Sustainability? Problematic not just in concept but also in execution.

The execution.  Sustainable development, in the implementation, is seriously flawed, at all levels. You feel guilty, don’t you? You should. And so should I. Individually, we get lazy in a thousand ways. We don’t turn the lights off every time we leave the room. Once upon a time we slept in the dark. Today our bedrooms and homes are lit by the glow from dozens of recharging cellphones, laptops, cameras, and other devices, televisions in varying degrees of sleep, and myriad clocks. We chuck paper, bottles, and cans into the garbage container at hand instead of taking the few extra steps to a recycle bin. We buy the bigger, more comfortable car that gets poorer mileage. We prefer that roomy feel to the McMansion in the suburbs or woods to the smaller-carbon-footprint city living in a condo or apartment. We over-estimate our energy savings through failure to foresee full life-cycle costs (the disposal of that Prius car battery, for example). The more affluent seem to prefer to vacation in distant Tuscany than the nearby Poconos.

Similar problems occur at different levels of government. Nations sitting on substantial natural resource understandably find themselves blinded to the downside of its extraction and sale. Thus a country like Brazil sees its thinking transformed overnight by the discovery of oil thousands of feet beneath a very deep offshore seabed.

This failure in execution is not only multi-level but multi-faceted. We could go on with pages of examples, but instead, let’s focus on one big one. Most thinking on sustainable development fails to factor in the costs of extreme events.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb addresses this in The Black Swan and his other writings. [His focus is on the financial sector, but his ideas, as he himself notes, extend more broadly.] He points out that the big losers in the 2008 financial sector meltdown included those who had developed highly sophisticated, arcane, automatic trading programs, arbitraging small imbalances across financial markets, often of very brief duration. He notes that on 999 days out of 1000, these approaches make money, but that on the 1000th day (and please understand that this same argument applies if the day in question is the 10,000th day, or the 3671st day or whatever) they lose all they’ve gained and more when the unanticipated takes hold.

So when we build and occupy homes and small businesses below sea level behind levees in New Orleans, and then the levees fail in the face of the Hurricane Katrina storm surge, the economic growth in New Orleans all those earlier years wasn’t sustainable, was it? It was illusory. It proved little different from the footnoted example in the earlier post, the household budget that fails to provide for unforeseen expenses such as that proverbial broken hot-water heater. Is there anyone reading this blog who thinks that all that recent development behind levees in the Sacramento Delta is any more sustainable? Or that the California agriculture reliant on irrigation originating in the fresh water supply through that Delta and protected by those same levees is any more secure? What about all those homes in the Seattle area built on the path of former mudslides off the flanks of Mount Rainier? Or the natural gas pipelines supplying the northeastern United States that run through the general vicinity of the New Madrid fault?

Clearly, economic development rarely adequately incorporates the risk of natural extremes. An additional fallout from all this? Natural extremes rarely remain natural. Except for the few pristine flood-prone areas, the floodwaters quickly and frequently become slurries of toxic chemicals, a range of petroleum products, litter, animal carcasses, and debris. In the Johnstown floods of different years, cars and even entire railroad trains have been part of that slurry. Floodwaters sometimes ignite. When the Sacramento Delta levees fail, the freshwater downstream will be contaminated by ocean salt. Soils, habitats, and ecosystems inundated by such contaminated floodwaters take a long time to recover. The pollution resulting from natural hazards further erodes sustainability.

Physicists have their own language for distinguishing between the sustainable and unsustainable. When a physicist describes the stretching of a spring by some small amount and its return to its original state, that process is said to be reversible. Not only was energy conserved throughout, but the so-called entropy or disorder in the system remained unchanged. Such activity of the spring could be viewed as sustainable. By contrast, when the spring is stretched beyond its elastic limit, it never returns to its initial state. It remains stretched. The energy to stretch it has been converted into heat, a disordered motion of the molecules in the spring. That energy will never again be available to return the spring to its original shape. The entropy or disorder of the system has fundamentally increased, never to be so small again. Such a disruptive process is said to be irreversible

In the same sense, then, what experts refer to as “community recovery following a disaster” doesn’t quite capture what’s actually happened, or failed to happen. Those who died, remain dead. Those businesses which failed never reopen. The houses that were flooded are razed. Newcomers may take the place of the dead. Other businesses may open within the community. The housing stock may be replaced. However, had the community been more sustainable, all these new resources would have added to the community, instead of merely bringing it back to the pre-existing condition. So… “recovery from disaster” is not the same as sustainability

Another error in thinking that factors into our implementation? The mistaken notion that if we achieve sustainable development, that all climate variability will cease. Just as the skeptics assume too little human influence on climate variability, so this line of reasoning assumes the opposite – the human activity is the only cause of climate variability.  Neither extreme particularly helps the discussion. Sustainability won’t prevent climate variability and change; it can only accommodate climate variability and change.

In closing: let’s repeat our rephrased goal:

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

Recall where this post fits in our larger discussion. We’re looking at policy – a framework for making decisions – as an essential coping strategy for living on the real world. While policy is a valuable tool, it could use some improvement. We’re in the midst of a series posts exploring refinements that would make policy even more useful.

In the next post, we’ll return to that pesky matter of keeping score.

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