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There Really Is Only One Kind Of sustainability

By Tim Murray

02 April, 2010

The Fallacy of Equivalent Concerns

Despite our best efforts, there are persistent and common misunderstandings about the rudiments of overshoot and sustainability. Four come to mind:

1. The exponential function. Albert Bartlett is right about that. I can't get people alarmed by lets say, a 2-3% annual growth rate. Like the magic of compound interest, your town can double in population in a mere generation at this deceptively incremental pace.

2. Efficiency paradoxes. People don't understand that efficiencies, outside the context of a steady state economy, by making things cheaper only provoke more consumption and growth. (eg. Jevons Paradox, Khazoom-Brooks postulate).

3. Social justice doesn't solve resource shortages . The integrity of the lifeboat is more important than how the passengers treat each other. Food can be shared equitably between passengers, but if there are too many passengers, the boat will sink. The law of gravity doesn't care about social justice, human rights or human political arrangements. Moral laws, whether handed down by Stephen Lewis, Dr. William Rees or Moses, are trumped by bio-physical laws. Socialists, liberals, federal Greens, clergymen and humanitarians simply don't get it. There ain't enough to go around, however justly and efficiently things are managed or distributed. And economists of course, are equally delusional, if not mad for believing that with some technological 'fix' we can 'grow' the limits.

4. Limiting factors. The weakest link in the chain can bring a society to its knees. It can have everything in abundance, but a shortage in just one critical area can prove its undoing. This to me is the source of this current fashion of assigning "sustainability" to a series of sectors thought to enjoy some independence from others. It is this misconception which I find most pernicious.


Like the word “green”, “sustainable” or “sustainability” has become the buzzword of the millennia. Corporations and governments of the left or right feel compelled to dress up the most ecologically invasive development proposal or economic activity with assurances that it is “sustainable”. Employed as an adjective it coats the unpalatable with the sweet syrup of delectability rendering the bitter pill of upheaval and damage neutral in flavour. Growth not couched in green psychobabble went down like Buckley’s Mixture, but “sustainable growth”, “sustainable tourism” and “sustainable agriculture” on the other hand tastes like sugary cough syrup. Such is the Newspeak of contemporary growthism, the vocabulary of deceit that promises a new kind of capitalism, capitalism in a green velvet glove, business as usual with apparent sensitivity to environmental concerns that will nevertheless satisfy the shareholders.

Trade-offs or the Fallacy of Equivalent Concerns

But even the compromise suggested by oxymoronic terminology does not apparently suffice to satisfy the corporate agenda. As can be witnessed in the tourist industry, economic considerations have achieved a delusional parity in a “holistic” paradigm that sees “environmental” sustainability balanced off against “economic” and “cultural” sustainability. In this three-legged stool model of viability, environmental issues must compete with other “sustainability” concerns on a level playing field with other equally valid objectives so as to achieve the optimal “trade-offs”. This misconception may be termed “The Fallacy of Equivalent Concerns”. It is the assumption that would, if applied to the human physiognomy, rate the heart as an organ of equal importance to every other organ of the body when in fact, as we know, a patient can survive with one lung, or one kidney , or a colonoscopy, or brain impairment, but when his heart stops all of these important but ancillary parts die with the patient. The economy is a subsidiary part of society. It is, as former World Bank economist Herman Daly described it, “a fully owned branch plant of the environment. “ We make our living in an economy, but we live in a biosphere.

Environmental externalisation doesn't change Mother Nature's rules

Case in point. Newfoundland politicians were warned that the cod fishery was not sustainable, but they replied that without the cod fishery, Newfoundland’s economy was not sustainable, so the fishermen of Newfoundland continued to fish. Nature replied that what the economy of Newfoundland required was irrelevant, and so refused to yield more cod. In any such contest, nature’s agenda prevails. Similarly politicians and developers want the city of Phoenix, already at 3 million people, to grow even further. Mother Nature’s City Council, however, has set limits to the volume of water available in aquifers. One day folks in Phoenix, together with 15 million other refugees in America’s south east, will discover that any economy without water is not sustainable. The needs and wants of an economy cannot trespass carrying capacity. Nature imposes boundaries. Without clean air, productive soils, replenished aquifers---without biodiversity services---any economy will collapse. And once the environment is trashed, try milking your “robust” economy for tax revenues to buy another one. Yet that is what corporate and government green wash implies. Former social democratic Premier of British Columbia, Mike Harcourt, crystallized this confusion with a classic line of obsolete reasoning, “To have a healthy environment we need a healthy economy.” He does not seem to understand that the environment was doing quite well before human activity arrived to “manage” it. His underlying assumption seems to be that the environment is an externality, a desirable luxury that we can only “afford” once we have achieved economic “prosperity”. This reasoning is equivalent to saying that yes, while it is desirable that I have a triple bypass operation, I must postpone the operation until I can afford it by continuing to work overtime at my strenuous job.

