“Sustainability”: Redefinitions and Slices of Pie


Sustainability is one of the new buzzwords, both of the Left and of the general society. It is indeed a really good sign that people are generally becoming much more concerned about sustainability. People are worried about sustainability in their agriculture and their government policies. Politicians are starting to talk the sustainability talk, even if they don’t often walk the walk. But the unfortunate fact is that the entire dialog that is occurring about sustainability is fundamentally flawed. Sustainability is impossible under our present economic arrangements: The vast majority of economic systems that humanity has adopted up until this point in history, and certainly both state management and ostensible free market capitalism, has been premised on constant growth. “Sustainability” as a concept and a goal, and it is indeed one of the most important goals for humans to reach, requires fundamentally rearranging our entire economic and political systems, not tinkering around the edges. We have to question the very logic of free market capitalism, of the nation-state system, of our living arrangements, and of every part of our life.

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Courtesy of Randall Munroe, used under a Creative Commons 2.5 License and fair use

Take the idea of “sustainable agriculture”. Businesses that try in good faith to be sustainable should be applauded: Many purchase carbon offsets in order to mitigate their impact. Further, many of these businesses also use organic and fair trade business practices. But the problem is that “sustainable agriculture” is at present at best a chimera and at worst an outright lie. Assume for a moment that an agriculture business, a farm or a ranch, has adopted practices that ensure that its total inputs are such that it could be sustained year-in, year-out. Assume even that it owns the shipping companies that will  take it to central distributors or wholesalers. The produce that the company generates will still be consumed in grocery stores stocked with unsustainable products, themselves generally unsustainable, purchased by people in suburban and urban centers that are decidedly unsustainable, taken to homes and businesses in unsustainable private vehicles, cooked in unsustainable fashions and accompanied with unsustainable agriculture. The fact is that, for an agriculture company in the present day to be truly “sustainable”, it would have to not only be sustainable in and of itself but actually consume so little resources that it compensated for all those other systemic sources of unsustainability between the farm and the plate. In short, sustainability is only meaningful as a systemic quality. Either the entire economic system is sustainable, or close to it, or no business can meaningfully be sustainable.

For “sustainability” to mean something, it has to be long-term sustainability. Obviously, in the extremely long-term, the basic operations of the Second Law of Thermodynamics mean that the human species will cease to exist. But in any timeframe that is relevant to plan around, such as for the next few thousand years (or even our grandchildrens’ grandchildren), sustainability means that the total sum of human consumption is at or below the level that naturally produced materials can be replenished. This means that replenishable resources, like food, have to be grown with few non-replenishable resources, can’t exhaust the soil or the water, and need to be sufficient to provide for the needs of the global population. Non-renewable resources need to somehow be recycled or used so sparingly that they can last indefinitely.

It is transparently clear that we are nowhere near this point as a species. What is nightmarish is that the living standards of a mere billion people, in essence America, developed Europe and Japan, may not be sustainable even in the medium term, even taking into account the effect of new technologies that will offer more efficient techniques. Even putting aside basic issues of ecological and economic justice, the fact is that those in the industrialized nations are going to need to evaluate their living styles. The Japanese have had to deal with all of the inherent social problems of having so many people in such a crowded area, and that has been a difficult social challenge in and of itself even with immense resources. But the fact is that the developing world is developing, and growing, and they will come to expect something like the living standards of the West. Countries like Brazil and China look at American living standards and ask, “Why can’t we have that for our population? What right do you have to that level of opulence?” Millions of Americans do not have enough food, and yet we still consume a large portion of the world’s resources, far above and beyond our percentage of the global population.

Regrettably, for decades, the problem has been cast in the vein of overpopulation. Overpopulation was and is a serious concern. Recently, it has become clear that the population will cap out at eight to nine billion people; there was a fear that the population would exceed ten billion, but this was based on an inaccurate population extrapolation. Luckily, a global baby boom tapered off, and much of the aging population will soon have passed on. The problem, of course, is that population is only part of the equation. What actually determines how much is being consumed is population multiplied by consumption. Each person consumes a certain amount, and if that amount grows, the population can shrink and one has gained little.

