Foolish Talk about Sustainability

The title of Gar Alperovitz’s “Beyond Super-Elites and Conspicuous Consumption: Real Ecological Sustainability in the Twenty-First Century” (derived from his America Beyond Capitalism: Reclaiming Our Wealth, Our Liberty, and Our Democracy, 2005) seemingly asserts that sustainability is possible in this century. But is it? To answer this question, we must first specify what we mean by “sustainability.”

In an earlier essay I asserted that “…’sustainability’ … is now an obsolete concept: It is a concept having a resource orientation that tacitly assumes that ‘climate change’ is not occurring.” Let me begin by expanding on that comment at this point.

In being a resource-oriented concept, the first point that needs to be made is that the term “resources” itself embodies a certain view of Nature—that Nature is not to be appreciated for its own sake, but only thought of for its usefulness to us humans (and only us humans). As such, it is a perception of Nature that is antithetical to that of John Muir (who spent his youth on a farm near Portage, Wisconsin)—founder of the Sierra Club, and “Father of the National Parks” in the United States. If Muir were alive today, he likely would blame our current ecological problem (among other problems) on our attitude toward nature. But that’s another matter.

Given that we tend to perceive Nature as a storehouse of “resources,” the important distinction that we make is that some resources are renewable, some non-renewable. The former are potentially inexhaustible in being living things. That is, the argument here is that if a given resource—such as wood—is used at a rate no higher than the replacement rate, “harvesting” of that resource can continue indefinitely.

In this case, humans would be analogous to predators who prey on members of other species—except that the tendency with the predator-prey relationship in Nature is for relative balance to be maintained, so that the populations of predators and their prey tend to remain relatively constant over time. In the case of humans, however, the tendency has been for “harvesting” at too great a rate (e.g., over-grazing), the consequence being not only the exhaustion of a given resource, but ecological damage to the areas within which the harvesting has been occurring—and also societal collapse, perhaps.

Non-renewable resources are ones with a “fixed” amount in existence—although “fixedness” is a matter of technological capabilities, in that a resource that is too difficult to remove (because of depth under the ground) may become extractable at a later point in time, a resource that is not concentrated at one point in time may (because of technological “advances”) be economically concentrated at a later point in time, deposits not known at one point in time may become discovered at a later point, etc.

With many non-renewable resources there is a change in form, so that although the resource is not renewable (except in geological time), the use of the resource does not involve using it up. In the case of other non-renewable resources, however, there is a “using up,” fossil fuels being a notable example. The matter of “using up” is not the only problem with a resource such as fossil fuels, however, for the burning of such fuels results in the transfer of carbon from below the earth’s surface to the atmosphere.

The problem involved with that transfer is that the increased presence of CO2 in the atmosphere increases the “greenhouse effect” of the atmosphere. That is, it begins to result in the emission of more long-wave energy from the earth (as snow and ice disappear, leaving more bare land to absorb short-wave energy from the sun), and the subsequent “trapping” of more and more heat energy in the lower atmosphere—resulting not only in (a) an increase in the global mean temperature, but (b) an increase in the number of storms and in (c) their severity, and (d) an increase in the variability of atmospheric conditions at any given location (this increase itself varying geographically, however).

Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius was one of the first scientists to recognize (in the late 1800s) this increased greenhouse effect, but he saw this as a positive development! Only at a much later point did scientists come to recognize that disturbances of the global ecosystem—whether by external factors or human-made causes (e.g., the burning of fossil fuels)—presents problems for that system—including us humans, for we are a part of that system, whether or not we are willing to admit that fact.

The concept of “sustainability”, however, tends to neglect this aspect of resource use—which is why I stated in my earlier essay (cited above) that it “is now an obsolete concept: It is a concept having a resource orientation that tacitly assumes that ‘climate change’ is not occurring.”

Alperovitz, in the above-cited article, states:

The overriding issue of ecological sustainability offers a final perspective on the problem of resource allocation, the need for new political-economic strategies, and the possibility of additional groups that might one day join in a realignment of U.S. politics around Pluralist Commonwealth themes. It also casts important light on how a number of initiatives might be combined to reinforce one another and to undergird a longer-term model of sustainable development if and when new political possibilities open up over the course of the century.

Although there is dispute about the precise dimensions of the problem, prudence alone suggests the importance of confronting basic ecological limits. The issue goes beyond the narrow question of physical depletion of specific resources. A deeper problem is the system’s finite capacity to deal with the secondary effects of our current mode of economic activity – what ecologists call “sink” problems. The earth’s atmosphere simply cannot absorb infinite amounts of carbon dioxide produced by burning fossil fuels; its water systems cannot absorb the runoff of nitrate-based fertilizers used in modern food production without damage to the ecosystem.

Note that he assumes that sustainability is possible—but that in not recognizing that global warming has quite possibly “progressed” to the point that further warming may not only be inevitable, but may occur at an accelerating rate, it should be clear why I stated in my earlier essay that the very concept of “sustainability” is now obsolete: Our actions—inadvertent as they undoubtedly have been—have stressed Earth System to a point that the negative feedback mechanisms that had been maintaining relative stability for millions of years either have been, or soon will be, replaced with positive such mechanisms. At some point geo-engineering efforts may be engaged in to try to halt further warming, but as some scientists (e.g., James Lovelock) argue, such efforts are likely to fail. I would add that such efforts might even intensify the problem!

Alperovitz refers to the carbon “sink” problem—the fact that we have been pouring carbon dioxide into the atmosphere at a rate which exceeds the capacity of earth’s carbon “sinks” to absorb the excess, and it’s true that this is a problem. But much more of a problem is that we are either now in, or soon will be, a “runaway” situation with global warming—a situation of accelerated heating that we will not be able to halt.

Alperovitz doesn’t seem to “get” this last point. If he did, he would not be talking about “sustainability,” and instead would be recognizing that our current situation is such that our only option now is that of adaptation—with even that option not being capable of saving more than a few percent of those likely to be culled by global warming—90% by 2060, according to British scientist Prof. Kevin Anderson.

Unfortunately, Alperovitz is not alone in not being sufficiently serious about the threat posed to us humans (to say nothing of other species) by global warming—a fact that gives one no reason to be optimistic about the future of our species!

  • Reposted from Brave New World website.
  • Al Thompson retired over seven years ago from an engineering (avionics) firm in Milwaukee. His e-mail address is: Read other articles by Alton.