you really mean to use iron as an example of ” ‘ forever unavailable ‘ to future generations”?
Iron is one of the most re-used materials we utilize. We re-melt it and doing so is more efficient than iron from ore. Who knows where the steel in your car or stove – or shovel – came from, and how many times it has been processed? It might be once, and it might be ten times or more.
Iron in goods today may be one of the materials of today that is most likely to be used by your great-great-great grandkids – and in the process it may be re-used scores or hundreds of times.
IMHO, you could have used a better example.

Steve Garcia
December 22, 2011 6:45 am

[That post by feet2thefire is one of my userIDs here, but not the one I meant to post as. It should have been under the name Steve Garcia.]

Michael Palmer
December 22, 2011 6:45 am

Is wind really sustainable? Wind is caused to a large extent by the Coriolis force, which in turn is caused by the earth’s rotation. So, isn’t wind energy really rather earth rotation energy? Doesn’t wind power take a bite out of the finite resource of the earth’s rotation?

Richard Wright
December 22, 2011 6:48 am

Entropy.

elbatrop
December 22, 2011 6:50 am

Some resources are depleted faster than they can be generated or grown, but not all of them. More strawman logic fail from willis, this is becoming a pattern.

December 22, 2011 6:54 am

Well said Willis. I stumbled on this book “What Environmentalists Need to Know about Economics” by Jason Scorse, an environmental economics prof in the USA (you can download the entire book for free as a pdf at http://policy.miis.edu/faculty/faculty.html?id=171). I thought he was spot on. It was a refreshing read and helped me solidify some of my thoughts on how we should go about treading lightly on the earth. I thought you folks might value it as well. He talks about how we must discount the future when we make value jugements. Words like ‘sustainability’, ‘our future generations’, etc are emotive but little else. It is when we sit down and quantify (even approximately) our options that the proper basis for decisions and actios begin to form.
Bill

thingadonta
December 22, 2011 6:54 am

You comment, “nothing is sustainable” highlights a point, but you miss a few things.
As for iron ore. Iron ore won’t run out for human needs. Iron is one of the most common elements in the earth’s crust. We only mine the very top grade of this resource, less than 0.0001% of the earth’s crustal resource of iron. Current cut off grades are of the order of 45%, depending on other factors. When this runs out, we mine, 44%, then 43% and so on. Each lowering of grade increases the size of the resource available. Most of the worlds iron ore is mined from an ancient sea rich in iron; this source of iron is not currently being produced geologically, so is not being renewed,but other sources are available (eg iron skarns).
But as for sustainability as a concept, you have a point, sort of. I often say to people if they want to follow ‘sustainability’ to its logical conclusion, then you need to get rid of people, because every single one of us is not sustainable, we ALL die, however, populations as a whole ARE sustainable (at least in terms relevant to human needs, evolution itself shows even populations, ie species, are not sustainable indefinitely), and that is the point. In other words, individuals are not sustainable, but populations but we dont get rid of individuals just because they are not sustainable.(which is also related to advanced complex social issues such as individual rights, for example)
Mines are one of the things that are similar to people. (Nature seems to recognise that individual ‘entities’ are not sustainable, but whole ‘orders’ of such entities can be). Individuals mines are not sustainable, but mining as a whole, is.We cannot ‘run out’ of gold, copper, iron, nickle, cadmium, etc etc, because these resources in the earths crust are very large in temrs of human needs, but individual mines can, and do, ‘run out’, just like individual people, who die. So this is what you say to people who dont like mining because it is not ‘sustainable’, you just tell them that individual people are not sustainable either, and so they soon realise there are exceptions to the rule. Many exceptions.
But you have a point, but its complicated.

Paddy
December 22, 2011 6:58 am

Remember, sustainability must also be “smart”. Smartness is reserved for the dipsh*ts that are responsible for global warming alarmism and all of that other stuff.
[Language. Be polite. Robt]

ferd berple
December 22, 2011 6:59 am

The attraction of sails in small boats is range. As boat size decreases it becomes impossible to carry enough fuel to cross an ocean. For example, we crossed the Pacific in a 40 foot sailboat. The boat itself had a range under power of about 500 miles, which is good for a small boat. The distances between fuel stops across the Pacific are often well in excess of 1000 miles.
From a cost point of view, sails are a disaster. If you are operating to a schedule where you must pay crew and schedule dock space and delivery for loading and unloading, then the cost of unreliable winds will quickly overwhelm any fuel savings.
On a per mile basis alone, the wear and tear costs of sail outweigh the costs of diesel. While the wind may be free, the effects it has on sails and rigging is definitely not free. An ocean crossing under sail is a continual battle to identify and repair wear points before they reach the point of failure, especially at night when visibility is reduced.
Even then, the reason you battle wear and tear is not so much cost, as the fact that spares are limited on an ocean crossing. For reasons of comfort, stability and safety you often need to have the sails up to limit motion, not simply for propulsion, even though this increases wear and tear.
For example, when sitting becalmed, the flapping of sails is often preferable to rolling your guts out in a seaway. However, the flapping is not gentle. With modern sails each roll of the boat sounds like a cracking of a whip, which shudders violently throughout the boat and every piece of gear. I estimated the wear cost under these conditions at as much as $1 per roll of the boat, which averages about once every 7-10 seconds.

larry
December 22, 2011 7:03 am

Sustainable development is the 21st century version of communism.
Greens are the useful idiots with the simplistic moral message to give cover to the bureaucrats to take away your liberty. They are even funded by government.
Instead of going to the local bureaucrat for a production quota you go to the local bureaucrat for the permission to consume energy – which is far wider and allows them to do back-room deals.
The windmills, electric cars, solar panels are not intended to be viable they are intended to prick your psyche – hence feed in tariffs. It is to get the most people possible feeling they are gaining from it or arguing on the basis of it – not to address the (non) problem.
They will fail because of the economic crash, and the ponzi pyramid they had to produce to keep it going – people that would naturally object were paid off by basically giving them their existing profit for less work and a functioning monopoly – at the end customers cost who did not understand.
The media and universities were bought with grants and government advertising. These funds will be hard to maintain. It is scary how close they came though.

More Soylent Green!
December 22, 2011 7:10 am

Stop it with that bourgeois thinking, Willis.
Like the meaning of is, Sustainable Development means whatever we need it to mean, when we need it.
Trying to say it means one thing, and always sticking to it, is anti-progressive.
~More Soylent Green!

t stone
December 22, 2011 7:13 am

Well said Willis. This phrase is a post-modern oxymoron, and the UN’s definition reveals that they have turned the “means” into an “end”. They have made “sustainable” the goal and completely ignore “development”. This is why the post-modern, nihilistic collectivists create these pseudo concepts; it is nothing more than a verbal sleight of hand to avert our attention and goad us into feeling guilty about the manner in which we support our lives and feed our kids.
This pseudo concept is a package deal to undermine, hamstring and inhibit honest, real-world, here and now development.

December 22, 2011 7:15 am

The only sustainable product I know about is …….. software.

ferd berple
December 22, 2011 7:23 am

“Sustainable” is a poorly understood and misused term. The market based economies are inherently “sustainable” in that the market price mechanism will always over time use the most efficient method to produce goods and services, thus limiting the consumption of anything that is in short supply.
On the other hand, centrally planned economies are inherently “non sustainable” in that they substitute objectives other than market efficiency in place of the price mechanism. For example, the use of taxes and subsidies to encourage activities that do not reflect relative supply and demand. This is inherently unsustainable long term, as has been demonstrated time and time again by every government that has attempted this solution. The EU debt crisis is simply the latest example.

Olen
December 22, 2011 7:25 am

Sustainability is the capacity to endure. In simplest terms sustainability as defined by the un-accountable self-identified liberal elite is the capacity of the people to endure the desires of the un-accountable liberal elite who would impose the cultural, economic and social sustainability policies, laws and taxes to sustain their demands under the force of their policies, laws and taxes.
Dictators sustain their power through crisis, lies and threats and force. Sustainability in this case is no more than that. And dictators also attempt to paint their desires as a noble cause in this case the cause is sustainability.

vboring
December 22, 2011 7:27 am

My definition of sustainable:
If a generation increases the value of untapped resources through technology improvements more than it decreases them through use, that generation’s activities are sustainable.
In terms of shovels, if you start with sufficient resources to make 100T shovels and deplete 20% of that without advancing any technologies, then you are unsustainable. You started with 100T potential shovels and ended with 80T. But if you invent a new type of shovel that uses 30% less resources at the same time as depleting those resources, then you are acting sustainably. You leave behind sufficient resources to make 104T shovels.
If we burn all of the world’s coal and gas at the same time that we invent cost effective fusion power plants that can power the world indefinitely, then we acted sustainably.
The only practical path to sustainability is through constantly improving technology.

Leon Brozyna
December 22, 2011 7:31 am

Wonder how all this sustainable development is working out for the people of North Korea.

December 22, 2011 7:32 am

I always laugh at how many of the same people who talk about sustainability also claim that the world’s biggest ponzi scheme Social Security is sustainable.

Twiggy
December 22, 2011 7:33 am

Fantastic, another ‘Rational Optimist’, there are not many of us in this world. Here is to hoping for more critical thinking in the future instead emotional emoting!
Thanks.

ferd berple
December 22, 2011 7:35 am

A physicist says:
December 22, 2011 at 5:13 am
Our family’s Iowa farmland has been in our hands for 150 years, and it is still in good shape.
Is there enough land for everyone in America to have a farm in Iowa? In not, then the practice of individuals owning farms is inherently unsustainable, as eventually there will be a shortage of farm land, which drives the price out of reach for new farmers.
150 years ago there was a lot of farmland available in America, which made the price affordable. The former inhabitants having been removed under a process that itself is not sustainable, except by the next conquering invader.

Michael Reed
December 22, 2011 7:38 am

Willis’ essay on sustainability unleashed a torrent of ideas that have been dammed up in my brain. In recent years, I have become a rabid anti-environmentalist. For many decades now environmentalists have promoted one eco-scare after another, all proven wrong in the end. The movement has become so mindless and corrupt that I automatically reject any notion they promote.
I first became aware of their antics back in the 1970’s during the run-up to the Alaska oil pipeline, which was supposed to devastate the caribou herds, but instead seems to have greatly benefitted them. Remember the ozone hole that wasn’t? The acid rain that wasn’t? The poor endangered polar bears that are at all time high populations? The (fill in the blank) eco-disaster that never happened?
Environmentalism is filled with nonsense concepts like “sustainability,” which Willis so expertly lampooned. The root idea of environmentalism is hatred of human beings — that humans are a plague upon the earth and damage the environment. I ask: Why is it that only human activity is considered damage to the environment? Why can’t humans eat bovine burgers, but lions can munch on antelope steaks? Why is it wrong for humans to log a forest, but okay for an elephant herd in Namibia to strip a forest bare? Why can’t humans build dams, but beavers can? Why can’t humans build mile long cities, but prairie dogs can?
According to biologists, humans are descended from hominids who evolved on the African savannah. In short, the environment made us just like it made every other living creature on the planet. So why is it that only human activity is considered to be damage to the environment?
What is “the environment,” anyway? Consider this tale. Through the patch of woods behind my property runs a small stream. Last spring, we had lots of rain, which swelled the stream, which created a wetlands of sorts in the drainage basin. For a time, the place was swarming with insects, frogs, and the birds which fed upon them. After seven weeks of no rain, the stream dried up and the wetlands vanished, as did all the creatures which depended on it. A large turtle even showed up in my backyard, the first time ever, apparently migrating toward my neighbors’ backyard pool. I relocated it to another nearby pond teeming with turtles.
Which environment am I supposed to protect? The dried up mud flats or the teeming wetlands?
Too many people seem to think the environment, including the climate, is static and unchanging. In truth, change is the only constant. The environment changes. All living creatures either adapt to their changing environment, or they adapt it to their needs. I declare that humans have as much right to impact the environment as any other living creature.

Richard M
December 22, 2011 7:39 am

Sustainability is like so many things … it is a continuum. Some things, like iron, are extremely abundant and hence the use of it is more sustainable than something like oil. Of course, oil is also somewhat sustainable as the CO2 is recycled into plants that will once again form oil over millions of years. Nothing is 100% sustainable.
So, the real issue gets down to the time frame involved and the real need for items in the future. This is where human ingenuity comes into play. We will simply find something else to replace items that become scarce (those that are less sustainable). This is the fact that is lost on the scare-mongers. They cannot factor in technological change. So, instead of moving forward we should all huddle in our caves and pray to the gods that they provide bountiful resources.

