Tuesday, January 01, 2008

the case for unsustainability

critique of sustainability as a guiding principle by which to run society

sustainability: "forms of progress that meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs."
- World Commission on Environment and Development (source)

unsustainability: "a practice or process that can't go on indefinitely because it is destroying the very conditions on which it depends."
- Michael Pollen (source)

I have a problem with sustainability, not as a word or a concept, but as a guiding philosophy by which to run society. Sustainability is often used in this sense today, as a frame for a world view that implies we are in deep trouble. For example, the above definition of sustainability implies that there is a real problem that the (undefined and unknown) needs of future generations will not be met because of the thoughtless or selfish acts of our current generation.

For more about framing see Lakoff

I would counterpose "no construction, without destruction" as a more useful guiding philosophy. The unsustainability definition fits the way things have always developed and will continue to develop.

A good example would be the transition from hunter-gather to agricultural society as elaborated in The Economist article Hunter-gatherers: Noble or savages? See my recent blog about this, agriculture developed in desperate times Another good example would be the industrial revolution, which is also touched upon in the Economist article:
Notice a close parallel with the industrial revolution. When rural peasants swapped their hovels for the textile mills of Lancashire, did it feel like an improvement? The Dickensian view is that factories replaced a rural idyll with urban misery, poverty, pollution and illness. Factories were indeed miserable and the urban poor were overworked and underfed. But they had flocked to take the jobs in factories often to get away from the cold, muddy, starving rural hell of their birth
Both the transition from hunter-gatherer to agriculture and from feudalism to capitalism were marked by unsustainability where development undermined and transformed ecologies and the old processes did destroy the very conditions on which they depended. For example, big game such as rhinoceros were hunted to the point of extinction not recently but 17 thousand years ago. I would argue that future progress will occur through struggles that will undermine and destroy existing ecologies too. Unity is conditional, struggle is absolute. The world - both natural and human - has always developed in this way.

The sustainability world outlook can obscure the historical fact that when new things are created old things are destroyed.
At the very least, three difficult questions must be asked before any discussion of sustainability is undertaken in any group. What is being sustained? How long is it being sustained? In who’s interest is what being sustained?
- The Unsustainability of Sustainability by Bill Devall (despite the title this article is pro sustainability but it does contain some important points and references)


John White said...

Interesting philosophical points, but you seem to ignore that as a species, our practices now impact the planet on a scale that is vastly different than 17,000 years ago (or 300 years ago, for that matter).

Your point on H-G and peasant agriculture is a strawman. Who the heck is advocating H-G or peasant agriculture or holding them up as sustainable models? Exploding myths about the past is not the same thing as showing that "unsustainable" development is good. Heck, I question whether showing that someone made a choice of one lifestyle over another proves that the lifestyle was better. I make bad lifestyle choices all the time!

Jared Diamond had an interesting point in "Collapse," when he asked what was going through the mind of the Easter Islander who was cutting down the last tree on the island. Perhaps something like "when new things are created, old things are being destroyed."

Bill Kerr said...

hi john,

I agree with the obvious truth that humans are impacting the planet more than in the past. In general, I look forward to more of that. I don't see any reasons to be pessimistic about the sustainability of progress. See John McCarthy's page about this.

I read the New Yorker review of Jared Diamond's Collapse

It says that the Norse in Greenland didn't adapt to the changing environment (little Ice Age of the 1400s) and were more into "doggedly replicating untenable agricultural practices of their land of origin"

eg. the Norse didn't even eat fish!

The Intuit who live more in harmony with the natural conditions survive in Greenland long after the Norse died out

Here is how I read it. Humans are in a constant state of changing parts of their environmental conditions unsustainably and maintaining or sustaining other parts of their conditions. Nature has always done this too, including before the presence of humans.

Certainly, we should argue about what to destroy, what to create and what to sustain. But the Norse shot themselves in the foot through their dogged inflexibility and lack of a scientific approach. That is a different analysis to what I am saying --> that there is an overwhelming argument in favour of some unsustainability as part of a developmental process

Jared Diamond has said that agriculture is "the worst mistake in the history of the human race". That seems so ludicrous to me that I can't be bothered researching it further at this stage.

