Sustainability? An oxymoron. We can only buy time.

We lack (and rather urgently need) a holistic approach to the real world. In fact, here’s the ideal: in every decision and action, large and small, we take fully into account that the world is simultaneously a resource, a victim, and a threat.

Today we call this ideal sustainable development.[1]

The Gro Brundtland report, Our Common Future, which was published in 1987, provides both a definition and a goal: “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

The Brundtland formulation has been refined over the past quarter-century in reports and studies, but has generally speaking, has held up rather well. That said, we might have chosen a better label, and – just maybe – even a better framing.

What’s wrong? After all, the idea as expressed is simple and compelling. We can all grasp it. But the simplicity, though seductive, is deceptive.[2] The idea behind sustainable development, and the execution of it, both pose problems. Today we’ll consider the first of these.

The idea. Proponents would argue that it embodies all three aspects of concern. But the previous post suggests sustainability is a very high bar indeed. How realistic are our chances of achieving such a goal? It turns out that this goal cannot be achieved; it can only be sought.

Let’s look at two or three real-world challenges to sustainable development.

First, any use of a non-renewable resource requires a continuing process of innovation. We can’t stand still.

Why is this? Because per capita appetite for the resource is ongoing, our numbers are growing, and our recycling is imperfect. Alternatively – and a lot more realistically – what we’re really doing is no more than “buying time.” Pick any activity – resource extraction, resource use, waste management, financial transactions, health care, education, you name it. Suppose we were able (and this is indeed a hypothetical – a capability we don’t actually enjoy) to calculate how long a time we could continue to indulge in that activity in the present way before hitting some limit.

The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists doomsday clock is a very specific but wonderful example of how this might look. For decades this group has attempted to portray how close the world is coming to catastrophic destruction. During the Cold War, the focus was on the threat of nuclear war. In more recent years, the clock reflects an expert view of the combined threat represented by nuclear war, climate change, and bio-security trends.

Such a clock makes it clear that no activity is ever sustainable, because future generations would face a shorter time they could indulge in that same activity. Unless

Unless we innovate our way to greater efficiency. In the September 23rd example, we considered use of some non-renewable resource (take your favorite rare-Earth or other strategic mineral), with known exploitable reserves that would last a century. If each year we succeeded in getting something like one-percent more efficient in our use of that mineral, or one-percent more efficient in our ore-extraction methods so that we could increase the size of the reserves, we could draw on that source forever (unless the supplier held a near-monopoly position and decided to punish one or more customers for real or imagined bad behavior. China just did with the Japanese who had the effrontery to jail a Chinese fishing boat captain for trawling in Japanese waters). Note, however, that there’s no getting off this treadmill. We have to keep the innovations coming, year-by-year, or fall behind the sustainability curve. Unless

Unless, alternatively, we could find some renewable-resource substitute, or perhaps a wholly-new product or service that would obviate our prior dependence on the rare-Earth element, or approach 100 percent recycling of the material, or…you get the idea. There are a lot of ways to go. [For this reason, economists tell us we can relax. Pricing will drive the needed innovation, which is in inexhaustible supply. We can only hope they’re right.][3]

[Briefly, in the case of the doomsday clock, innovations such as non-proliferation treaties, the reining in of rogue states, the resolution of disputes, agreements limiting carbon-dioxide emissions, etc. – all serve to move back the hand of the clock and buy time.]

There’s an additional sustainability challenge associated with resource extraction; the environmental despoilation that is part of the process. Take minerals. Strip-mining scars the landscape. Underground mines produce huge amounts of tailings and often prove vulnerable to slumping. One approach we’ve adopted to this problem in the United States is “out-of-sight, out-of mind.” We’ve put environmental restrictions on such extraction. This has had the effect of moving such operations overseas. Our balance of payments in trade may be negative; we import more goods than we export. But we export more environmental damage and risk than we import. We then pat ourselves on the back for cleaning up the environment. [Only belatedly, if at all, do we notice the deleterious effects of this abroad. Then we sometimes act as international scolds. Why are our supplier-nations allowing such environmental degradation? Savaging their landscape? Polluting air and water? Destroying bio-diversity? Why can’t they get on top of this the way we have? And by the way, if they refuse to do so, isn’t that unfair trade?]