Judy F.
December 22, 2011 7:41 am

Luther Wu @ 3:35
I think that this is what is meant by sustainable development, with or without capital letters. My ex wanted to live a sustainable lifestyle. To him it meant producing everything we needed, with as few ( and I mean few) purchased inputs as possible. He only saw the positives and completely ignored the negatives of living this way. For some background, we lived on a farm. He sold his larger tractors and bought a very old tractor that didn’t even have a cab on it. He sold his larger field implements because the smaller tractor wouldn’t pull them. However, it used to take him X hours to work the fields and now it took him 3 times X, because the implements were smaller and didn’t cover as much area as they did before. He finally gave up farming all together and planted all the fields to grass, to let the cattle “harvest” the grass instead of having to harvest the fields (which had been wheat, millet and hay fields) using machines.
His goal was to have me fix meals with all the things our farm produced. We had our own meat, although it was sent out to be butchered, wrapped and frozen. He wanted to start doing that at home. We had a cow who provided milk, and I churned butter and separated cream. We had a large garden, but we still had to buy groceries at the store, and he hated us doing that. We didn’t live in the South or on the West Coast, so our garden was frequently hit with hail and grasshopper infestations.
His desire was for us to buy everything used, from cars to clothes. He didn’t want artwork on the walls because seeing nature outside through the window was enough. He didn’t want us driving any more than was necessary and wanted me to quit my off the farm job for that reason, although I desperately needed that time away from him. He didn’t want the kids playing organized sports because we: a) had to drive there and b) it taught them that some people were better than others. He wanted all the kids to stay on the farm and develop their own farm oriented enterprise, to provide an income. He thought that tribal living was the way to live and wanted to start an eco village on the farm, with “like minded” people, although it was basically a commune with a fancy name.
He couldn’t see that he was becoming a dictator and that his family was unraveling and revolting. Mother Earth was more important to him than his own family.
I know it sounds like I am bashing my ex, and this isn’t the forum for that. My reason for writing this is that my ex ABSOLUTELY thought we should live this way and that I was being selfish, uncaring and “living a consumeristic American lifestyle” for disagreeing with him. But can you see the thought processes he was using? We were becoming isolated, different, with his goals dominating and everyone else ignored. It was extremely cult-like thinking.
I saw many downfalls to his grand ideas, one of which is that living the way he wanted took an incredible amount of physical labor, and I was getting too old and achy to want to start adding that kind of physical labor to my daily life. I also thought that we were living too close to the edge for comfort- where an injury to him would seriously affect our standard of living; any financial downturn would be fatal; any weather event would be devastating. I lived this “Sustainable Lifestyle” for a number of years and it is only sustainable in good times. I cannot believe that this is the way the “powers to be” wants us to live. It sounds romantic from afar, but it is brutal up close.

David
December 22, 2011 7:43 am

I agree with Tom, vboring, and some others.
Development that is based upon materials which are not wasted or upon renewable resources is acceptably “sustainable”. If you build a house out of 20 trees, and replant 20 trees, then about the time the house is rebuilt, you’ll have more wood. You can melt down the glass and make new windows. You can recycle the metals. Farming that is sustainable maximizes yield while minimizing the depletion of the soil to maintain relatively constant yield.
Sustainable development is careful about the amount of pollution we introduce to the environment, realizing that once you poison a water source, you don’t get it back without great pains, or sometimes at all.
The argument that all “greens” are “warmists” and therefore we should allow developing nations to suffocate themselves in coal power pollution is a strawman, and shows weakness of mind. The fact is, developing nations have the best chance to maintain their environment in a state that is healthy for their constituents, as long as we, the polluted and developed world, continue to work on sustainable development technologies we can share with them. The technology exists for them to live without trashing their environment through their own industrial period. But that’s not what the developed world wants. It wants to keep doing things the cheap (destructive) way, but not in our own back yards.
Environmentalists are NOT the skeptics’ adversary. Warmists are. There’s a big difference.

Dodgy Geezer
December 22, 2011 7:44 am

@Tom
“…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….”
This looks like a mixture of confused thinking and weasel wording, in an effort to score a point.
Depending on the timescale you are looking at, EVERYTHING is repeatable (sustainable?), right up to the heat death of the universe. In the case of your spade you put a large amount of energy in, to make the ore into Fe2, and then use it for a long time, until it rusts. Then you repeat the process.
You can do exactly the same with oil and gas, if you want to – using it as an energy storage material. So what if you use more energy to make it than you can extract from it? That’s the case for all energy interchange. At the moment we don’t need to do this because we have lots of oil hanging around. We used to pick up meteoric iron in classical times and not care about ‘forcing future generations to dig mines and create furnaces’, and all the environmental damage that goes with them. I believe we will use chemical power sources for a long time – they have a lot of energy per unit mass – and so we’ll have to make the chemicals if they run out (which they show no sign of doing so yet). In practice, we’ll probably import methane from the Jupiter system – that’s within our technological capability right now, it’s just not economically viable. Yet.
There IS no fundamental difference between ‘materials’ and ‘consumables’. It’s just a case of timescales and economic conditions, both of which are changing forces and impossible to second-guess. All you have done is consider an energy interchange over a period of 10 or so years, which favours the iron shovel, and then made up the idea that somehow the fact that the natural chemical process to reverse hydrocarbon oxidation takes a long time means that it is impossible. Oil and gas WILL be recreated naturally from the CO2 remnants of the oxidation process, and we are already able to do this artificially. All else is just time and economics…

Theo Goodwin
December 22, 2011 7:45 am

I think Willis has said all that can be said about sustainable development. However, there is an associated concept that is worth some thought. That concept is what I will call “steady state humanity” for lack of a better phrase.
In the 1960s, some scientist argued that we will never be visited by extraterrestrials. His argument was very simple. Once humanity reaches a level of development that is just one or two clicks above our present level, it will attain the ability to provide the necessities for everyone and some really cool mind altering drugs will be available for everyone. (Apparently, one is to imagine safe fusion energy as one of the clicks.) Everyone will be born into a life of total satisfaction. Given such a life, all striving will end. The same reasoning applies to extraterrestrials. Before any group of beings attained the abilities needed for intergalactic travel they would have hit the satisfaction plateau which is endless, so we will never see them.
If there is a serious point in this little story, I think it is that those who promote the idea of sustainable development are really thinking that there is such a thing as “steady state humanity.” However, if “steady state humanity” is possible then we have to do some serious unsustainable development before we get there. So, for the foreseeable future sustainable development requires unsustainable development.

SandyinDerby
December 22, 2011 7:46 am

JJThoms says:
December 22, 2011 at 4:47 am
Is there coal in central Africa? Oil? Gas?. Is there wind/sun?
Who knows what is hidden away in Africa, but it was the first continent to go nuclear!
https://netfiles.uiuc.edu/mragheb/www/NPRE%20402%20ME%20405%20Nuclear%20Power%20Engineering/Natural%20%20Nuclear%20Reactors,%20The%20Oklo%20Phenomenon.pdf

Peter Miller
December 22, 2011 7:48 am

In the old days, one of the great truths was: “If it can’t be grown, it’s gotta be mined.” This applied to everthing consumed/used by man.
The obvious exception was hookers, now that has been superceded by hookers and carbon credits.

Pat Moffitt
December 22, 2011 7:49 am

“You cannot talk about sustainability without talking about people, about politics, about power and control.” John Holdren*
A more honest definition I have yet to read- He who controls the sustainable definition- controls the power and the people.
*from a 1995 World Bank speech-The Meaning of Sustainability: 
Biogeophysical Aspects 
by John P. Holdren, Gretchen C. Daily, and Paul R. Ehrlich

beng
December 22, 2011 7:51 am

Warmarxists are turning language upside down — it’s astonishing if one thinks about it alittle:
WORD ACTUAL MEANING
progressive regressive
diversity conformity
education indoctrination/ignorance
communication propaganda
justice injustice/cronyism
grassroots astroturf
sustainable unsustainable
green red
consensus non-consensus
ethical unethical
NGO legalized mafia syndicate
non-profit rent-seeking
There are many more…

Matt Skaggs
December 22, 2011 7:52 am

A note to “a physicist:” I envy your patience. You can recommend to Willis that he read some literature on a topic so that his essays might at least acknowledge the accumulated wisdom of others, but he won’t do it. It is probably not that he does not want to read the literature, but that he has already moved on to his next drive-by essay.
REPLY:I’m not sure patience is the word, blind faith dogma might be a better fit. Go ahead, argue with Willis on this topic, make my day – Anthony

beng
December 22, 2011 7:53 am

Sorry, my formatting above didn’t work. Mods might help…

REPLY:
Formatting lost, you probably used the wrong tags – can’t recover what we can’t see – Anthony

cwj
December 22, 2011 7:54 am

A good summary measure of the resources that went into the production of a product is the cost of the product. Of course there are distortions due to government meddling with subsidies and taxes, but if you want to minimize resources expended, minimize the cost.

Bruce Cobb
December 22, 2011 7:55 am

Sustainability” is just a convenient way for eco-loons, warmenistas, and enviro-nazis to side-step such inconvenient issues as economics, logic and common sense. It is also very good for government funding and as a means of informing all concerned about how “environmentally concerned” one is, as well as how “concerned” for the future.

Tim Clark
December 22, 2011 7:56 am

“A physicist says:
December 22, 2011 at 4:15 am
On a local scale, my father taught me that farmland regenerates on a scale of a few thousand years — a long but not immeasurably long time.”
Obviously your father was aware of the Russell soil loss equation.But, as in most of your posts, your diatribe was long on flowery stereotypic definitions, but short on facts.
Each “type” of soil regenerates at a highly predictable rate, roughly 2-10 tons a year. Since an acre/furrow/slice (6″/acre) weighs ~2,000,000 lbs, it can take up to 5,000 years or as little as 2,000 years to regenerate 6″ of topsoil. What sustainable folks don’t comprehend is that even virgin grassland loses soil, as in gullies, blowouts on hilltops (even in CRP set aside acres), indigenous weed patches that have no winter cover, etc. The massive coastal wetlands where the Mississippi outlets into the Gulf existed before mankind. Who caused that erosion of topsoil?
But you are right in suggesting conservation. The goal in conservation is to limit erosion of the topsoil to the rate of regeneration of that particular soil determined by the soil loss equation. It has nothing to do with horse drawn implements or forcing the population of the world to eat grass, which is the goal of the UN committee on Agriculture. I can show you extensive examples of highly intensive operations that are actually gaining soil and increasing soil organic matter, one of the main ingredients in productive soils (think Mollisols in Iowa). In terms of maintaining productivity, these farms utilize energy in the form of chemicals, large implements, and nutrient replenishment. They actually have a lower energy footprint/unit of production than ecosystem evolution. So to alter this massive production system to a “sustainable” energy utilization in the terms loosely bandied about by the ecofascists is tentamount to commiting mass genocide on a global scale. Develop thorium reactors, reuse the current waste, and eat more chicken.
But you don’t want to hear this, do you?

cwj
December 22, 2011 7:59 am

Oh BTW, that’s not a shovel I would use to dig a garden.

Pat Moffitt
December 22, 2011 8:01 am

I recently gave a talk along with Lord Monkton to a group of Maryland County officials concerned with the State’s new sustainability planning master plan (PlanMaryland) about to be adopted. The plan is about the growing of local food that doesn’t pollute, fair and equitable tiny housing, a return to the cities and a whole lot of bicycles and walking. Businesses will also need to fit the green future.
At the heart of the Agenda 21/sustainability is a belief markets cannot be trusted to produce a sustainable or equitable outcome. The nearly approved PlanMaryland- states this quite clearly:

” in the absence of a set of policies and strategies for containing development and prioritizing the highest and best use of all land in the State, there is no reason to believe that market forces alone will produce development that is smart, sustainable, and balances the competing demands made on limited resources.”

The pesky market forces are to be replaced by the enlightened guidance of sustainability commissioners who will decide how the interests of sustainability, equity and the environment are apportioned. Monetary evaluations are not a proper planning metric for the new Maryland that uses theThe Happy Planet Index as an example guide in how to value sustainable decisions. The happiest of countries include Guatemala, Laos, China and Viet Nam-while the middling happy include Haiti, Iran and Algeria. The most unhappiest of countries includes the US just edging out Nigeria and Tanzania. (When I first saw this I thought it was a joke- after reading it I recognized it as dangerous).

December 22, 2011 8:03 am

A physicist says on December 22, 2011 at 5:13 am

When we shape our plans for the future of our farm, do we think on timescales of 1000 years and more?
Yes, indeed we do. …

Naw, you don’t. There is no way for your decisions today to be binding on the next 30 generations down the road let alone anticipate what is to come your way and what they must do to cope with those unforeseen consequences!
Can you point to any ‘letters of intent’ or specific directions on how to ‘handle your land’ dating back 150 years as to what your ‘practices’ and routines should be today beyond the universal generics of ‘plant in the spring’ and ‘harvest in the fall’?
No; I’ll bet not.
It was understood what should be done … be adaptable and survive, above all. This then entails many different choices and directions to ‘take the land’ and what may be planted on it or even ‘built’ upon it.
But since we have seemingly lost ‘common sense’ today, can I say your generation seems to require ‘written specifics’ on the issue?
.

More Soylent Green!
December 22, 2011 8:04 am

Willis:
There is no doubt there is a finite amount of iron in the world. Have we reached “peak iron” yet? It’s written in stone (another thing that we’ve already reached peak production of, stone) somewhere. It’s just a matter of time.
Unless, of course, we carefully plan for peak iron, and how much anybody should be allowed to own or consume.
~More Soylent Green!

Spector
December 22, 2011 8:05 am

RE: Olen says: (December 22, 2011 at 7:25 am)
“Sustainability is the capacity to endure.”
Quite right. When you get past all the buzzwords; that is what it means. A ‘sustainable development’ must be able to endure indefinitely, for all practical purposes, without destroying or exhausting the basis of its own existence.

A physicist
December 22, 2011 8:07 am

A Physicist says: Our family’s Iowa farmland has been in our hands for 150 years, and it is still in good shape. When we shape our plans for the future of our farm, do we think on timescales of 1000 years and more? Yes, indeed we do. Are we foolish, Willis?