Environmental passengers

Imagine if the officers on board the sinking Titanic claimed that the cabins on the third deck were sustainable because each had a barrel of water, ten sacks of beans, a compost, renewable energy and a water-tight door. Trouble is, they would not be sustainable 5 miles underwater. Every cabin was rendered unsustainable when the Titanic itself was unsustainable after the collision. Similarly, the space shuttle Challenger could have been said to have a sustainable oxygen supply, a sustainable food supply, a sustainable waste disposal system, and a sustainable crew compartment. But one "O" ring was the limiting factor that made the Challenger unsustainable. All the other "sustainable" aspects on that space ship were rendered unsustainable by the explosion that blew the crew compartment away, eventually crashing it into the sea. Until it hit the water, apart from the loss of air pressure, the crew survived in a 'sustainable' compartment. Our economy and our culture are like that crew compartment. They are completely dependent on the health of the environment. Without the estimated $33 trillion in free biodiversity services, we're toast. Trash the environment if you like but the so-called 'prosperity' you achieve won't buy you a new one.

Misunderstanding the structure of the real world

We still believe that we can negotiate with nature on our own terms. We can pursue business-as-usual just by genuflecting to trendy green shibboleths. Government and corporate communiqués are now laced with green-growthist double-talk. Try this from a discussion paper from the Planning Department of a typical Canadian city. Note how it attempts to appease environmental concerns with trendyisms while remaining faithful to the political mandate to keep growing as usual: “Several growth allocation/land use scenarios will...be developed and tested for impacts on various sustainability criteria (financial, environmental, social and cultural).” In other words, there are several criteria for sustainability, and the environment is just one of them. So Mother Nature, stand back. Get to the back of the line and wait your turn until cultural and economic needs have been satisfied.

Hair splitting

Of course, what exactly constitutes “sustainability” is a matter of some debate among ecologists. As one wildlife biologist commented in response to this critique, “Because natural systems are always changing or ‘dynamic’ there seems to be some disturbing latitude in what we consider a sustained ecosystem. What degree of impairment can a system tolerate before it loses the very characteristics that ‘define’ it? The term ‘integrity’ often emerges in these discussions with predictable results. It is much easier to define what constitutes unsustainable or an irreversible change in the system. A boreal forest without fire disturbance is no longer "sustainable"? Or, can forestry be made to replace this disturbance? At what point do we no longer have a boreal forest? This does not at all detract from your argument that clearly shows that without a sustainable natural environment, all other constructs of "sustainability" are meaningless.” A dead planet indeed can achieve an equilibrium, but it cannot sustain life. And this may come as a shock to economists and nationalists alike, but human economic activity, culture, language and customs cannot exist without living human beings.

Sustainability doesn't come in different brands

Even those organizations committed to imposing limits have succumbed to this flawed understanding. An emerging immigration reform organization declares, as one of its aims, “To promote the creation of a sustainable Canada through urgently needed reform of immigration policies that are in the national interest.” Well and good. But then one opinion has it that this proposal “has some merit because it implies sustainability across a number of areas---cultural and institutional as well as environmental.” But mass immigration is not, as Samuel Gompers characterized it, fundamentally a labour issue, nor is it a cultural one. It is not about how many people our economy requires or how many people our culture can assimilate but how many people our environment can sustain. Contemporary culture as we know it cannot survive an ecological meltdown. The nation itself would not endure. When the water you drink is polluted or inaccessible, when the farmland needed to provide food to Canadians after international trade collapses with stratospheric fuel costs, when our exhausted soils starved of fossil-fuel based fertilizers cannot yield crops, when our forests are mowed down and the air unfit to breath, the fact that a lot people in the neighbourhood are wearing strange clothing or speaking in foreign tongues will be of little importance. Cultural “sustainability” in this context will be a mirage. There is ultimately only one “sustainability”. The sustainability of the whole, not its constituent parts.

Tim Murray is an environmental writer and activist, and Vice President of Biodiversity First




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