Communication for Sustainable Development

The Hollow Halo of Sustainability

Sustainability chartImage via Wikipedia
The word sustainable is everywhere. Federal, state, and local governments have invoked it as a policy goal. Universities are offering courses, degrees, and entire programs in the subject. But whatever you want to call it — sustainable growth, sustainable development, or just sustainability — it is an idea that is perfect for ideological banner waving or promoting a political agenda, but operationally meaningless as a guide to enhance human welfare.

The standard definition of “sustainable development,” adopted by almost all of its devotees, could not be more nebulous. It comes from a 1987 United Nations document called Our Common Future: “Sustainable Development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

After “defining” the concept, and without any further explanation, the U.N. transforms sustainability into a policy norm in the statement that immediately follows the definition: “The goals of economic and social development must be defined in terms of sustainability in all countries.”

So what does this mean? The premise behind the notion of sustainability is that unless special efforts are taken by policymakers to reduce resource usage in the present, the ability of future generations to live well will be compromised. Resources will become increasingly scarce, and the environment will be increasingly degraded. Of course, the history of human development not only shows no evidence of this, but actually displays the opposite tendencies — nearly all resources have become less scarce over time. But we can’t let the facts get in the way of our march toward rescuing future generations from modernity’s out-of-control consumption habits.

And make no mistake: Consumption is clearly the enemy of sustainability. Our Common Future (what a gentle title for such a pernicious document) is quite clear on this point: “Living standards that go beyond the basic minimum are sustainable only if consumption standards everywhere have regard for long-term sustainability.”

So there you have it. We are always dealing with a trade-off between present and future prosperity. To use a ton of steel, an acre of land, or barrel of oil today is to deny its usage to future generations, and, therefore, it is to make those future generations worse off. The intergenerational pie is fixed, and it is the role of our omniscient leaders to make sure that our slices remain small so that our great-grandchildren can receive their fair share, or any slices at all.

Remember what our sustainability commander in chief told us during his last election campaign: “We can’t drive our SUVs and eat as much as we want and keep our homes on … 72 degrees at all times. ...” For the sake of our children, our grandchildren, our great-grandchildren, we must put the brakes on our decadent desire for comfort.

The rule of thumb for sustainable anything — land use, water use, energy, whatever — is that the smaller the amount of natural resources consumed, the more sustainable the growth. What could be simpler? Reduce, reuse, recycle.

But as noted at the outset, apart from being at odds with the empirical history of human development and resource use, the entire paradigm lacks any rigorous foundation and is completely nonoperational as a meaningful policy guide. That is, given the definition, there is no way of telling whether any given policy is actually “sustainable.” There is no yardstick for measuring sustainability. Because of this, there is no way of assessing trade-offs in terms of policies that might be more or less sustainable. All economic production processes use resources, and alternative processes always use alternative mixes of resources, i.e., more of some resources and less of others. The standard approach to sustainability offers no decision criteria for choosing from among different approaches.

Indeed, devotees of sustainability are so void of any kind of rigor in their thinking that they often advocate for conflicting goals without even recognizing it. For example, it’s common for the same people to argue simultaneously in favor of “sustainable energy” policies, typically solar and wind power, and “sustainable land-use” policies, meaning high-density, i.e., congested, living and land preservation.

But according to the U.S. Department of Energy, a “sustainable” 1,000-megawatt wind power plant will consume 150,000 acres of land, and a similar solar power plant will consume 35,000 acres. On the other hand, a 1,000-megawatt coal-fired plant will need only bout 1,700 acres of land, and a natural gas plant only about 110 acres. It is examples like this that expose the vacuousness of the standard paradigm. There is no way to measure these kinds of trade-offs. Which approach — more natural gas and coal, or more land — will “meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”? If you have an answer, show me your calculations.

What this means for the mantra-chanting sustainability advocates is that there is no way to hold their feet to the fire, no intellectually honest way of saying this policy is sustainable and this one isn’t. A policy is sustainable if the members of the cult of sustainability say it is. It is not sustainable if they say it’s not. And that’s the way they like it.

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