Ferd Berple asks:

Is there enough land for everyone in America to have a farm in Iowa? If not, then the practice of individuals owning farms is inherently unsustainable, as eventually there will be a shortage of farm land, which drives the price out of reach for new farmers.

Ferd, you ask a good common-sense question, and one of the best common-sense answers (known to me) is the answer that Wendell Berry gives in his celebrated essay Solving for Pattern:

In an organism, what is good for one part is good for another. What is good for the mind is good for the body; what is good for the arm is good for the heart. We know that sometimes a part may be sacrificed for the whole; a life may be saved by the amputation of an arm. But we also know that such remedies are desperate, irreversible, and destructive; it is impossible to improve the body by amputation. And such remedies do not imply a safe logic. As tendencies they are fatal: you cannot save your arm by the sacrifice of your life.

Here the point is that family farms are but one organ within the living body that is the American way of life. And therefore, as Berry’s essay wisely reminds us, what is good for America’s family farms is good too for America in its entirety. It follows, as Berry’s essay also reminds us, that the ongoing destruction of family farming must be regarded as “desperate, irreversible, destructive, and unsafe” for America.
Because if American farmers cease to conserve their land, with foresight on a timescale of centuries, who will take their place?
That is the common-sense reason why Solving for Pattern is about more than farming, and is recommended reading for skeptic and scientist alike.

Richard S Courtney
December 22, 2011 8:08 am

Willis:
1.
If something exists then it is sustainable because it has been and is being sustained.
2.
If something ceases to exist then it was not sustainable because it was not sustained.
3.
If something is increasing (e.g. in use) then it is very sustainable and there is no indication that it may become unsustainable.
4.
If something is decreasing (e.g. in use) then its sustainability is declining so it may become unsustainable.
5.
Nothing can be sustained for infinite time (not even the existence of the Earth).
And none of points 1 to 5 is governed by how much of the something exists. For example, flint knapping has become unsustainable because of lack of demand for flint tools and NOT because of lack of flint.
Richard

ferd berple
December 22, 2011 8:14 am

Breathing is not sustainable. Eventually the earth will run out of O2. In the carboniferous period atmospheric oxygen levels were almost double current levels. Currently, O2 levels are barely enough to support fire. Much lower and human and animal life is not possible.
We need to act now to prevent future O2 loss for future generations. All use of O2 needs to be heavily taxed and banned. We need to have 20% reduction in O2 use by 2020 and ZERO OXYGEN FOOTPRINT by 2050.

John West
December 22, 2011 8:19 am

Yes, everything we do increases the entropy of the universe. LOL. Assuming the second law of thermodynamics is applicable to the universe. That’s actually a pretty big assumption given the second law pertains to closed systems AND was never intended for systems large enough for the weak force of gravity to be anything more than a negligible influence. The solar system and the universe is evidence that order can arise from chaos, that the second law of thermodynamics is not applicable to such systems. I read the book that’s a precursor to “sustainability”, “Entropy: A New World View” (ISBN 0-670-29717-8), back in the 80’s. Well, more precisely, I read about 3/4 of it, I just couldn’t stomach any more of it.
Mr. Wingo did an excellent job in his recent post dispelling some of these sustainability myths:
http://wattsupwiththat.com/2011/12/10/the-true-failure-of-durban/

Philip Peake
December 22, 2011 8:22 am

Nothing is sustainable. Life itself is not sustainable, either in the individual sense, or in the generic sense. The fact of living increases entropy, as does making clothing, housing and cooking food. You build more complex things at the expense of breaking down others.
This fact of existence is not limited to life. Even the Sun builds complex elements by destroying others.
The best you can hope for is to not pollute too much during your existence.

juanslayton
December 22, 2011 8:23 am

I mean, where are the “peak iron” zealots when we need them?
They’re out in Desert Center, backfilling Kaiser’s Eagle Mountain mine with Los Angeles trash.

kbray in california
December 22, 2011 8:24 am

jrwakefield says:
December 22, 2011 at 6:24 am
Exactly Excellent Explanation.

December 22, 2011 8:27 am

I would like to close-out my participation on this thread-topic today (I have things to do!) with the motto appearing on the Zerohedge.com website masthead FWIW:
On a long enough timeline the survival rate for everyone drops to zero.
.

Tim Clark
December 22, 2011 8:28 am

Additionally, a physicist, as someone reported in a post above, Maurice Strong, etal. ad infinitum, propose a meatless diet, as the conversion of plants into meat is “inefficient” in undefinable global terms (ignores the fact that the vast majority of arable land is unsuited to any other agronomic practice but herding). But recent data has shown that vegans have a higher, albiet mostly insignificant mortality from many forms of cancer (read to the bottom). http://veganhealth.org/articles/cancer
Other data has determined that consumption of carbohydrates increases cancer.
http://www.carbohydratescankill.com/901/carbohydrates-cancer-prospect
Since mankind evolved as hunter/gatherers, I’m sure you can connect the dots…..
BTW, this data ( and an extensive additional abundance) were collected at the MDA Anderson Cancer center, where my wife underwent radiation treatment for breast cancer. She feels great eating a low carb diet (<50 net mgs./day). She'll probably outlive me as the only take-home fact I'm willing to subscribe to revolves around an abundance of dietary red wine.

kbray in california
December 22, 2011 8:30 am

Man will never reach “peak stupidity”,
like peak oil, idiots keep moving the goalpost.

Pat Moffitt
December 22, 2011 8:31 am

A physicist says:
“Because if American farmers cease to conserve their land, with foresight on a timescale of centuries, who will take their place?”
You have no technological component in your rationale. It wasn’t till the mid 1940s that fully 50% of the land tilled in the US switched from horse drawn to tractors (an important point because perhaps 40% of all agriculture farmland used i the US at the turn of the 20th century was to provide food for the urban and rural horse population.
Corn and wheat yield yields per acre are up 300 to 350% since 1950 and no signs of slowing down. A cow now produces 4X the milk as one did in 1970.
Increasing agriculture efficiencies are the reason our forests and other wild lands have been increasing. I can see no better stewardship than a continuing drive to use the least land possible for agriculture production-seems to me we are doing a great job- all while slashing the cost of food than consumed nearly 40% of the average family budget in the 1940s and less than 10% today. A large part of the Depression era Federal and State programs were actually directed at getting people off land with soils so poor they should have never been farmed in the first place. However that can only happen if the remaining prime soils grow more food per acre.
It is doubtful with the pace of technology in a hundred years -if not killed by sustainability ideology- will even be recognizable. We are already seeing large parts of the fresh vegetable market being replaced with hydroponics.
We have all seen the link between prosperity and energy use– there is another- the necessity of less than 5% of the workforce to be involved in agriculture.

Interstellar Bill
December 22, 2011 8:34 am

Sustainable development is to true development
as a people’s republic is to a true republic:
namely, as a strait jacket is to a dinner jacket.

Luther Wu
December 22, 2011 8:35 am

Judy F. says:
December 22, 2011 at 7:41 am
Mother Earth was more important to him than his own family.
______________________
Dollar to donut his inspiration was the News

A physicist
December 22, 2011 8:35 am

A physicist says: On a local scale, my father taught me that farmland regenerates on a scale of a few thousand years — a long but not immeasurably long time.”

Tim Clark says: Obviously your father was aware of the Russell soil loss equation. … Develop thorium reactors, reuse the current waste, and eat more chicken. But you don’t want to hear this, do you?

Tim, you are absolutely right that my father was thoroughly grounded in soil science … his degree (from Iowa State) was in agricultural engineering, and he knew every kind of soil not only on our farm, but all around the county.
For my father every hill, creek, tree-stand, pond, prairie, and glacial erratic boulder had ten-thousand-year story to tell, and he dearly loved to share those stories with his family, friends, and Sunday-school classes.
As for thorium reactors, your reference made me LOL — because WUWT’s arch-devil James Hansen is fond of thorium reactors too (beginning minute 7:55). Not that James Hansen regards thorium reactors as perfectly safe, but rather he appreciates that thorium reactors are a far less dangerous energy source (in the long run) than coal-fired power plants.
It’s hugely enjoyable to see you and Hansen ending up on the same page (for reasons that I regard as excellent).
So Tim, your excellent post was wrong only in saying “But you don’t want to hear this, do you?”
Thank you for inspiring those wonderful memories of my father’s wise teachings, and for advocating a global energy path-forward that is so strikingly similar to James Hansen’s.

ferd berple
December 22, 2011 8:36 am

Philip Peake says:
December 22, 2011 at 8:22 am
The best you can hope for is to not pollute too much during your existence.
One man’s garbage is another man’s treasure. Wasn’t O2 at one time a planetary waste product that threatened all life? What do plants say about dung? Pollution or nutrient?

David
December 22, 2011 8:37 am

Tim Clark says:
December 22, 2011 at 7:56 am

A physicist, I agree with Tim Clark. His post is directed at you. Do you care to respond cogently to the substance of his post?

December 22, 2011 8:47 am

“Sustainability”=Communism=total economic collapse. ‘nuf said.

Geoff Shorten
December 22, 2011 8:51 am

Another similar bugbear of mine: ‘forward thinking’ e.g. in the phrase ‘forward thinking policies’.

Tim Clark
December 22, 2011 8:56 am

“A physicist says:
December 22, 2011 at 8:35 am
It’s hugely enjoyable to see you and Hansen ending up on the same page (for reasons that I regard as excellent).”
Stick around long enough, and the unemotional, non-ideological logic espoused by us denialists may rub off.
Sorry to hear about Iowa State though.
Go U of A Hogs!!!!

crosspatch
December 22, 2011 9:05 am

I am all for developing our resources in a sustainable way. I am NOT for bolting our policies to a UN Agenda 21 committee.

RiHo08
December 22, 2011 9:06 am

What I construe from the words:” sustainable development” is a rate constant. Is the rate of change sustainable? As climate can be described as a non-linear, non-equilibrium oscillatory system, so too, development carries many of the same characteristics. Culture changes: Tevia and the song “Tradition” from Fiddler on The Roof. Economics change from paradigm to paradigm. Society changes how it values items, work, people. Sustainable in my mind means a temporary linear trajectory until a perturbance followed by disorder and chaos, a transition and the emergence of a new sustainable paradigm. The Birth & Death of the Soviet Union was a sustainable paradigm until all the Bolsheviks died off, then a death spiral, chaos, transition and the emergence of a new order is emerging: sustainable, for the time being.
What is so uncomfortable is the transition, not knowing what is in the immediate future. When in one sustainable paradigm, our most recent run up to a banking collapse, the immediate future could be “predicted.” Of course it couldn’t, but the trajectory seemed sustainable: i.e., the rate of change would go on and on and on. It didn’t. In the CO2 global warming paradigm, the trajectory was each nation buying into the carbon tax paradigm until a major perturbance: in this case, Climategate 1.0 and the failure at Copenhagen, 2009. We are in transition now, and it is uncomfortable. Many ideas, and sustainable development is just one, like some flotsam from the wreckage of AGW is grasped to keep afloat in the current stormy sea with its disinformation, etc. What emerges after this tempest has passed, I have no clue. A new paradigm, it too viewed as sustainable until….

Austin
December 22, 2011 9:07 am

I’ve thought the same thing.Nothing is sustainable. But some things require a lot less work to get work out of it.
At the end of the day, there are two ways to measure something – Financial ROI and Net Energy ratio. Both are really about thermodynamic availability.

Vince Causey
December 22, 2011 9:12 am

The photo of the rusty spade shows just why the spade cannot be recycled for ever – it will eventually end up as atoms of Ferrous Oxide floating around the environment.
However, to answer the question, What is sustainable?, how about a wooden spade? Grown from sustainable trees that when harvested are replaced by 3 new trees, they suck carbon from the atmosphere and reduce global warming. Since more trees are being replaced than used, they would start to be used for everything else – from tractor wheels to engines, from windturbine blades to the magnets that power their generators, from tv screens to microprocessors. Nothing is impossible for this wonderful sustainable resource.

A physicist
December 22, 2011 9:12 am

David says: A physicist, I agree with Tim Clark. His post is directed at you. Do you care to respond cogently to the substance of his post?

Sometimes Anthony delays my responses, but usually they appear eventually; my best effort at a “cogent” response to Tim Clark appeared above. So please let me add to that post (and I think speak for everyone) only this one thing: my very best wishes for the health of Tim’s wife.
As for economic, moral, and scientific issues, I am broadly in agreement with the vigorous writings of farmer Wendell Berry with regard to sustainability, and of scientist James Hansen with regard to energy policy (for details, see the links supplied above).
And finally, like most folks on WUWT (Willis Eschenbach in particular) I have no great regard for lengthy mushy policy papers written by UN bureaucrats. Life’s too serious, too fun, and too short!   🙂
[Posting time is usually proportional to the number of moderators’ mice available at any given time. 8<) Robt]

David JP
December 22, 2011 9:17 am

This essay reminds me of the ‘big problem’ as covered by Isaac Asimov:
http://filer.case.edu/dts8/thelastq.htm

JJ
December 22, 2011 9:18 am

Certainly, I think we should live as lightly as possible on this marvelous planet.
No you don’t.
And neither do I.
And neither does anyone else.
Some people think that other people should live exactly as they wish them to. They may figure that other people should stop doing things that they either consider unimportant, or actively disapprove of, and excuse that desire for control under “you need to live lightly”. The more virtuous might believe in doing what they want to do, and meeting their wants and needs, with as little impact as can be achieved without too greatly limiting what they consider to be their own quality of life. But nobody believes that they should live as lightly as possible. Even trappist monks aren’t doing that, and there are very damn few people that choose to live like they do.
“As lighlty as possible” is one of those absolutist platitudes that should be binned next to “Sustainable Development”.