And here is the basic mathematical lie that has been told to the world. We take it for granted that a healthy economy should grow by more than 2% a year, that its GDP should go up. Assume for a moment that half of that wealth is in services, which don’t consume any additional physical resources (quite unlike actual real world services). This is a very generous assumption, but even if that’s the case, just plug some numbers into your calculator. After about seventy years, even assuming a 1% growth in the consumption of physical resources (like arable land, potable water, metals, minerals, petrochemicals, etc.), the amount that the planet would consume doubles.

(To be fair: Some recent research, such as the kind mentioned here, argues that the cap might be somewhat larger and that there may be no cap. However, that in turn assumes that there is no change in availability in contraceptives, etc. in Africa. Population projections are complicated, of course, and it’s difficult to say anything quickly, but the point is that we could decline to a population of 3 billion and see that we would still need to cease growth).

In short: Sustainability means zero growth. In fact, it may mean negative growth. It almost certainly means that the richest people in the world will see their living standards and degree of wealth drop precipitously.

This is not a theoretical problem. Even very conservative oil analysts say that when we hit a point called peak oil (the point at which we produce the most oil), growth ends. This is because almost every single element of society is dependent on some form of petrochemical. People have to drive to stores, or ride in a bus to a store, on cars. The store has to be stocked by trucks or airplanes or motorbikes or trains that used oil. The store’s lights have to be powered by coal. Universities that research the new technologies that we hope will solve the situation have to be powered by coal. Nuclear power, solar power, geothermal power, water power, wind power, ethanol, biking, walking, and other tools help solve the problem, but these are often exaggerated, regrettably especially by the Left, in terms of their importance. Nuclear power is also unsustainable in the long term: It requires fissile material, which is in finite supply. It also requires dealing with nuclear waste, which is a non-trivial problem. And while it may be possible that other forms of alternative energy may provide a global solution, there are two problems. First: It is very difficult to enable private transportation and transportation infrastructure without petrochemicals. Second: The problem with most alternative energy sources is that they are not reliable day-in, day-out. If it is an overcast day, or a day with no wind, then an area may have no alternative source of power. Coal and nuclear power are used as the backbone of the system; they provide a guaranteed source of power. If there can be blackouts in Tehran, then we as a species are going to have to get very creative to provide basic electricity to the globe, let alone anything like the living standards Westerners are used to.

There are many other non-renewable resources that deserve to be discussed, but one of the most crucial is potable water, which is only partially renewable. Clean, drinkable water has always been a problem for humanity, a scarce resource in high demand.

More importantly, think for just a second about how the non-renewable resources are extracted. How do you power the drills that get oil? How do you give water and food to the miners who bring up coal, metals and minerals? Where do the raw materials for the semiconductors come from? In short, getting one unsustainable resource often requires expending another. The mathematics of those calculations are not easy, and so far they’ve been done by the supposed “free market”. Self-interested parties who not only have no incentive or reason to plan for others or for the future, but actually have very strong disincentives to do so, do not good planners make.

There is a common conservative refrain at this point: “The free market will solve everything”. Then why hasn’t it? Why haven’t we been able, as a species, to keep ourselves from overconsuming? Supposedly, in a truly competitive free market, according to the Coase Theorem (though Ronald Coase, the creator of the theorem, in fact is well aware of the limits of the free market and of externality problems), externalities solve themselves because those who want to produce something that will pollute or use some public good like the airwaves can purchase what they need from others. For example: A company that wants to create a factory that wants to pollute could buy the river downstream and remunerate the fishermen that will be affected for their lost business. But this requires that property rights be very well-defined, that the item in question has immediate market value, that people act rationally and that transactions costs are minimal. It also requires that the factory doesn’t just decide to pollute and rely on their deep pockets to prevent regulators or the fishermen from suing them for unjustly taking away the jobs of people in the area. If a species gets killed that has no current market application, for example, the whole ecosystem could be thrown into disarray, but the harms would be spread out over time and over many people. If a polluter poisons our air or water, the amount of people who are affected can be far more than the value of the factory they run, but spread out so minimally that no single person or even small group of people own the affected areas. Pollution doesn’t respect borders and property lines: It can defy court rulings and spread across jurisdictions. Even if we had anything like free markets (and the big bad government is not the only reason why we don’t have free markets), the externality problem would continue; indeed, it would likely increase. This is not to mention that free markets, by their very nature, cannot embrace a zero-growth equilibrium, which essentially removes them from serious consideration for sustainability.

