Monday, March 24, 2008

Sustainable—But At What Cost?

I read a lot of discussion these days about "sustainability," "sustainable engineering," "sustainable agriculture," and so on. Sustainability, we are told, is the key to solving everything from global warming to finding world peace. What exactly is sustainability, and what are its implications?

One of the most obvious features of today's technological economy is not sustainable: the use of fossil fuels, which means mainly oil, natural gas, and coal. However these resources were formed (and there is still a good bit of debate about that), everybody agrees it took millions of years, and we stand a fair chance of running through them in a good deal less than 0.1% of that time, say a few hundred years. So the use of fossil fuels for energy is not sustainable.

So what? If you look around for anything at all, technological or not, which has turned out to be truly sustainable over recorded history, the list is fairly short. Things like the practice of begetting and raising families, farming, the life of some cities (e. g. Damascus, which is one of the oldest cities on earth), and even a few (very few) business firms have gone on for hundreds of years or more, and show no sign of disappearing because of lack of resources. I could add the professions of doctors and lawyers, and let's not forget taxes, but not governments that levy taxes—the habit endures even though the taxing entities don't.

The proponents of sustainability want basically everything we do to be a part of that kind of list—a list of things which have long traditions going back over many cultures and governments into the past.

In an article in the current issue of The New Atlantis, Yuval Levin makes the point that certain ideas vigorously promoted by political liberals in the U. S. are actually quite conservative. Sustainability, if successfully implemented, fits right into this pattern. If all social activities, technological and otherwise, were sustainable in the sense that liberals usually mean, the activities would go on and on without having to end because of physical limitations. While certain features might change, the physical resources needed would be either renewable or permanent.

Now that is a very conservative picture, meaning that the physical essentials of technology would not change. If new materials were invented that required using something that couldn't be recycled and reused–then they wouldn't be sustainable, and you couldn't use them. Everything would be recycled, with energy coming only from the sun. (Strictly speaking, even the sun isn't sustainable, although we can count on it shining for a few more million years.)

What if we went to such a totally sustainable economy? Some things wouldn't change much at all. Most steel is now made from recycled scrap, for instance, so that wouldn't be much of a problem.

But what about concrete? I have toyed with the idea of recycling concrete, because as far as I know, you could apply enough heat to it, drive off the water, and get back the calcium silicate that was in the original Portland cement. The trouble with this is, it would be vastly more expensive (and energy-intensive) to make cement from recycled concrete (laboriously hauled back from wherever it was poured to the recycling plant where huge amounts of energy would be required), than it would be simply to dig up some more limestone and sand from the ground. Ah, but limestone and sand are not renewable resources. Yes, there is enough limestone and sand to last us a long time, but if you're going to be a sustainable absolutist, you can't use anything that isn't recycled or in principle, recyclable.

I'm pushing this idea to the limits to make a point, but the point is a valid one. Namely, some things are more easily sustainable than others, and it simply doesn't make sense to hold sustainability up as a practical goal for every technological field, unless we are willing to make some very weird and silly changes in the way we do things.

While I was on vacation last week, I toured Indian City U. S. A. outside Anadarko, Oklahoma. It's a sort of outdoor museum where seven different kinds of Native American dwellings have been constructed and preserved. It was pouring rain at the time, but that didn't stop our guide from pointing out the different features of the various structures which were, of course, made from all-natural materials: tree trunks, mud, grass, and so on. Native Americans were the first recyclers, he said, since when they were finished with a structure they just abandoned it and let it return to Nature.

Though I didn't say anything at the time, I had a big "Yes, but. . . " in mind. Although estimates of how many people lived in what is now called North and South America before 1492 vary from 8 million to over 100 million, the figure is certainly less than the approximately 900 million people that the New World harbors today. And the Americas are some of the least densely populated regions of the developed world. If we all went back to living the way the first Native Americans did, there is no way that we would all be able to survive, even if we all suddenly acquired the hunting, gathering, and rudimentary agricultural skills necessary for such a life. And if we managed somehow to eke out a living, few of us would enjoy rising at dawn, doing back-breaking manual labor all day, and retiring at dusk only to do it all over again the next morning.

The only time when something like this has been tried on a massive scale recently was the Great Cultural Revolution under Mao Tse-tung in the Peoples' Republic of China, from 1968 to 1976. Millions of intellectuals and other suspicious persons, including most of the faculty members at all Chinese universities, were summarily hauled off to the countryside for a little bucolic "re-education" that lasted seven or eight years. I have known citizens of that country who lived through that period, and they tell me that it set back their lives a decade or more, and the progress of the country by a generation. But it was certainly sustainable, in the sense that they were still living and probably consuming fewer resources than they would have in the cities.

Few if any of the proponents of sustainability have in mind a radical, total shift to something like that. Or if they do, they're not talking about it openly. I favor a reasoned, appropriate move toward more nearly sustainable technology when it makes economic sense, when its adoption won't cause undue suffering or disruption, and when it leads to more human thriving than formerly. But a draconian swift transition to a totally sustainable economy would be in most respects indistinguishable from a worldwide depression. And I hope we don't get to that point any time soon.

Sources: Yuval Levin's article "Science and the Left" appears in the Winter 2008 edition of The New Atlantis.


  1. IRC is used because it looks normal and is trusted. Think of it as a standard protocol used as a trojan horse.

  2. The "precautionary principle" cannot prevent subversion, whether subversion at the top "Who watches the watchers?" Or subversion at the bottom, where the key principle is that humans are more adaptable than computer programs, i.e. If you think of an algorithm, a subverter will find a hole in that algorithm, or the algorithm's environment, or ... all the way up to the top. This ties to Godel. See: ] J. R. Lucas, "Minds, Machines and Gödel", Philosophy, XXXVI, 1961, pp. 112-127; reprinted in The Modeling of Mind, Kenneth M.Sayre and Frederick J.Crosson, eds., Notre Dame Press, 1963, pp.269-270