Luther Wu
December 22, 2011 9:21 am

A physicist says:
December 22, 2011 at 8:35 am
Tim Clark…Thank you for… advocating a global energy path-forward that is so strikingly similar to James Hansen’s.
_______________________
James Hansen appears in many photos wearing a hat.
I’m reasonably certain that Tim has worn a hat, too.
You see how easy it is?

December 22, 2011 9:59 am

Maurizio Morabito (omnologos) says:

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

The Monty Python take:

barry
December 22, 2011 10:14 am

Wow, what a lot of straw men packed into one post.
Sustainable living isn’t about belief in eternal resources – that’s the blithely optimistic mindset of the people who want to burn, baby burn. Talk about projection.
The impoverished practise sustainable living by necessity. You don’t waste what you can’t afford to. You don’t have to be a greenie to know the value of insuring against the future.
Whether you believe it or not (that doesn’t matter for this point), climate change is projected to hit poorer countries much harder than affluent ones. Wealthier, developed countries would be better placed to adapt. Communities on the edge of subsistence would do it much tougher. And it’s poor countries who most vehemently want an international agreement on emissions controls. What’s that? Now they’re self-interested and gaming the UN, are they? Crikey, that was a quick turnaround. How much are we supposed to care, exactly? It’s so easy to lose the thread….
So let’s just make them healthy, affluent societies, right? Oh yeah, that’s been the cry for a century before global warming was an issue, and the distance between poor and wealthy countries is phenomenally greater than ever. But climate change cynics really truly rooly care about these people. They’re not using their hardship as a political football like the activists do, noooo.
Willis is telling us that we either forget emissions policy or make people starve. Wow. Just wow. What an amazingly straightforward dichotomy that is. Is it really that simple? There’s no way you can mandate emissions regulations without killing people. Well, it’s on a blog so it must be true.
The cynicism here is lamentable but understandable, but the faux concern for the world’s destitute is nauseating. Please don’t.

Jim G
December 22, 2011 10:23 am

Sustainable is time frame dependent. The Sun and Earth and wind will also pass away in a while, quite a while. Sustainability has always been defined in terms of our lack of knowledge of future resources and future technology, which we always estimate poorly. So, everything is sustainable for some unknown period of time and nothing is sustainable in some other period of time. ( If someone else said this, I am sorry, but I did not read all 176 of the other posts.)

PaulH
December 22, 2011 10:29 am

“Sustainable development” is simply a weasel-term for “anything other than Capitalism”. It’s the latest attempt to put lipstick on the Marxist/Communist/Socialist pig.

jae
December 22, 2011 10:32 am

The word “sustainable” belongs in the same genre as the phrase “climate change.” The constructs are seemingly totally meaningful, yet totally meaningless utterances that might be expected from the caterpillar with the bong in Alice-in-Wonderland. They are useful constructs in that they can be used by the socialists to “engineer” the culture in any way that they choose to take it.
That said, wood and trees get pretty close to being truely sustainable.

December 22, 2011 10:33 am

Willis – have you been watching George Carlin on “Saving the Planet”?

Viv Evans
December 22, 2011 10:37 am

‘Sustainability’ is something dreamt up by elites living comfortable, secure lives in highly urbanised environments, knowing full well that what they preach for the rest of the world is not something they will ever do themselves.
The description by Judy F above (December 22, 2011 at 7:41 am) serves very well to illustrate this.
It always amazes me that so many professional feminists in the ‘green’ and ‘environmental’ movements seem to be wishing for nothing better for themselves and their daughters than the life of drudgery experienced by so many of us in the UK well into the middle of the last century.
I can promise those ladies – you won’t have time to go to meetings or swan off to nice resort when you have to spend your whole day to keep the fire burning in the kitchen, wash the clothes of your family by hand, scrub and sweep the floors by hand and trot out to get groceries every day because there’s no fridge nor freezer. And you still have to cook the food. Oh – and imagine doing the washing-up without – no, not a dishwasher, but without ordinary washing-up liquid.
And you spend the evenings (no telly, no PC, no iPhone, ordinary landline phone at the street corner) ‘sustaining’ the clothing of your family, like, darning socks, trousers, turning cuffs on shirts etc …
Yep, totally sustainable progress, and knowledge and intelligence, which could help produce new technologies, totally wasted on ‘sustainability’.
But there’s more:
both the idea we must and can ‘stop’ climate from changing, as well as this sustainability, are signs of dangerously closed minds, who have given up on evolution both in the usual meaning as well as in cultural meaning. Everything must stay just as it is now, with a few billion people less.
This all speaks of their total fear – of change, of weather, of nature.
Actually, we should pity them.

Jim G
December 22, 2011 10:45 am

John West says:
“The solar system and the universe is evidence that order can arise from chaos, that the second law of thermodynamics is not applicable to such systems.”
I don’t know about that, seems pretty chaotic to me, over the long haul at least. The rules (that we think we know of) by which it seems to operate do allow for both it and us to exist, for now anyway. And those rules seem to have some order to them. Change just one small factor though, like the expansion rate of the universe or the energy levels occupied by electrons within the atom and there would be nothing here. Antropomorphic theory or intelligent design, take your pick. Or I guess probability theory in a multiverse could get us here. Easier to believe in God, I should think.

tmtisfree
December 22, 2011 10:45 am

A physicist –

On a local scale, my father taught me that farmland regenerates on a scale of a few thousand years

I am a farmer myself. My own father got some (very cheap and large) areas in 1976 where nothing but some wild herbs and puny pines could grow. The first years almost nothing grew there.
Fast forward now. Soil from these fields is now able to produce almost as the other places around which were producing long before.
Give me 30 years and I terraform whatever unproductive fields you have.

JC
December 22, 2011 10:50 am

Imagine going to your doctor for a routine physical and having him telling you “I need to amputate your arm”. You ask why. He says: Well, it’s a dangerous world. You could cut your arm. And if you cut your arm it could get infected. And if your arm gets infected we could become unable to control the infection. In a worst case scenario, we might have to amputate the arm. If we amputate now, this situation will be impossible.
So much of the greens’ “reasoning” reminds me of this prophylactic amputation. Why impose on ourselves policies at least as bad as what *could* happen if we continue business-as-usual? Even worse, they they argue that such policies are demanded by their canonized “precautionary principle”.

December 22, 2011 11:07 am

“Sustainable” is an illusion. Eco systems appear to be sustainable only over the medium term. But in reality, no population of organism is sustainable. Rabbits exploit their environment, and without preditors would reproduce themselves into collapse as they exceed the carrying capacity of their environment. Then collapse in numbers (meaning huge numbers of individuals starve to death.) until the population drops to a very low percent of the previous high (as much as a 90% cull rate, extinction at 100%).
Entire ecosystems work under that same premise, especially those at the top of the food chain. Thus populations go through boom and bust cycles, which over generations appears sustainable, but on the low level of the individuals is a brutal struggle for life.
But even middle term there is no sustainable population because the environment changes, and alters the rules of the game for populations by changing the carrying capacity. Changes in the environment pulls the rug out from under populations. Thus only a small subgroup of a population will make it past such changes as a new species evolves.
Thus this romantic notion of creating a sustainable society (no growth) is an unattainable pipe dream. Sustainable development (growth) is worse, it’s an oxymoron. Doesn’t matter how smart we think we are, we cannot defy the laws of physics.

John Gentzel
December 22, 2011 11:09 am

Re Sustainable someone else may have made this point allready but:
The universe is a puzzle box
you need fire to harden wood and bone tools to et you work with copper then bronze which lets you dig surface deposits of Iron and coal which lets you make steel that allows you to drill oil and gas which in turn gives you the rescource base to buid nuclear power plants and computers which will eventually allow you to mine the moon and then the asteroids and so forth and so on each level of technology opens the door to the next the only way to fail is to stop advancing to deny the benifits of hich tech and only worry about the possible problems. I have faith we will continue to advance maybe not in the US or the west but eventually some group will walk on the moon again and eventually someone will be able to tell us about living on those eartlike planets kepler keeps finding
Just my 2 cents John G

Dave Springer
December 22, 2011 11:18 am

John West says:
“The solar system and the universe is evidence that order can arise from chaos, that the second law of thermodynamics is not applicable to such systems.”
Sorry John, but it doesn’t work that way. The second law of physics requires that any order you see today must have existed at the time universe was born. It’s the law of entropy. In a closed system order does not increase without a commensurate reduction in order from elsewhere in the closed system. It can also be called the law of conservation of information where we define information as order. Two of the greatest living physicists today, Leonard Susskin and Stephen Hawking, along with a cadre of kibbutzers on both sides, argued over whether the information in an encyclopedia could be permanently destroyed by dropping it into a black hole. Neither argued that it be destroyed by some more mundane chaotic event like being burned in blast furnace. In principle all the information would still be present in the exact positions and velocities of the ash and smoke molecules. It would be practically lost but not theorectically lost. This is the law of conservation of information illustrated and defended by top physicists. The argument was about whether the information would be lost forever to the outside universe should the destruction occur by falling into a black hole. After 10 years Hawking conceded that even in that case the information would not be lost it would exit the black hole in the form of Hawking radiation which is the moral equivalent of smoke from a fire on the other side.
You either misunderstand the second law or you misunderstand the nature of the universe. Order can only increase if it is imported from outside the system under consideration. For order to have increased in the universe over time it must have been imported from outside the universe. Plenty of religious folk will be happy to say that outside source is God. Personally I don’t think God needed to tinker with his creation so, as Einstein went to his grave believing, we live in a clockwork universe of cause and effect that God wound up and set in motion. If there’s any chaos in the universe I think it might be confined to free will if such a thing as free will really exists.

Andrew
December 22, 2011 11:24 am

Speaking of sustainability…Steve Jobs, media darling and Wall Streets Golden Boy made most of his fortune creating devices that will be obsolete in 6 months…

henrychance
December 22, 2011 11:24 am

When I hear reference to sustainable, i immediately expect a conversation on green self righteousness.
If a person has to announce their own virtue, they probablly lack virtue.
Now we enter an era of light pollution. We are polluting the evening skies with fugitive light form parking lots and cities.

Graphite
December 22, 2011 11:31 am

I’m wondering, when my Irish ancestors were cutting peat did some busybody come up and pester them about not using too much as future generations would be in need of this fuel source?

john
December 22, 2011 11:35 am
A physicist
December 22, 2011 11:45 am

Willis, you have a real gift for bringing a smile to my face … `cuz ain’t Wendell Berry himself now 77 years old, and still doing the work of three ordinary men (farmer, essayist, poet)?
Wendell’s belief in sustainability evidently is doing him no harm … heck, most of us scarcely hope to be even half as lively at age 77 as Wendell is.
So purely on the evidence, Wendell’s sustainability practices not only have been mighty good for his farmland, they’ve been mighty good for Wendell himself too.   🙂
It’s mighty instructive to search Google’s N-Gram Viewer for usage of “sustainability, sustainable development“; these two n-grams have come into widespread use only since 1980 or so (an earlier, less-used, mainly military variant is “sustainment”). And when we search the early 1980s literature with Google Books, we verify that Wendell Berry’s name is prominently associated with these terms.
And finally, Google Books shows us that Wendell Berry uses the words “sustain”, “sustainability” and “sustainment” commonly in his own writings … along with another Wendell Barry favorite word: “stewardship”.
So anyone who’s been wondering what these words mean needs only to consult the writings by and about Wendell Berry … who is (IMHO) a true American original and a national treasure.

December 22, 2011 12:04 pm

Everything we do or are is sustainable until it isn’t! So it’s a totally superflous word.

A physicist
December 22, 2011 12:04 pm

Seriously Willis (since your last post overlapped with mine), if you’re going to claim for yourself such a high regard for Wendell Berry, why don’t you simply quote Wendell’s views regarding sustainable development?
Instead you’ve posted quotes from boring UN bureaucrats, along with a cartoon that outright mocks four of Wendell Berry’s most cherished values clean air, pure water, healthy exercise, and organic farming methods.
In my opinion, WUWT folks would be far better off reading for themselves what Wendell Berry has to say about sustainability.