So far the discussion has focused on sustainability of the supply side. What about sustainability of the use? Any use or consumption of a resource leads to waste, and here another whole series of issues arise. Where and how to dispose of the waste? “Dispose?” Another oxymoron. We don’t dispose of waste so much as we move it around. And the scale of that waste removal and the distances involved have grown. New York City waste has created new topographic features in the outskirts of the city. Waste that was once trucked to New Jersey is now trucked to western Pennsylvania. [Coming soon to a rural, undeveloped area near you.] You get the idea. These problems are particularly pronounced as population and the resource use per capita both rise. As we’ve seen, these have been major realities of the past century or so.

The concern has led to recycling: in many respects, and for many materials, a huge improvement. It buys us more time. But it’s still imperfect. We don’t recover all of any given material (plastics, metals, paper, etc.). We also don’t recover all materials, and so recycling is another arena that demands continuous innovation. We constantly have to add new dimensions. Look around you. You’re seeing this in your lifetime. Perhaps the greatest example is the recycling of all of our new gadgets – computers and peripherals, cellphones, batteries, etc. [We even have a name for it: techno-litter.] And many toxic wastes that you and I used to “dispose of” willy-nilly, such as paints and a wide range of petroleum products, we now must handle in a controlled way. In Europe, the full life-cycle costs of many such items, including the costs of their disposal, are folded into the purchase price. Soon that will be the case here.

The elephant in this particular room? Energy. Fossil fuels. They are not converted into products but instead truly consumed. The costs of extraction are rising. These costs do not fully account for the environmental degradation (fine particulates, ozone, oxides of nitrogen and a range of hydrocarbons in urban smog; Houston, we have a problem) at the point of use, or at the extraction sites (do people still remember the BP oil spill, or has that memory already faded?). These costs are externalities. Use of fossil fuels has become so widespread as to introduce global consequences (climate change and attendant effects). Nations, corporations, and individuals are constantly searching for additional reserves; introducing fuel economies; turning to nuclear energy; developing renewable energy alternatives.

So, to rephrase the Brundtland definition:

Buying time – meeting today’s needs while minimally compromising the prospects for future generations – is the defining, and ongoing, challenge for every generation.

In the next post, turning from the idea of sustainable development to the second problem: its execution in practice.


[1] We introduced this notion in the September 23 post.

[2] It calls to mind a couple of everyday analogs. First, a personal or household budget. When you and I go through this exercise, we’re basically trying to zero-in on a lifestyle that we can maintain indefinitely. How much house can we buy or rent? Can we afford a car, and if so, what type? What do we need for food and utilities, for clothing? What’s left over for entertainment, travel, etc.? But this whole exercise pre-supposes that the income remains constant or increases, doesn’t it? So it falls apart if we lose our job; or when some long-term expense like the cost of the kids’ college education wasn’t factored in, or we failed to save for a rainy day or retirement. These same challenges show up in global sustainability, only in more complex, less-obvious ways, and on the big-screen.

Private industry – including Big Auto, Big Oil, defense contractors, and all the rest – also faces the sustainability challenge. It simply uses a different language. “Making a profit” is just business-speak for “be sustainable.” For example, most corporations can live with green regulations, so long as these regulations are the same for all players, regardless of business sector and regardless of nationality. However, businesses small and large encounter a number of challenges here: cash flow, the need for capital improvements, rising labor costs, decline in demand for their product or service, etc. Sooner or later, one or more of these contribute to their demise.

[3] Is innovation inexhaustible? More or this in another post.

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4 Responses to Sustainability? An oxymoron. We can only buy time.

  1. Timberati says:

    Despoliation from our extractive processes are a problem. But, are they becoming a larger problem for us and biodiversity or are they a lesser problem compared to a previous time? Say a 50 or 100 years ago. Because of fossil fuels, our cities no longer have vacant lots with 20-30 foot drifts of horse dung. We no longer have rivers of horse urine in the streets.

    The average car today traveling at sixty emits lower amounts of pollutants than a parked car did (from leaks) fifty years ago.

    Can innovation continue? It hasn’t stopped for about 200,000 year run of Homo sapiens. While, “past performance is no guarantee of future results” but it looks like the way to bet.

    • William Hooke says:

      Well said! A thoughtful observation. So far, those few who have had the temerity to predict an end to innovation have certainly been proved wrong, sometimes quickly so. As I’ve said repeatedly in these posts, the pace of innovation is accelerating. However, there are almost certainly some risks lurking in this good news. An analogy, which may not be a perfect one; it’s somewhat like driving a car at dusk, and transitioning from a level, straight stretch of road, to a winding mountain road, just as a fog is rolling in…and picking up speed. Seeing what lies ahead (the unintended as well as the intended consequences of the innovation), and seeing this in time, may be increasingly problematic.

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