So, what’s the alternative? What can we do as a species?

First of all, we have to abandon growth. And this has numerous pernicious consequences. It means that every single thing that is produced has to be carefully measured. Every single research grant has to be carefully considered for its full social value, because it requires valuable labor and resources. We may not be able, as a species, to afford space travel or the Large Hadron Collider in the long term, no matter how great the benefits from these projects may be. Certainly, it is unlikely that it will be possible for every single country, or even the majority of countries, to have a space program. Every single luxury, research project, art project or expenditure that is not strictly about providing the means of living to people (food, water, shelter, medicine, etc.) will have to be carefully justified, because it might mean that someone eats a little less.

That might be easy enough. But there is a far greater consequence: Inequality can no longer be remotely justified. The primary way that the right has managed to encourage pro-market policies such as low taxes is trickle-down economics. If we let the rich consume more of the pie, then they’ll in turn create ways of generating wealth that will grow the pie and we’ll eat an absolutely larger slice, even if the size of the slice compared to the rich is smaller. If the pie is three times as big, it doesn’t matter if my slice is half as large as it used to be. This theory has always had a lot of problems: It’s not particularly true, it doesn’t make very much sense and it actually doesn’t answer the core question, whether it’s fair for the rich to get the bigger slice in the first place. Dani Rodrik’s research, for example, has found that inequality tends to slow growth, not increase it, for a variety of reasons: The rich don’t bake a bigger pie, they bake a smaller pie. But it makes absolutely no sense in a sustainable economy. The pie can’t get bigger: We can’t consume more flour and shortening than last year.

That means the only thing that is left to calculate, the only thing that matters, is the slice that everyone gets. Inequality becomes the only remaining issue.

In the present global economy, some have the wealth of entire nations, people like Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, oil-rich sheiks, captains of industry and drug lords. Others are starving. They have poor  access to health care and thus spread diseases, are not well educated and thus are not as productive as they could be, etc. If the promise of a bigger pie can’t satiate them, then they are quite likely to ask what the West has done to deserve such opulence in seeming perpetuity. “When is it our turn? When they do get to be as poor as we have been?” When people ask these kind of questions, and they are quite far in the context, all kinds of social conflict, especially war, is just around the corner. At this point, when Americans demand low prices at the pump, they are practically saying to the world, “We want to have our easy lifestyle forever, and we don’t care if you’re starving”. I don’t mean to mock or dismiss those who struggle to deal with their gas prices in order to go to minimum wage jobs; indeed, they are part of those people who should be asking some tough questions about how much money their bosses and their bosses’ bosses have. But Americans have to understand, as Peter Singer has pointed out, that every luxury we buy, from a plasma television to a car that has more bells and whistles than we really need, directly trades off with someone else in the planet (maybe even someone else in our own neighborhood) being able to eat. Singer argues, “Everyone has a duty not to spend money on luxuries or frills, and to use the savings due to abstinence to help those in dire need”. The only way to imagine that this isn’t the case is to dismiss the global poor as undeserving: They must have done something to be as poor as they are. This argument doesn’t stand up to a moment’s consideration. What did Paris Hilton do to have millions at her disposal from birth? Indeed, what has Bill Gates done?

Former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan famously pointed out in 1998 that “the additional cost of achieving and maintaining universal access to basic education for all, basic health care for all, reproductive health care for all women, adequate food for all and clean water and safe sewers for all is roughly $40 billion a year–or less than 4% of the combined wealth of the 225 richest people in the world”. If Americans making over $100,000 a year (and there are 2% of households that make more than $250,000 a year) donated a few thousand to a global fund, there would be billions available for this fund. If a mere four hundred thousand millionaires across the globe donated $100,000 annually to this fund (and there are far more than four hundred thousand people who make more a million or more a year, let alone have more than a million in net worth), it would be sufficient to make this number. It is true that there has been some inflation since 1998, but it still stands to reason that, if even a fraction of those who are in the upper middle-class and above donated a percentage of their income, the basic needs of the planet could be provided for. Even more embarrassingly, this fund would probably do more to enhance global security, disarm dictators and contribute to global stability than the money the Pentagon has simply lost, let alone the annual “defense” budget of the United States.