R. Gates
December 22, 2011 12:09 pm

I like this post Willis. You’ve brought up some interesting notions– many of which I’ve thought long and hard about for many decades. Actually, in the very very long view of things you’re right– nothing is sustainable as times arrow and entropy certainly move in only one way across this universe and eventually all the useful energy will be gone, and our universe will be cold and quiet. But there may be other universe’s in this multiverse of ours, so somewhere else life and consciousness will likely carry one.
But to you point about sustainability. The lessons we can learn from nature are enormous. Somehow, for hundreds of millions of years the earth has found a way to sustain life. Despite meteor stikes and great extinctions, snowball earth’s and massive volcansim, life has found a way. Life has been sustainable. What lessons can we take from nature as to how to conduct our own life and civilizations?
1) Use only what you really need. Excesses of use lead to all sorts of imbalances. Lions don’t kill every gazelle. If they did, both would go extinct.
2) Use energy that is as closely associated with contemporary solar energy as possible. Wind, direct solar, food, etc. are all examples of “current solar” energy. This is in direct contrast to “old solar” in the forms of fossil fuels.
3) Build for reuse, and reuse to build. Everything that is manufactured should have a high degree of reusablility and everything that is manufactured should be made as much as possible from reused materials versus “virgin” materials. This is the way nature has done it for millions of years and it has worked pretty darn well.
Bottom line: Life on Earth (and in this universe) might not be infinitely sustainable, as entropy will eventually have it’s way, but for all practical puposes, if we watch the methods nature has evolved, we can learn how to be practical sustainable in our lives and in our civilizaitons.
2)

Pat Moffitt
December 22, 2011 12:11 pm

There is nothing more dangerous than a government policy to meet a goal that no-one can define. Winners and losers in any such system are dictated by those controlling the definition.
What is troubling is that critical infrastructure and food security matters may be put in the hands of social scientists and crusading english majors in the name of sustainability. To those commentors here that think sustainability is about common sense soil erosion controls. Perhaps this will wake you up- What is Sustainable Agriculture?http://www.sarep.ucdavis.edu/concept.htm
“In addition to strategies for preserving natural resources and changing production practices, sustainable agriculture requires a commitment to changing public policies, economic institutions, and social values. Strategies for change must take into account the complex, reciprocal and ever-changing relationship between agricultural production and the broader society”
To attain sustainable agriculture we must make “specific and concentrated efforts to alter specific policies or practices, to the longer-term tasks of reforming key institutions, rethinking economic priorities, and challenging widely-held social values.” And then the author goes completely off the rails linking to locavore issues, labor organizing and meeting spiritual needs. But most importantly sustainability was about giving more money to UC Davis to guide us to this green future.
If UC Davis’s definition of sustainable agriculture prevails over modern agriculture practices we may all end up hungry- but we will all be equally hungry. Consider resistance to “sustainability” sustainable on my part.

December 22, 2011 12:12 pm

Everything depending on its nature, may be sustainable in its life time.

December 22, 2011 12:21 pm

Thanks Willis,
Yes, it is entropy we would seem to want to avoid. And yes, it can be done. It just takes some international government “seed”‘ investment in the perpetual motion machines industry; A small tax on the rich would fund it so it would be fiscally sustainable. /sarc

Theo Goodwin
December 22, 2011 12:27 pm

Willis Eschenbach says:
December 22, 2011 at 11:44 am
Wow! “A Physicist’s” argument is a classic example of the fallacy of composition, assuming that characteristics of the parts are also characteristics of the whole. Did Wendell go to college? Where?

Jeremy
December 22, 2011 12:47 pm

Willis,
I believe you are completely wrong about the source of the modern usage of the word “sustainable” – it actually comes from Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot who was one of the early visionaries of the more radical green sustainable movement. It is based on agrarian socialism and is a political philosophy rather than anything to do with the scientific use of the word “sustainable”.
In a scientific sense, there is no such thing as a perpetual motion machine, so ultimately nothing is sustainable and even the sun will die eventually.

December 22, 2011 12:50 pm

“1) Use only what you really need. Excesses of use lead to all sorts of imbalances. Lions don’t kill every gazelle. If they did, both would go extinct.”
A lion does not count the number of gazelle, and the number of lions and then descide to not kill and go hungary instead if the gazelle numbers are too low for their population. Lions don’t calculate what their carrying capacity is on any given day.
Lions get hungry and hunt. Why they don’t go extinct is because at some point the population of lions gets too big for the number of gazelles, which means some lion cubs starve to death.
Sustainability in the natural ecosystem is cycles of boom and bust.

davidmhoffer
December 22, 2011 12:50 pm

reposting this from the Hansen arrested development thread special for A Physicist:
A physicist;
And IMHO, it’s very good to see that science and skepticism are evolving toward this natural mutual accommodation! :)>>>>
That’s probably the biggest load of total bunk you’ve posted in this thread so far.
Your assumption that skepticism isn’t even part of science in the first place, that it is some sort of other discipline or process, and that skepticism is moving toward an “accomodation” with science is ignorant and arrogant beyond belief. But what else should we expect of someone who calls themselves a physicist, but clearly doesn’t know SFA about physics or science? What else should we expect from someone who takes ridiculous positions, and rather than respond to the criticisms with facts and logic, simply changes the subject, or comes up with that most devastating or remarks, “what’s the problem?”
You sir are a charlatan attempting to present yourself as some sort of middle ground proponant, but your conduct reveals what you are. A spin doctor advocate for magic dressed up as science who understands neither the magic nor the science.

Theo Goodwin
December 22, 2011 12:52 pm

A physicist says:
December 22, 2011 at 11:45 am
“It’s mighty instructive to search Google’s N-Gram Viewer for usage of “sustainability, sustainable development“; these two n-grams have come into widespread use only since 1980 or so (an earlier, less-used, mainly military variant is “sustainment”). And when we search the early 1980s literature with Google Books, we verify that Wendell Berry’s name is prominently associated with these terms.
And finally, Google Books shows us that Wendell Berry uses the words “sustain”, “sustainability” and “sustainment” commonly in his own writings … along with another Wendell Barry favorite word: “stewardship”.
So anyone who’s been wondering what these words mean needs only to consult the writings by and about Wendell Berry … who is (IMHO) a true American original and a national treasure.”
Willis, I think this is about all you can expect from “A Physicist” by way of citation.
Yes, “A P,” Berry does use the word ‘sustain’ in some of his writings but as long as you do not give an actual citation then we do not know whether that word occurs in a sentence such as “How am I going to sustain my income if I continue writing these crappy books?” See, citations are to sentences or paragraphs not to words. The sentence is the basic unit of meaning in an article, book, or any discursive writing. In poetry it is different. I know a poet, who I try to avoid, who wrote a poem consisting of only the word ‘mother’ repeated an indefinitely large number of times.

Crispin in Waterloo
December 22, 2011 12:52 pm

This may rock your Iron Boat:
http://ca.news.yahoo.com/blogs/daily-buzz/scientists-discover-metal-type-earth-core-202021339.html
Iron oxide (rust) is an insulator unless it is subjected to high heat and pressure (such as is found in the inner mantle of the Earth). It then becomes a conductor.
Perhaps iron is more ‘sustainable’ that previously thought.
Upcoming at http://prl.aps.org/

Jeremy
December 22, 2011 12:57 pm

R gates says, “But to you point about sustainability. The lessons we can learn from nature are enormous. Somehow, for hundreds of millions of years the earth has found a way to sustain life. Despite meteor stikes and great extinctions, snowball earth’s and massive volcansim, life has found a way. Life has been sustainable. What lessons can we take from nature as to how to conduct our own life and civilizations?”
The bleeding obvious conclusion is that life (DNA) is incredibly sustainable and there is absolutely no need to worry. Long after humans are gone or mutated into something else, we can be absolutely assured that life (DNA) will continue. Chances are that life from our solar system is already spreading through our region of the galaxy and chances are that life got here on a comet or asteroid in the first place. Meteor impacts may cause mass extinction from time to time but chances are they spread life around too!
You need to learn a little humility and realize that, in the scheme of things, humans are quite irrelevant. The AGW always over estimate human importance – a recurring theme going back to times when it was popular to think the earth was at the center of the universe.

L5Rick
December 22, 2011 12:59 pm

All right folks. When you think about energy and raw materials remember that we live in a star system that’s chock full of everything we need to fill it with life.
This tiny planet is but an infinitesimal part of it.
If we would just stop fighting over the table scraps and start mining asteroids and moons, and building habitats and power sats, we would have access to virtually infinite resources and living space.

December 22, 2011 12:59 pm

John West says:
“The solar system and the universe is evidence that order can arise from chaos, that the second law of thermodynamics is not applicable to such systems.”
The solar system and the universe is here BECAUSE of the laws of thermodynamics. It is progressing to LESS entropy, not more. The universe was more “orderly” at the Big Bang.

mrfunn
December 22, 2011 1:01 pm

Based on:
Figure 1. Example of unsustainable development.
Sustainable development is not shovel ready.

Ged
December 22, 2011 1:06 pm

@A physicist
My word man. You use “physicist” in your title, yet you don’t even understand the second law of thermal dynamics? What resources on our planet are actually sustainable in the sense that we can infinitely use and reuse them without also using up another resource in the process? Let’s look at air: Did you know we are losing atmosphere, and all it contains, to space slowly over time? Even the air is not sustainable.
A very common sense essay Willis. And this is why we need to expand into space. While the Earth is massive and can sustain us as we are for millennia, I believe, eventually our future can only be found among the stars. A long ways away.

TXRed
December 22, 2011 1:08 pm

My graduate adviser used “sustainability” as a trick to make sure we were thinking. “Were American Indian agricultural practices sustainable?” was one question used on our comprehensive graduate exams. The correct reply is the question “In time or in space?” followed by “Which group or nation?” In some cases the correct answer is “apparently neither.” In other cases “it was sustainable over time but not in place, which is why they practiced modified swidden agriculture. But how long that could last we cannot know.” The prof is philosophically as Green as grass but is a stickler for looking at all the data and avoiding platitudes as well as being a firm believer in the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Wish more were like that.

December 22, 2011 1:09 pm

While I agree with the general point of the article, it’s important not to throw the baby out with the bathwater: some systems are more stable and more secure than others. It behooves us to make the distinction and pursue stability. To the extent that climate change is a force for instability, we should consider modifying our energy infrastructure. I realize that most people here don’t think that Climate Change is a force for instability, but in the spirit of open discourse thought I’d float the point.

Janice
December 22, 2011 1:23 pm

The U.N. Agenda 21
“Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
But, you missed the following . . .
It contains within it two key concepts:
1) the concept of ‘needs’, in particular the essential needs of the world’s poor, to which overriding priority should be given; and
2) the idea of limitations imposed by the state of technology and social organization on the environment’s ability to meet present and future needs
Limitations imposed by social organization. Hmm. That would be government, eh? And, since Agenda 21 is put forth by the U.N., we’re talking about a unified WORLD government, eh? So, this really has absolutely nothing to do with resources, environment, or development. It does have a lot to do with power and money. Always follow the money. But here we also have power. What kind of power? The power to be able to impose limitations (rationing or redistribution) on pretty much anything or anyone.
So I dig up iron and make a shovel. What right do I have to that shovel under this agenda? I have no right to any of my private property, like a shovel, because it is up to some world government agency to decide what is the best use of that shovel. Because that is what is implied in “meeting the needs of the present.” Who decides what is sustainable? What laws can be passed, if everything has to pass a sustainability test? Who enforces those laws? Are the laws subject to any restrictions at all?

A physicist
December 22, 2011 1:27 pm

A Physicist says: In my opinion, WUWT folks would be far better off reading for themselves what Wendell Berry has to say about sustainability.

Theo Goodwin says: We do not know whether that word occurs in a sentence such as “How am I going to sustain my income if I continue writing these crappy books?”

It is my pleasure to assist you, Theo. The above link is to the Google Books on-line version of Wendel Berry’s pamphlet Another Turn of the Crank (1996) in which the word “sustainable” appears on pages 3, 6, 18, 21, 22, and 23. The first usage is page 3:

“[Farmers] are beginning to see that a kind of agriculture that involves unprecedented erosion and depletion of the soil, unprecedented waste of water, and unprecedented destruction of the farm population cannot by any accommodation of sense or fantasy be called ‘sustainable’.”

Theo, I trust that in this passage Mr. Berry has clarified the meaning of the word “sustainable” to you, and that in particular you now appreciate the severe limitations of Willis Eschenbach’s arguments to the effect that “nothing is sustainable.”
Mr. Berry argues the precise opposite: Everything that is truly important is sustainable.
To me, this simple principle is the foundation of all true conservatism.
Theo, should it happen that you still find clarity to be elusive, why … may I suggest that you simply read the rest of Mr. Berry’s pamphlet! 🙂

December 22, 2011 1:36 pm

The UN’s 1987 Brundtland Report makes NO sense:
Here is the statement that I copied from a commenter above:
“Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
Reads like this to me: “’Sustainable’ development is development that meets the needs of the present while remaining without ANY ability to predict or understand what may or may NOT be compromising or improving the unknown ability using undiscovered technology of future generations to meet their own needs.”

oeman50
December 22, 2011 1:41 pm

Willis, I love that cartoon you have posted earlier, I have it hanging in my office.
I, too, am concerned about this trend of “sustainable development.” I am a technical person who was put on my corporation’s newly formed “sustainability team” to lend a bit of practicality to the process. I first attempted to get the team to define what “sustainability” is, defining the problem has always been the most effective first step in my experience. It turns out the definition is in the eye of the beholders, no real definition has been drafted.
I have always been in the practical side of the industry, I have been responsible for turning out a real product that is useful to people. In the process, we churn out lots of greenhouse gas. In terms of the real production of greenhouse gas, which is apparently included as a part of sustainability, one little tweak of a valve or starting a motor or repairing a steam trap has much more influence than all of the efforts of this team. I know this, but they do not. I have never been in a situation where the support personnel have so little knowledge of how the money making side of the business works.
But, fault me if you must, I have been laying low in the team because it keeps the greenies in the company busy and makes them feel good. Meanwhile, the production side does what it does best, making our product in the most efficient and money making manner possible. That is true sustainability.

tmtisfree
December 22, 2011 1:41 pm

Jeremy-

The bleeding obvious conclusion is that life (DNA) is incredibly sustainable and there is absolutely no need to worry.