John White said...

I think I read things slightly differently. I'm not sure that humanity has every been "in harmony" with nature. The key, I think, it to shape our practices so as not to (metaphorically) poison our future as a race.

Food: We've converted the vast majority of our agriculture to depend on chemical fertility, which, at it's root, is a product of fossil fuel, a finite resource. The Easter Island parallel is especially strong here. The islanders knew the depended on trees for canoes to fish, their main source of protein. Yet, they didn't focus on ridding themselves of the dependency of fish or plan their consumption of trees to last forever. McCarthy glosses over this issue, decoupling fossil fuel use from agriculture.

Not only have we made the decision to convert our agriculture to fossil fuel dependence, we've make the economic decision to not include the costs of this behavior in our food. When we buy food from the industrial agriculture food chain, we're getting food subsidized by the government, but not seeing the costs of cleaning up fertilizer run-off or the portion of national defense that goes to ensuring a constant supply of fossil fuel.

It's tough to say these things without coming off as a green zealot. Or an anti-war zealot. Or a communist. :-)

I believe the marketplace can probably make a fair assessment of practices as long as the prices of products reflect real costs, including things currently hidden, like subsidies, environmental cleanup, industry bailouts, etc.

I'm still having difficulty reading your post and response, and understand the real-world impact of your philosophical point of view. Actually, I just plain don't understand what your point of view is. It sounds a little like you're excusing current practices, but I'm not really clear if that's true.

It's clear that if we clear some forest to make an agricultural field, we've destroyed something. Is that your point? Again, I don't think anyone who lives in the real world is advocating that we all go back to a hunter-gatherer model. Agriculture is here to stay. The question is, can we do it in such a way that doesn't strand us on an island without trees.

Bill Kerr said...

hi john,

I think that McCarthy has done his home work on this page fertiliser

Nitrogen fertiliser requires nitrogen and hydrogen and natural gas is not the only supply of hydrogen, in the longer term

You ask if I excuse current practices and what are the "real world impacts". Mainly, I'm trying to make a philosophical point about the limitations of sustainability as a principle by which to plan society. I don't see myself as an expert but am happy to explore any arguments against my argument that unsustainability ought to be part of our thinking in planning for the future. It's a simple point that some Greens seem to reject without really thinking it through

I don't see why we should take Easter Island as a general case, rather than am example to learn from

Unknown said...

You are right to question an almost religious commitment to sustainability BUT the precautionary principle is compelling when we posess only one planet and it is well within our powers to render it effectively uninhabitable.

You say "I don't see why we should take Easter Island as a general case, rather than am example to learn from"

The Easter Islanders had the power to make irreversible change to their world just as we do, with the future of the whole human race potentially at risk, we too should hesitate and think of the consequences before chopping down our last tree

Bill Kerr said...

hi tony,

I think we should reject the precautionary principle as a general guideline since all progress does entail some risks and irreversibility.

I agree with the arguments put forward by spiked here:
more sorry than safe

science, risk and the price of precaution

Fortunately, we have been experimenting with nuclear power and that might come in handy in meeting our long term energy requirements.

Unknown said...

Bill in his links assembles good reasons why the precautionary principle should not be followed like a religious mantra. On many occasions society has benefitted because individuals have taken risks.

The Darwin Awards http://www.darwinawards.com/ list many more tragic cases where human curiosity has had an unfortunate end.

Yes we would not be where we are today if we were not curious and risk takers.

But with climate change, we are dealing with the habitability of our only planet. There is risk taking and there is sheer stupidity.

Bill Kerr said...

hi tony,

precautionary principle: 'When an activity raises threats of serious or irreversible harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures that prevent the possibility of harm shall be taken even if the causal link between the activity and the possible harm has not been proven or the causal link is weak and the harm is unlikely to occur.'

I think our difference is not about the PP but about our assessment of the extent of the threat of anthropogenic induced global warming