The management and social justice issues in turn requires global administration. Resource management issues are inherently global: There’s no point for one country to cut down their gas consumption if another country just consumes more. Pollution issues are especially global, especially the difficulty of global warming. That means we have to look at that horrible specter that terrifies conservatives and reactionaries across the globe: Global government. And it can’t just be the United Nations-style form of government with little enforcement power: There needs to be a government authority, hopefully radically democratic and fundamentally local in its orientation, that has the ability to convene research, enact and enforce regulations, . Moreover, it really can’t be formed by or composed of the existing nation-states, as they are in general beholden to their domestic elites and routinely have minimal credibility. It is true that a lot of the work could be accomplished by treaties in the short to medium term, but even treaties have the problem of free riders and non-compliance, and the United States’ treaty compliance record alone gives pause to the notion that there will be serious compliance in anything approaching the long term.

Now just think for a moment about the large portion of waste production that the globe engages in, and not just greedy Western corporations. Every drug lord making thousands off of selling marijuana, cocaine, opiates or amphetamines is inherently taking land, chemicals and manpower that could be used for something useful. Advertising agencies are waste production many times over: They encourage people to spend ostentatiously, which is exactly what our species doesn’t need; and all of their efforts consume resources that could go somewhere else. Billions are spent for tools of war that actually, in the long term, make the countries that spend that way less safe. Every year that Americans spend billions on “defense” is yet another year that they defer the consequences of their opulence, but it is also another year that hatred, envy and extremism breeds.

Notice that, thus far, we haven’t even talked about habitat loss, or species extinction, or pollution, or global warming, or ecological racism and classism, or pollution-related illnesses. These issues are important, but regrettably conservatives often use discussing these as a way of tarnishing their opponents as “hippies”, “tree huggers”, vegetarian elitists out of touch with Americans. The fact is that there is no practical, clear-eyed alternative to sustainability. Just the simple mathematics of consumption, getting people something like a fair amount of resources, require basic questions about our economic and political systems, and our current arrangement of global wealth. So-called conservatives who oppose sustainability conversations do so not out of anything like pragmatism or hard-nosed realism but rather out of a toxic combination of self-interest, support for prevailing social elites and wishful thinking.

In fact, conservative arguments on this front are singularly unconvincing. They are based not only in an assumption that only human beings matter, but even that only this generation of human beings matter, and in fact that only a tiny fraction of this generation of human beings matter. People who accept the status quo as just have to find some explanation that justifies the vast majority of the planet barely getting enough to eat. What have they done to deserve this? If people want to provide for their children and their grandchildren, they will have to question the status quo now. Even if you as a reader have no concern for anyone outside of your immediate family and don’t care much about the globe, and don’t think that the risk that those people who are poorer than you may victimize you is very serious, just the need to make sure that your children and their children can live in a world with even a modest amount of starvation, conflict, instability, war, pollution and climate change means you must begin to act now.

Many leftists may continue to say, “But what about the population, man?” And it is true that it may be the case that eight to nine billion people may not be a sustainable long-term population. But we can’t even get to the point where we can ask that question before we eliminate the most obvious sources of waste and economic injustice. Moreover, the solution to overpopulation has always been industrialization, prosperity and providing opportunities for women outside of the home. Most Western countries, barring immigration, do not increase their population annually and in fact see population shrinkage. And even relatively poor countries and regions, like China and the Indian state of Kerala, have dropped below zero population growth. Many people in the West choose to remain single, not have children, have only one child or adopt. It just seems to be the case that families, when they don’t have to account for their children dying from childhood diseases, don’t need an army of children to work the farm and have careers, jobs and hobbies, tend to not want to be baby factories.

Conservatives will claim, “Technology will solve all of our resource problems!” They might want to ask some actual scientists about this. There is no technology that is even considered possible under the laws of physics, let alone feasible in the next few centuries, that will reverse the laws of thermodynamics. The Second Law of Thermodynamics states that energy tends to flow from areas of high concentration to areas of low concentration. Time’s arrow flies only forward: Heat and energy is lost. If an economy keeps growing, as is considered normal for every economy across the globe, then it doesn’t matter how many fields of shale oil we find, or how many new ways we find to synthesize minerals, or how many new materials we create. Technology is part of the solution, but it is only a delaying tactic. I honestly do hope that there are billions of barrels of thus-far unfound petrochemicals: It may give humanity just enough petrochemical reserves to survive long enough to achieve sustainability. But if we just mine and drill these new reserves and use it as an excuse to increase the salary that oil executives make, then we will have gained nothing and lost much.

Moreover, the technology argument is not only just offered as faith with little evidence to support it, but it is also facially flawed. If we do find billions of barrels of untapped oil reserves, for example, that is merely more carbon that we throw into the atmosphere and more dangerous pollution that will cause more health problems. There are many costs to our overconsumption: Overfilled landfills, children with asthma and congenital defects, declining property values, disgusting smog, melting ice caps, rising ocean waters, decreased agricultural production, dead zones in the ocean, habitat loss, slash-and-burn agriculture, obesity, diabetes, heart disease… The list goes on and on. The cult of consumption is a cancer, and it must be excised.

Further, technology and scientific development are not deployed in and do not occur in a vacuum. Research is currently going to find new ways of killing people rather than new ways of saving them. It is going to fund cures for illnesses that affect the relatively opulent rather than curing the easily treatable diseases of the global poor in more efficient ways. It is going to new toys and luxury items rather than to the basic needs of real living people. Scientists, researchers, engineers and others take the grants they can get and do the research that they can afford to do. If we, as a society, want them to engage in more socially responsible research, then it is our responsibility to change the social conditions under which they do their work. But this again returns us to the basic question, “How do we change our economy, our political system, our private and public lives, so that we can have a future for our species?”

It is hard to overstate how much our global economy is premised on the concept of perpetual growth. One of the primary indicators of economic health that economists insist upon is the degree of GDP or GNP growth per annum. Recessions can kill a politician’s chance for success in office, even if they cannot plausibly have been solely responsible. But the world needs a recession: It needs to consume less, not more! In a capitalist economy, things are priced based off of their present market value, not off of the value they will have in ten years or thirty years. But the amount of oil and steel out there remains roughly the same each year. Rationing these rare materials requires a complete break with market logic.

What are the kind of changes that must be made for society to become remotely sustainable?

Gas prices have to go up, and up, and up. This isn’t a popular suggestion, but it can be implemented through a carbon tax that is implemented over time with credits for poor families and individuals, or it could be implemented as an increase in vehicle registration and other automobile associated fees, or a tax only upon carbon producers (that would of course end up being passed onto consumers, which does remain the point). Right now, the price of gasoline is anywhere from three to ten times below what it needs to be. As Al Lewis of Think OOB has pointed out, “Even if one does not accept the hypothesis of global warming as a basis for believing that gasoline is underpriced, one cannot dispute the fact that half of our defense budget is used directly or indirectly to protect oil supply lines, and should therefore, using simple accounting and economic principles of matching costs and benefits, be financed by a burden on oil usage rather than on our incomes”. The full social costs of gasoline include not only global warming and pollution-related expenditures but also various subsidies past and present, for the energy industry, the cost of roads and the attendant costs to communities built around highway systems (in terms of lost real estate value and noise), and so forth.

Suburbia has to be largely abandoned. The idea that there could be a large section of countries, especially America, with large plots of land per person, removed from the major centers of industry and employment, subsidized by an expensive and ecologically destructive highway system, with green lawns, has always been a silly fantasy unfortunately indulged by government programs and a society that just couldn’t deal with its own domestic racial conflicts. Luckily, this is an area where technology can make the social changes less drastic and less immediate. Modern communications technology makes it possible for some people to work entirely from the home, whether they be writers like myself, translators like my mother or software developers and managers like my father. Nonetheless, we will have to start redesigning our communities and consolidating in urban areas to a greater extent.

Crops and food production have to be changed. Corn, a major staple of Western diets, will need to be scaled back sharply as it consumes so much nitrogen in the soil. It is likely that meat production will have to decline sharply.

The net amount of driving, flying and transportation that is currently done has to go down. That means a far greater focus on local goods, which means many Americans and Westerners will need to start to move away from a world where they can easily get out-of-season fruits and vegetables every day of every year. And much of the global economy is based on the

Most importantly, politicians, businesses, economists, policy makers and planners, and people in general will need to adapt to a zero-growth world.

Sustainability is a goal for human survivability. Sustainability is providing for the needs of future generations. But sustainability as a concept has to be expanded far beyond its present disingenuous assumptions.

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