“Resilient” is your word here (not sustainable).

juanslayton
December 22, 2011 1:47 pm

Dave Springer: If there’s any chaos in the universe I think it might be confined to free will if such a thing as free will really exists.
Dave, you’re just saying that because you have to….
: > )

December 22, 2011 1:47 pm

Don’t forget that more than 30 years ago, the earth could not POSSIBLY
.
.
.
.
(wait for it)
.
.
.
.
sustain
.
.
.
ANY increase in it’s current population and when I hear about “sustainability” I hear the same arrogance of the ‘experts’ who, despite being proven wrong time and time again, continue as they always have to repeat their ‘Gaian’ dogma about mass starvation and mass extinctions…

Pat Moffitt
December 22, 2011 2:06 pm

TXRED,
I absolutely agree with your time and place caveat and would add to it- environmental state. Multiple stable environmental states may exist for any given time or place. As an example the tall grass prairie existed as a sustainable eco-system for thousands of years as the result of the anthropogenic application of fire. Basically, fire precluded a sustainable forest ecosystem. We see these prairies now being replaced by forest as the result of fire suppression. And without fire- the prairie system is not sustainable.
The change from highly fire dependent prairie to forest alters at a fundamental level the physical and biological conditions that determine a “stable state” and I assume for these purposes- what is and is not sustainable.
So what is better – the prairie or forest? Until someone can tell me which is better and why- we can’t even begin to talk about sustainability.

davidmhoffer
December 22, 2011 2:15 pm

R. Gates doth pontificate:
But to you point about sustainability. The lessons we can learn from nature are enormous. Somehow, for hundreds of millions of years the earth has found a way to sustain life.>>>
Bullsh*t. The earth is an inanimate object and doesn’t do squat to sustain life. Life sustain’s istelf by adapting to the conditions on earth.
R. Gates;
Despite meteor stikes and great extinctions, snowball earth’s and massive volcansim, life has found a way. Life has been sustainable. What lessons can we take from nature as to how to conduct our own life and civilizations?>>>
That nature is trying to kill us. Unless we use the many means at our disposal, she will. Fortunately, we’re not animals and we can defeat everything that nature can throw at us. Look around you at our cities, our roads, our dams, and all that we have built to keep nature at bay.
R. Gates;
1) Use only what you really need. Excesses of use lead to all sorts of imbalances. Lions don’t kill every gazelle. If they did, both would go extinct.>>>
Neither do humans. In fact, we’re not so stupid as to wake up every morning hoping that there’s enough gazelles hanging around to feed us for one more day. We build farms and feedlots and breed crops and animals to maximize production and efficiency and we manage supply and demand accordingly. We can as a result achieve population levels orders of magnitude larger than we would if we were content to use as little of our resources as possible like the stupid animals that live one day at a time.
R. Gates;
2) Use energy that is as closely associated with contemporary solar energy as possible. Wind, direct solar, food, etc. are all examples of “current solar” energy. This is in direct contrast to “old solar” in the forms of fossil fuels.
Why would we consign ourselves to the past? Wind and solar were the primary sources of power for centuries during which famines occurred regularly, half the available food rotted before it could be eaten or transported to somewhere it was needed, land lay unused because there was no possible way to farm it, and people froze to death if they ventured to live outside of tropical or semi-tropical areas. We fixed all that by moving to fossil fuels and you want to go back…to be more like the animals?
R. Gates;
3) Build for reuse, and reuse to build. Everything that is manufactured should have a high degree of reusablility and everything that is manufactured should be made as much as possible from reused materials versus “virgin” materials. This is the way nature has done it for millions of years and it has worked pretty darn well.>>>
Bullsh*t. Everything nature “builds” rots unless some humans come along and preserve it. Build for utility and cost effectiveness. At some point maintainability becomes more costly than disposal and replacement. Throw away plastic blister packs are not only cheaper than glass containers, it takes less resources to produce and dispose of them than it does to wash the glass container for re-use.
R. Gates;
Bottom line: Life on Earth (and in this universe) might not be infinitely sustainable, as entropy will eventually have it’s way, but for all practical puposes, if we watch the methods nature has evolved, we can learn how to be practical sustainable in our lives and in our civilizaitons.>>>
But it is sustainable well into the future for many generations just based on the technology we have today, never mind what we’ll have come up with 200 years from now. Unless of course someone convinces us to go back to being animals because it is “sustainable”.

TimTheToolMan
December 22, 2011 2:18 pm

Willis writes “In other words, Roger, there’s nothing that’s sustainable except building spaceships, and Tim, you agree?”
And I’m wondering whether he’s lost it 😛

Dr. Dave
December 22, 2011 2:23 pm

I’ve plowed through over 200 comments to Willis’ article and I have come to the conclusion that “sustainability” in the environmentalist context is little more than a sufficiently ambiguous political buzz word. For me “sustainability” only has relevance for about a 40 year time span. After that I expect to be deceased.
My grandparents were alive 100 years ago. I’m pretty sure they didn’t fret about the availability of adequate food and potable water for those who would be alive many years after they died. They worried about having adequate food and potable water for themselves – right then. They didn’t concern themselves with air traffic congestion, internet regulations, using cell phones while driving, nuclear waste, global warming, etc. because they could not even imagine such things. Now we’re expected to modify our lifestyles (i.e. consumption of resources) to benefit future generations. We base this upon the notion that we are as smart and as technologically advanced as mankind will ever get. The “hubris of the present.” We will continue to create and utilize energy 100 years hence just as we do now because we can’t conceive of anything else. The same for anything we mine. Let’s face it, for everything mankind utilizes, if you can’t grow it, you have to mine it. “Sustainable Development” is a load of socialist, bureaucratic hogwash. The best thing we can do for future generations is to leave them wealthier, more developed, better educated and thus better equipped to meet the challenges of the future that we cannot even envision.

A physicist
December 22, 2011 2:26 pm

Dave Stephens says: Don’t forget that more than 30 years ago, the earth could not POSSIBLY (wait for it) sustain ANY increase in it’s current population and when I hear about “sustainability” I hear the same arrogance of the ‘experts’ who, despite being proven wrong time and time again, continue as they always have to repeat their ‘Gaian’ dogma about mass starvation and mass extinctions

What you mean, Dave, is that humanity needs many more scientists like (my fellow Iowan!) Norman Borlaug. Although, your memory of what leading scientists like Borlaug actually have been saying is faulty:

Norman Borlaug: The Man I Worked With and Knew
“From his early years, Dr. Borlaug expressed his concerns about global population and food supply. In his view, political leaders, including the Pope, did little to stem the “population monster.” He constantly advocated family planning. Not to detract from the Green Revolution, he felt that it only gave the world a breathing space of 30 years.”

Now in the 21st century, we are faced with the sobering reality, that the breathing time Borlaug gave us has been largely used up.

Matt Skaggs
December 22, 2011 2:38 pm

Willis,
Try Dr. Brian Czech’s “Shoveling Fuel for a Runaway Train.” Zero growth and sustainability theory are actually deeply rooted in humility and egalitarianism, whether you choose to believe it or not.
I really enjoyed your piece “Fair Weather Gale” a while back, and I learned from it. I have quoted from your work on the climatic thermostat extensively. I was intrigued by your work on tropical thunderstorms. Why not stick to topics where you, um, actually have something to offer?

Bob in Castlemaine
December 22, 2011 2:48 pm

Well said Willis. The “sustainability” inanity really gets under my skin. It’s a mindset that flourishes in this country courtesy of an education system that inculcates our young with the tenets of PC group think and a moribund MSM too timid to deviate from the group think litany.
People tend to offer a quizzical look when one comments that human existence is not and cannot be “sustainable”. The sustainabites don’t seem to understand that wooden shovels, cars, computers and TVs don’t work all that well. Likewise it is PC hand wringing about land use that has strangled resource development and agriculture in this country. It’s a no-brainer that natural resources should be used wisely, but the sustainabites need to assume a little humility and recognise that the planet does not, and never will need man’s help to rearrange and erode the landscape by kilometers, to cover continents with kilometers of ice and to rearrange the continents at will.

Theo Goodwin
December 22, 2011 2:48 pm

A physicist says:
December 22, 2011 at 1:27 pm
“It is my pleasure to assist you, Theo. The above link is to the Google Books on-line version of Wendel Berry’s pamphlet Another Turn of the Crank (1996) in which the word “sustainable” appears on pages 3, 6, 18, 21, 22, and 23. The first usage is page 3:
“[Farmers] are beginning to see that a kind of agriculture that involves unprecedented erosion and depletion of the soil, unprecedented waste of water, and unprecedented destruction of the farm population cannot by any accommodation of sense or fantasy be called ‘sustainable’.”
Theo, I trust that in this passage Mr. Berry has clarified the meaning of the word “sustainable” to you, and that in particular you now appreciate the severe limitations of Willis Eschenbach’s arguments to the effect that “nothing is sustainable.”
Actually, “A P,” he clarified the meaning of the word “unsustainable,” which I have understood for some time. We are looking for a Berryian definition of “sustainable.” Now, it is clear that “not unsustainable” is not helpful on the road to “sustainable.” So, I do not see how defining “unsustainable” can help us understand “sustainable.”
It seems to me that correct uses of the word ‘sustainable’ always require that an expiration date or time be given. For example, when jogging a particular pace is sustainable for X number of minutes. When dieting, a daily intake of 1000 calories is sustainable for a number of days. When farming, a particular regimen of crop rotation is sustainable until essential nutrients are depleted or, more to the point, until those crops produce too little income.
Taking a longer look at things, one can say that Florida’s beaches are sustainable for centuries, if Al Gore’s beliefs are false and local government continues to behave rationally and Earth is not hit by a meteor and so on. However, it is nonsense to say that they are sustainable without qualification. If the USA becomes as poor as Africa, which seems to be the UN plan, then Florida’s beaches will disappear in a matter of decades because they are maintained through large expenditures by Florida homeowners and local and state governments of Florida. Stop those expenditures and the beaches will be unrecognizable in a short time.
I cannot see a definition of “sustainable” that does not come with an expiration date. In other words, nothing is sustainable without an expiration date. Yet you seem to argue that some things are simply sustainable without qualification.

December 22, 2011 2:48 pm

From his early years, Dr. Borlaug… felt that it only gave the world a breathing space of 30 years.
Borlaug was just one more deluded soul among many, who wrongly believed the end was nigh. We’re well past his 30 years’ “breathing time”, but nothing unusual is happening. The fact is that prosperity, more than anything else, reduces population. Yet the proposed ‘solutions’ are all anti-prosperity. Go figure.
The common thread that runs through every alarmist is the fact that they are always wrong. Their predictions never come true, but that doesn’t dissuade them any more than Harold Camping was dissuaded when the world didn’t end, or Mrs Keech’s followers weren’t dissuaded when the flying saucer didn’t arrive as predicted, or Jehovah’s Witnesses were not dissuaded each time their multiple predictions of the end of the world failed.
Their cognitive dissonance is identical with today’s population alarmists and climate alarmists. No matter how many failed predictions they make, and no matter how many of those predictions never come true, they remain True Believers in their own little secular religions, and they still follow the self-serving climate charlatans who make outlandish predictions. In laymen’s terms, the True Believers are crazy.

Dr Burns
December 22, 2011 2:53 pm

Excellent. I’ve had this argument many times with people. Population growth makes any effort towards “sustainability” an even greater joke. If you cut usage of whatever by 20% or whatever, population growth will quickly swamp any gains.
Sustainability is nonsense.

Theo Goodwin
December 22, 2011 2:57 pm

davidmhoffer says:
December 22, 2011 at 2:15 pm
“R. Gates doth pontificate:
R. Gates;
Despite meteor stikes and great extinctions, snowball earth’s and massive volcansim, life has found a way. Life has been sustainable. What lessons can we take from nature as to how to conduct our own life and civilizations?>>>”
R., it depends on whose life you are talking about. And I firmly believe that your assumption that we can refer to something called “Life” that is no particular life is false. Plato might have liked your views.

Jerry
December 22, 2011 3:06 pm

I would argue that “sustainability” is unsustainable: i.e. the more iron that you mine and the more shovels you make today, the MORE iron and the MORE shovels will be available for future generations. First of all, by mining iron, we are teaching future generations how to mine and where to mine, and that mining can be done. That is valuable knowledge. We’re also providing them with lots of readily-available iron that does not need to be mined. If they want or need to melt down their shovels and make guns, tanks, or I-beams, they can, quite easily, and they will not incur the significant cost of mining and smelting. Sure, some iron will be lost in the process, but a great deal of energy and time will be saved, too.
Future generations greatly benefit from our consumption today.
This particularly true in the case of rare and exotic minerals, like nickel and cadmium mentioned the article. If we mine and refine these metals, and use them productively today to make cell phones with, they will be more readily available tomorrow, if we wish to recycle them, or simply use acquired knowledge to find and extract more of them.

A physicist
December 22, 2011 3:07 pm

Theo Goodwin says: We are looking for a Berryian definition of “sustainable.”

LOL … Theo, had you read Berry’s essay to the end, you would have come to Mr. Berry’s 17-point list of principles regarding How a Sustainable Local Community Might Function.
So tell the truth and shame the devil Theo (as they say in Iowa) … did you read that far? It’s a set of principles well-worth pondering.

