On Sustainability

We are bombarded by various media sources about the need for “sustainability”, whether it is in the context of development, farming, business, or any such other goal some of our unelected betters would shame us into accepting.  However, when you ask people who are not part of the sustainability industry (i.e., those who want to measure our worth based on how sustainable we live), you quickly find that most of them do not know what sustainability is, or why it is good (whatever that means).

The word “sustainability” seems to have only positive connotations, and gives the impression that anything that is deemed unsustainable is “bad” (whatever that means).  For example, sustainable forestry sounds good when applied to trees that are grown specifically to make paper, but it is a bad thing when applied to lumbering operations in the Pacific northwest.

The difference between these two terms is who applies them to a specific situation.  When growing trees for paper on private land, the environmentalists label it as “sustainable”, so it is a good thing.  When cutting trees for lumber on public land, industry labels it as “sustainable”, so to the environmentalists it is a bad thing.

So the word has been co-opted by environmentalists to manipulate your emotions and to deem whether something is “good” or “bad”.  This is pure BS.

As a member of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers, I have been invited to join a group labeling itself the “Institute for Sustainability” (IfS; yes, that is correct, the lowercase “f” is actually the way the group markets itself).  It seems their primary goal is to have fancy meetings, make each other feel good about their activism, and to lobby for government funding to study “sustainability”.

In short, the perfect platform for a bunch of academics trying to win federal grants to study that which is common sense.

I have always refused to join because, first, I am not an academic, and second (the more important reason) they cannot give me a rational answer to the following question:

What is special about “sustainability”?

And I have a ready answer: Not a damn thing.

Because any business that cannot compete in the marketplace without the benefit of some sort of government subsidy or intervention does not deserve to exist.  I make this assertion because government subsidies can expire, leaving a business unable to compete against business that are capable of sustaining their business without that benefit.

For example, a recent post by a Jeffery Sachs entitled “The Age of Sustainability” discusses the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) which aim to focus “on ending extreme poverty, hunger, and preventable disease”. Dr. Sachs is an academic and a UN bureaucrat, who has no scientific training as far as I can tell.  He does appear to have an earned doctorate in economics, although my guess is that it focused on some sort of collectivist nonsense, which is why a position at the UN seems such a good career choice.

What Dr. Sachs fails to recognize, and is probably a byproduct of his misspent academic career, is that throughout all of human history, the best, most efficient way of attaining those goals is by market-driven economies.  I would go so far to say that I have done more to help alleviate extreme poverty, hunger, and preventable disease in the past 10 years than he has done as an academic bureaucrat.

But I guess that talking a problem to death is far better than actually doing something about it.