A physicist
December 22, 2011 3:14 pm

Smokey says: Borlaug was just one more deluded soul among many, who wrongly believed the end was nigh. We’re well past his 30 years’ “breathing time”, but nothing unusual is happening.

Smokey, those lefty nutjobs at Forbes disagree with you; they say the syndromes that Borlaug and Berry foresaw are upon us.

Pat Moffitt
December 22, 2011 3:29 pm

Comments have been largely straw man arguments on all sides because there is no sustainability definition (and I would argue there can be no meaningful and encompassing definition).
I’ve heard a lot of “its” possible and “its” not impossible- but not a lot of definition of what “it” is.

Matt Skaggs
December 22, 2011 3:36 pm

The technical definition of a sustainable process is one in which the output of the restorative mechanism is of equal or greater magnitude than the input of the exploitative mechanism. Timber harvesting a forest can be truly sustainable if the new biomass of growing wood equals or exceeds the amount of wood harvested, AND if the tilth is returned to the soil. Irrigation can be sustainable if the aquifer is recharged at the rate of removal. Of course, if salts build up in the soil then the agriculture is not sustainable, but the irrigation process still meets the definition.

H.R.
December 22, 2011 3:37 pm

@A physicist says:
December 22, 2011 at 1:27 pm
All well and good, A, but it still doesn’t answer “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?”

JPeden
December 22, 2011 3:41 pm

David says:
December 22, 2011 at 7:43 am
The argument that all “greens” are “warmists” and therefore we should allow[!] developing nations to suffocate[!] themselves in coal power pollution is a strawman, and shows weakness of mind.
Likewise, David, as per your own [illogical] “strawman” argument above, do you agree that the argument to the effect that truly scientific CO2 = CAGW sceptics are “climate change deniers”, “flat earthers”, “Big Oil bought and paid for scientists”, or simply “deniers”; and therefore that green “sustainability” Environmentalists of a “warmist” ilk have the right to force developing and developed nations to de-develop further back towards the Stone Age by discontinuing their [often massive] fossil fuel dependent energy development programs, is actually an illogical, completely anti-factual, and provenly counter-productive Climate Science argument and plan, if done solely to stop CO2 outputs? But which “Environmentalists” such as the green “Warmist” ipcc Climate Scientists, enc, themselves do in fact make?
And when you conclude that:
Environmentalists are NOT the skeptics’ adversary. Warmists are. There’s a big difference.
Do you also agree with the fact that CO2 is not a “pollutant” and that it will not cause Catastrophic Anthropogenic Global Warming – on the basis of the scientific fact that the Warmist Climate Scientists have not made even one correct prediction yet derived from their CO2 = CAGW “theory”?

R. Gates
December 22, 2011 3:57 pm

Davidmhoffer sez:
“The earth is an inanimate object and doesn’t do squat to sustain life. Life sustain’s istelf by adapting to the conditions on earth.”
You’re trying to Anthropomorphize the living system that is the earth. The Earth is hardly inanimate. If it were…you’d surely have never existed. This is a dynamic living planet in which the whole is far more than the sum of the parts.
______
“That nature is trying to kill us. Unless we use the many means at our disposal, she will. Fortunately, we’re not animals and we can defeat everything that nature can throw at us. Look around you at our cities, our roads, our dams, and all that we have built to keep nature at bay.”
“Nature” trying to kill us? Surely not. Nature is the sum total of interrelated living things. Nature no more is trying to kill the gazelle, when it is attacked by the lion then it is trying to kill you when you’re attacked by a virus. Sounds rather paranoid overall. But no, you can’t defeat “everything” that nature can throw at you…for surely you and I will both face death.
_____
“But it is sustainable well into the future for many generations just based on the technology we have today…
There is always the balance between quantity or length of life and quality of life. Though you can extend the “life” of a love one with technology long after nature, in her mercy, would have taken them, it doesn mean that you should. There is a reason why they call pneumonia the “friend of the elderly”.
_______
“Everything nature “builds” rots unless some humans come along and preserve it.”
This is just simple minded. In decay and death, nature plants the seeds for the next generation of life. Have you never had a compost pile? And in terms of “preservation”, that is one area that human have really screwed things up for themselves. Do you know how much pancreatic cancer has been caused by years and years of preservatives being put into the body? Best to just eat fresh food, and stay away from the sodium nitrite especially. It essentially pickles your pancreas.

Bob in Castlemaine
December 22, 2011 4:04 pm

Should prehistoric homo-sapiens have behaved in a more “sustainable” manner and made sure that they conserved stones for the benefit of future generations?

R. Gates
December 22, 2011 4:06 pm

Theo Goodwin says:
December 22, 2011 at 2:57 pm
R. Gates said;
“Despite meteor stikes and great extinctions, snowball earth’s and massive volcansim, life has found a way. Life has been sustainable. What lessons can we take from nature as to how to conduct our own life and civilizations?>>>”
R., it depends on whose life you are talking about. And I firmly believe that your assumption that we can refer to something called “Life” that is no particular life is false. Plato might have liked your views.
______
Then you miss the essence of the relationships that form the web of life on earth. When a lion chases a pack of gazelles, it is not a particular gazelle it is after, but rather, it is simply following the instincts programmed inside. It is hungry and wants to eat any gazelle that it can get hold of. Sometimes young, sometimes old, sometimes weak, and sometimes just plain unlucky. The importance of this relationship is so that both species may continue, without care for any specfic individual of that species. It is this relationship between gazelle and lion that is the essence of the web of life. Though it runs contrary to many people’s belief systems, no man or woman is truly ever an island unto themselves.

Michael
December 22, 2011 4:14 pm

Thankyou for your article. “Sustainability” has been a stone in my shoe for years. Here in the Australian Government, the term is bandied around like it is the panacea to everything. Any time I have asked someone to explain what “sustainability” means, they go off on tangents.
Finally I hear some sense. Thanks again.

R. Gates
December 22, 2011 4:16 pm

Jeremy says:
December 22, 2011 at 12:57 pm
The bleeding obvious conclusion is that life (DNA) is incredibly sustainable and there is absolutely no need to worry. Long after humans are gone or mutated into something else, we can be absolutely assured that life (DNA) will continue.
_____
1. I’m not really worried about too much.
2. Life is more than a sequence of DNA. It is a relationship. And, no, I am not absolutely assured that DNA will continue in this universe after all the useful energy has been used up.
______
Jeremy also said:
“You need to learn a little humility and realize that, in the scheme of things, humans are quite irrelevant. The AGW always over estimate human importance – a recurring theme going back to times when it was popular to think the earth was at the center of the universe.”
How odd that you would equate my belief that it is more likely than not that AGW is occurring with some over-estimation of human importance. Life has always affected the atmosphere and hydrosphere of this planet, and it doesn’t raise the importance of humans to be one of many.

December 22, 2011 4:20 pm

crosspatch says: December 22, 2011 at 1:38 …………….
Thanks for the wiki link on the precautionary principle and the administrative laws being put in place under the guise of ensuring no risk is left unaccounted for. I see that the city of SF is noted as follows-
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Precautionary_principle
“USA”
“On July 18, 2005, the City of San Francisco passed a Precautionary Principle Purchasing ordinance, which requires the city to weigh the environmental and health costs of its $600 million in annual purchases – for everything from cleaning supplies to computers…..”
It will be interesting to see how SF deals with the advocacy groups pushing for the removal of the dam at Hetch Hetchy. Removal of the dam will elimate a lot of the hydro electricity that SF gets out of the system- http://www.bls.gov/ro9/cpisanf_energy.htm
…………”Available Electricity Supply-
“The Hetch Hetchy Enterprise provides electricity to the City’s municipal load customers, which include City facilities, the Port, the Airport, and San Francisco Unified School District and Community College District facilities, to the Modesto and Turlock Irrigation Districts, and to Airport tenants and Norris Industries, a Federal munitions factory in Riverbank, California. Hydroelectricity is generated by the flow of water from the three Hetch Hetchy system reservoirs, Lake Eleanor, Cherry Lake, and Hetch Hetchy, through the four powerhouses, Holm, Kirkwood, Moccasin, and Moccasin Low Head. In addition to generating hydroelectricity, the Hetch Hetchy Enterprise purchases electricity through its long-term power purchase agreement with Calpine Corporation and on the wholesale electricity market.
Electricity that is to be used by the City’s municipal customers, Modesto and Turlock Irrigation Districts, and Norris Industries each day is scheduled on the State’s electricity grid. The amount of electricity resources, including hydroelectric power generated by the Hetch Hetchy Enterprise and purchased power, that are scheduled on the electricity grid must equal the amount of electricity that is required by the City’s municipal customers, Modesto and Turlock Irrigation Districts, and Norris Industries. Because electricity cannot be stored, the Hetch Hetchy Enterprise must purchase electricity if it is not able to generate a sufficient amount of hydroelectric power to meet its obligations at any given time. Conversely, if the Hetch Hetchy Enterprise generates more hydroelectric power or has more power purchases under the long-term power purchase agreement with the Calpine Corporation than is required to meet its obligations, the surplus electricity must be offered to Modesto and Turlock Irrigation Districts if it comes from Hetch Hetchy, or it can be sold on the market if it comes from contract purchases or if hydroelectric power is refused by Modesto and Turlock Irrigation Districts……….”
I take it the city wouldn’t like to pay the electical rates that the rest of the Bay Area residents currently pay-
http://www.sfbos.org/Modules/ShowDocument.aspx?documentid=19229
“A kilowatt-hour (kWh) of electricity cost San Francisco area consumers $0.216 in October 2011, 2.7 percent less than one year earlier. Nationwide, electricity prices averaged $0.130 in October 2011, compared to $0.127 the previous year. For the past five years, electricity prices in the San Francisco area have been consistently above the national average and ranged from approximately 47 percent to over 88 percent higher.”
Thanks for the reference.

R. Gates
December 22, 2011 4:27 pm

jrwakefield says:
December 22, 2011 at 12:59 pm
John West says:
“The solar system and the universe is evidence that order can arise from chaos, that the second law of thermodynamics is not applicable to such systems.”
The solar system and the universe is here BECAUSE of the laws of thermodynamics. It is progressing to LESS entropy, not more. The universe was more “orderly” at the Big Bang.
________
jrwakefield,
Unless you’ve discovered some new physics that can reverse times arrow, and lead to less entropy in the universe, for yours and everyone else’s benefit, you ought to know that the universe is heading toward toward more entropy, not less. In simple terms, Entropy is a measure of disorder, and disorder, when looking at the whole system, is always increasing.

Pat Moffitt
December 22, 2011 4:46 pm

Matt Skaggs,
You have removed the inherent complexity to achieve a definition of sustainability by isolating to a single variable (ex forest). I would submit you take this path because it is impossible to do otherwise and even this is impossible.
Your forest analogy is only sustainable from a standpoint of timber- what age forest, what tree mix, who profits, what fire cycle who decides are just a few of the other possible metrics? What if I believe no timber should ever be removed and someone else believed we should burn it all down and replace it with tall grass prairie. Simply stating it is the planting of more trees than you remove is senseless from the standpoint of the ecosystem that organizes around the infinitely complex interplay of forest age, tree type, fire cycle, disease, allelopathy, soil chemistry and its even more complex interrelationship with the biota that selects various mutually exclusive forest states as the preferred sustainable option. And is that a sustainable forest with or without invasive earth worms because that changes everything as well. Who decides these issue and countless others and by what rules?
It gets even harder when we move to solving two variables forest and water- now we need to look at evapotranspiration effects as one example. Do we maximize forest area or groundwater recharge- how do we value the impacts on minimum flow in headwater streams. The type of tree determines in large part the energy dynamics (productivity) related to leaf litter especially in head water dreams. Do we maximize fish production or timber production. Are we optimizing for biomass or diversity? Who decides and why. How does the next generation vote? What buffers to natural variability are imposed?
I could go on and on- sustainability however first requires defining what you want and what are you willing to risk/tradeoff for the chance to achieve it. The second part of how we achieve this will never happen because we will never be able to agree to the first part of the question. Demanding sustainability is how one side justifies never asking what do you want and what are you willing to risk to achieve it?

December 22, 2011 5:04 pm

R. Gates says…. lots of places- ………….entropy……………..
I had to take a look at a reference in my library “Checkland- System Thinking, Systems Practice”- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_Checkland to respond to your comments about entropy and why it is not a first principle in “unrestricted sciences-” biology. Somehow embryos come into being and entropy is not applicable while the live system is holding back the forces of decay. Emergent activities happen throughout the development of what we call life. As Willis has pointed out elsewhere it appears that our climate system has similar emergent properties. I’d love to hear more about this subject………..
In the mean time Happy Holidays.

John David Galt
December 22, 2011 5:15 pm

When the lefties bring up their mythical notion of enviro sustainability, I respond with real concerns about the real kind of sustainability: economic sustainability, which is exactly the standard that NONE of lefties’ favored spending programs meet — especially the kinds of corporate welfare without which “green” jobs and “green” products mostly can’t exist.

Aynsley Kellow
December 22, 2011 5:20 pm

Willis, I have been away (and without internet access) so I am just trying to catch up with this thread, but readers might enjoy my earlier contribution on this subject:
http://www.science.org.au/events/sats/sats2002/kellow.html

ferd berple
December 22, 2011 5:25 pm

Ken Hall says:
December 22, 2011 at 3:14 am
Sustainable forestry is possible.
Only if you burn the forests in place. Otherwise the forests deplete the soil nutrients over time. Sustainable farming means going into the forest and burning down a section and planting a crop in the nutrients returned to the soil, then moving on to a new section of forest the next year. Even that is unsustainable, unless you eat the food in place and leave behind the dung.
Without added energy, land can only support a very few people per square mile. In the tropics the number is higher, because the energy from the sun is higher. Restrict the use of coal and oil through carbon taxes and the forests of the earth will converted to fuel by economics.
Thus REDD seeks to secure the timber rights to large portions of the earth by displacing aboriginal owners and thus reap fantastic profits. WWF, Strong, Clinton are advocates. Any chance they have a conflict of interest?

Paul Irwin
December 22, 2011 5:29 pm

as a builder, i have to laugh at the “green” garbage that is being built in the name of “sustainability”. so much of it is just contemporary “me” junk clad in poor – and poorly tested – materials.
and all of that sustainable, award-winning, but severely depreciating junk will be filling landfills in 20 or 30 years. it’s a sick joke.

ferd berple
December 22, 2011 5:33 pm

Here is what sustainable development really means:
The poor of the earth cannot have an education, job, money, house, car, cell phone, TV, running water, electricity, 3 square meals a day, because this would deplete the resources of the earth, ruining things for those of us that already have those things.
There is no such thing as sustainable development. It is simply greed and fear. Greed to deny the poor what you already have. Fear that they will take it away unless stopped.

Alan Wilkinson
December 22, 2011 5:47 pm

So true, Willis, well said. That utterly ridiculous word “sustainability” has been annoying me for years courtesy of the clueless who worship it.

December 22, 2011 5:50 pm

A physicist says:
“Smokey, those lefty nutjobs at Forbes disagree with you; they say the syndromes that Borlaug and Berry foresaw are upon us.”
In reading that Forbes link, I see that it has nothing to do with my comment. That is the typical M.O. of ‘a physicist’: he cannot refute my point that after 30 years Borlaug has been proven wrong, so ‘a physicist’s’ inane response is to link to an unrelated article rather than admit that Borlaug’s prediction was an abject failure.

Pat Moffitt
December 22, 2011 5:59 pm

Aynsley, If I understand your paper correctly sustainability is the arena where we battle over competing fears, interests and ideologies while trying to make believe its about natural eco-systems.

Aynsley Kellow
December 22, 2011 6:07 pm

Pat,
Yes – it is a concept that tends to reflect our concerns over social instability, and we cling to it despite the fact that ecological science no longer supports a meme of ‘Nature’s delicate balance.’ Ecological science and the environmental movement parted company c1990, but it is an idea that still infects branches of ‘political science’ such as that on climate change science that is based on the notion of a stable climate – but for anthropogenic factors.

1DandyTroll
December 22, 2011 6:07 pm

Willis Eschenbach says:
“December 22, 2011 at 10:16 am
1DandyTroll says:
December 22, 2011 at 3:05 am
Why have we been able to mine one of the scarcest metals for some 7000 years and still we’re not running low?
Hey, Dandy, back to trolling I see. In answer to your question, it’s because”
Always. Thank you for noticing. 🙂
“a) for about the first 6,800 of those years there weren’t many of us, and”
By the meagre calculations I can make, that’s a none answer, or an answer by someone who also doesn’t understand the enormity of the human race in relation to the scarcity of gold.
“b) the world is a big place, and”
7000 years ago, it wasn’t that big of a place, yet we still mine in the same places they did 7000 years ago, more or less.
“c) when we start to run low we use something else. Who would have guessed that copper communication cables could be replaced by glass cables?”
You can’t create gold, only diamonds lol, and there’s no glass plated speaker wires…and I can’t get glass cables either in the place I live for internet, only gigabit copper cables (and that’s another metal we never seem to run out off.) :p
Here’s my guess, we will never run out of gold even if it is, in reality, a limited resource. And we’ll probably never run out of oil or gas either, because it has been accumulating for a billion years and simple little man has only mined it for less than 100 years, industrially and the machinery that use it we keep making use less of it to perform the same or better. But mostly because we’re our own ants in relation to our size which is ant-sized in comparison to our own egos. :-()
Merry Christmas, and plz why not put your articles and conclusions together in a book?

Aynsley Kellow
December 22, 2011 6:11 pm

I should add that my student Phil Lawn published a good book from his thesis on the economics of sustainability (reference is in my lecture), where he showed convincingly that resource depletion is not an issue. The only concern is waste accumulation in the longer term (following Georgescu-Roegen’s incorporation of the entropy law into economics) – but then we are not necessarily in a closed system and could conceivably fire off nuclear waste into the sun and still come out in front.

Barbara Munsey
December 22, 2011 6:22 pm

Excellent essay!
My father and I used to discuss this 15 or more years ago, and he said it appeared to him that the modifier and the verb had been misused in the phrase.
My personal opinion? “Sustainability” sets an artificial mean, and then supply and demand be damned, cost, cause and effect be damned, we will do without whatever is necessary, or supply whatever is necessary, to “sustain” that artificial mean.
No matter how far the quality of life falls below the line, no matter how far the cost rises above it.

1DandyTroll
December 22, 2011 6:31 pm

Here’s a simple idea, from a simple troll, but why Mr Willis not have a great get together by you good people? Just imagine it, You, of course, Mr Watts, The JoNova, The last conservative Delingpole, Tall “got nicked” bloke, J.Id, Laframboise, The evil twins McIntyre and McKitrick, and capped by the one and, ours all only, skeptical Lord Monckton?
Just imagine the ad propagated youtube video of such a showing and how informative that could be for climate change (the latte, of course, is a must to get EU funding for any conference or debates, these days, apparently.)

A physicist
December 22, 2011 6:49 pm

A physicist says: “Smokey, those lefty nutjobs at Forbes disagree with you; they say the syndromes that Borlaug and Berry foresaw are upon us.”

Smokey says: In reading that Forbes link, I see that it has nothing to do with my comment. That is the typical M.O. of ‘a physicist’: he cannot refute my point that after 30 years Borlaug has been proven wrong, so ‘a physicist’s’ inane response is to link to an unrelated article rather than admit that Borlaug’s prediction was an abject failure.

Smokey, the key graphic in the Forbes article “Why We Are In Political Gridlock: The Private Sector Is Dying” is the Economy-Wide Return on Invested Capital, which has been trending down in every decade since 1965 (which is why median family income has been stagnant in these same decades). As the Forbes article says:

“When push comes to shove, the economy isn’t providing a good living for all its citizens. The economic dysfunction that people see in their personal lives flows from this fundamental fact.”

To my mind, the ideas of Wendell Berry and Norman Borlaug account for this adverse American economic trend more naturally than the slogans of either political party, or the machinations of the investment bankers of Wall Street, or Willis Eschenbach’s “just-say-no to sustainability” economic theories.

Roger Carr
December 22, 2011 6:58 pm

Willis: “In other words, Roger, there’s nothing that’s sustainable except building spaceships, and Tim, you agree? Just trying to clarify your position. If that’s it, it’s very much like mine—I say nothing is sustainable, and you say only building spaceships might be sustainable … but since building spaceships is only about 0.0001% of what humans do, we’re not far apart.”
More or less, Willis; yes — although I do not believe we are at the point of needing spaceships yet; just the continuing development of the technology to have them in the future so we can when either necessary or because we wish to. (That we do continue development is critical, but under threat from those who beat their breasts in woe–another subject we are becoming increasingly familiar with… to our despair; or mine, anyway.)
Does humanity claim to be the ultimate expression of life (and I believe it is) then it is up to humanity to see that we live forever. We have a planet to play with, and then the stars.
So, yes, we can be “sustainable” — if we wish to be.
p.s. Four grandchildren wanting to play train games on this computer right now! is limiting me even as it inspires me…

December 22, 2011 7:03 pm

‘a physicist’ says:
“From his early years, Dr. Borlaug… felt that it only gave the world a breathing space of 30 years.”
My comment was in response to Borlaug’s failed prediction. The Forbes article is merely a diversion; deliberate misdirection away from a provably wrong prediction. Man up and admit that the prediction was flat wrong. Or post diversions, or whatever is necessary to give some desperately needed wiggle room.
Climate alarmists’ predictions all have one thing in common: they’re wrong.

Pat Moffitt
December 22, 2011 7:21 pm

By cloaking this all in terms of defending Nature to justify economic/social/political arguments we have held meaningful environmental improvement hostage. From an economic view point I no longer see any incentive to correct ANY environmental problem. The maintenance of the problem simply has more value now to the various organized concentrated interests than does any solution. Those of us that entered the environmental field decades ago thinking we were going to fix wetlands and fisheries rather than people simply feel betrayed. I have learned Austrian economics explains the last 40 years of environmental “decision making” better than does any science. What a waste.

December 22, 2011 8:03 pm

Unless you’ve discovered some new physics that can reverse times arrow, and lead to less entropy in the universe, for yours and everyone else’s benefit, you ought to know that the universe is heading toward toward more entropy, not less. In simple terms, Entropy is a measure of disorder, and disorder, when looking at the whole system, is always increasing.
—-
Yes, my bad. Had it backwards.

davidmhoffer
December 22, 2011 8:07 pm

R. Gates says:
December 22, 2011 at 3:57 pm
Davidmhoffer sez:
“The earth is an inanimate object and doesn’t do squat to sustain life. Life sustain’s istelf by adapting to the conditions on earth.”
You’re trying to Anthropomorphize the living system that is the earth. The Earth is hardly inanimate. If it were…you’d surely have never existed. This is a dynamic living planet in which the whole is far more than the sum of the parts.>>>>
Oh poppycock. The Earth is a planet. A chunk of rocks and minerals, a whack of water, and some gases. It isn’t animate, it doesn’t think, and it doesn’t sustain a damn thing. The biosphere is just life that exploits the resources of the planet.
R. Gates;
“Nature” trying to kill us? Surely not. Nature is the sum total of interrelated living things. Nature no more is trying to kill the gazelle, when it is attacked by the lion then it is trying to kill you when you’re attacked by a virus.>>>
The part you don’t seem to get is that we’re not animals, we’re humans. We’ve eradicated some of the viruses that would otherwise kill us, we’ve found cures for others, and we will do the same for the rest. The gazelle has no choice but to die and be eaten if caught by a lion, and the lion has no choice but to die if it doesn’t catch enough gazelles to eat. THAT is the point! We’re NOT animals, we do NOT have to accept the rules that the animals live by, we can make our OWN rules for what is best for US. You are arguing that we would be better off just being animals and doing our best to survive. If you want to go back to 40% infant mortality rates, plagues, famines, and life expectancies half of what we have today, you go right ahead. But don’t you dare ask the rest of us to come with you.
R. Gates;
There is always the balance between quantity or length of life and quality of life.>>>
What you propose is a poor quality short life.
Though you can extend the “life” of a love one with technology long after nature, in her mercy, would have taken them, it doesn mean that you should. There is a reason why they call pneumonia the “friend of the elderly”.>>>>
We’re not talking about technology and the elderly. We’re talking about regular people over the course of their lifespan. In the world you propose, most of us would be dead at under the age of 30 from starvation, disease and cold. Given the choice of having the dilemma regarding the elderly, I’d rather have the choice. You want your kids and grandkids to have a near zero shot at getting old in the first place, then you’re one evil nasty dude.
R. Gates;
In decay and death, nature plants the seeds for the next generation of life. Have you never had a compost pile?>>>
Yes I have one. Nature didn’t build it though, I did. The best you can do is use as an example something that wouldn’t exist without humans? Wow. So, what you are saying is that human intervention is good for the biosphere? Why, exactly, is a compost heap “good” and “natural” when other methods of enriching the soil and improving production are not?
R. Gates;
And in terms of “preservation”, that is one area that human have really screwed things up for themselves. Do you know how much pancreatic cancer has been caused by years and years of preservatives being put into the body?>>>
No idea. Do you know how many people are saved from death from food borne diseases because of those preservatives? How many people are saved from starvation because of those preservatives? How many people are lifted out of poverty because preservatives make food supplies so much less expensive? The good outways the bad by orders of magnitude, not to mention that without the preservatives the very people you claim are being killed by pancreatic cancer probably wouldn’t live long enough to develop it. Pick one: Die of plague at age 30, or die at 65 of pancreatic cancer. Pick one: Die of starvation at the age of 30, or die of pancreatic cancer at age 65. In fact, find me ONE person who would NOT pick pancreatic cancer! Then add to that the fact that dieing from plague or starvation by age 30 would be a near certainty, but dieing of pancreatic cancer would be pretty rare even if one went heavy on the preservatives all one’s life.
That’s the choice you are suggesting. A nearly certain short brutal life, or a teeny chance of death at old age via pancreatic cancer. You pick whatever you want, but don’t sentence billions of people to your own fate.
R. Gates;
Best to just eat fresh food, and stay away from the sodium nitrite especially. It essentially pickles your pancreas.>>>
Where, with your use as little of everything stay in harmony with nature bullsh*t, do you suppose the fresh food is going to come from? Do you think it will make itz own compost heaps, till itz own soil, pull itz own weeks, harvest itself, refrigerate itself, and walk to your house where it will then boil water with which to wash itself off and then present itself to you to be eaten “fresh”?
You live in some sort of dream world R. Gates where it is good to sentence billions to death and live like animals because they are “natural” and so we should be too.
Bullsh*t.

R. Gates
December 22, 2011 10:38 pm

Davidmhoffer said: