Is our way of life sustainable?
For the last several decades—actually centuries—despite a continuously improving quality of life, many of our thought leaders have said “No.” In fact, the most our prosperity has increased, the less sustainable they claim it is.
One reason for the unsustainability claim is the supposedly massive damage our production and consumption have done to our environment. But pollution levels have gone down, not up, in the most developed countries, contributing to the healthiest human environment in history—and while CO2 levels have gone up, this has led not to runaway, catastrophic warming but rather slow, benign warming (as well as enhanced plant growth). For the primary source data on these trends, see the data page of The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels.
But the more enduring reason to claim that industrial life is unsustainable is that we live on a “finite” planet with “finite” resources.
“Consuming three planets’ worth of resources when in fact we have one is the environmental equivalent of childhood obesity—eating until you make yourself sick,” says David Miliband, secretary of state for the environment, food, and rural affairs in the United Kingdom. In response to criticisms of renewable energy plans as utopian and far-fetched, Bill McKibben says, “Perhaps it’s the current scheme, with its requirement of endless growth in a finite world, that seems utopian and far-fetched.”
The theory behind these predictions is that Earth has a finite “carrying capacity,” an idea that was spread far and wide in the 1970s. Two of the leading exponents of this view were Paul Ehrlich
and John Holdren. In their landmark book, Global Ecology, they wrote:
When a population of organisms grows in a finite environment, sooner or later it will encounter a resource limit. This phenomenon, described by ecologists as reaching the “carrying capacity” of the environment, applies to bacteria on a culture dish, to fruit flies in a jar of agar, and to buffalo on a prairie. It must also apply to man on this finite planet.
These theories were not idle banter—they were used by many to call for drastic restrictions on fossil fuel use, much as we have today.
Ehrlich and Holdren announced, “A massive campaign must be launched to restore a high-quality environment in North America and to de-develop the United States.” This meant an attempt to reverse industrial development—by law: “This effort must be largely political.”
These ideas were viewed highly enough that Holdren’s body of work, which stresses these themes over and over, gave him the prestige to become science adviser to President Barack Obama.
It has become well-known, though not well-known enough, that the resource depletion predictions were wrong, but why, exactly, were they wrong? The most direct reason is that there are far more fossil fuel raw materials and far more human ingenuity to get them than Ehrlich and Holdren expected. But there is a deeper error here, an error at the root of the whole concept of sustainability. The error is a backward understanding of resources.
The believers in a finite carrying capacity think of the Earth as something that “carries” us by dispensing a certain amount of resources. But if this was true, then why did the caveman have so few resources?
Those who believe in the ideal of human nonimpact tend to endow nature with godlike status, as an entity that nurtures us if only we will live in harmony with the other species and not demand so much for ourselves.
But nature gives us very few directly usable machine energy resources. Resources are not taken from nature, but created from nature. What applies to the raw materials of coal, oil, and gas also applies to every raw material in nature—they are all potential resources, with unlimited potential to be rendered valuable by the human mind.
Ultimately, a resource is just matter and energy transformed via human ingenuity to meet human needs. Well, the planet we live on is 100 percent matter and energy, 100 percent potential resource for energy and anything else we would want. To say we’ve only scratched the surface is to significantly understate how little of this planet’s potential we’ve unlocked. We already know that we have enough of a combination of fossil fuels and nuclear power to last thousands and thousands of years, and by then, hopefully, we’ll have fusion (a potential, far superior form of nuclear power) or even some hyper-efficient form of solar power.
The amount of raw matter and energy on this planet is so incomprehensibly vast that it is nonsensical to speculate about running out of it. Telling us that there is only so much matter and energy to create resources from is like telling us that there is only so much galaxy to visit for the first time. True, but irrelevant.
Sustainability is not a clearly defined term. According to the United Nations, it has over a thousand interpretations, but the basic idea is “indefinitely repeatable.” For example, the idea of renewability, which is usually synonymous with sustainability in the realm of energy, is that the fuel source keeps replenishing itself over and over without the need to do anything different.
But why is this an ideal? In most realms, we accept and desire constant change. For example, you want the best phone with the best materials, regardless of whether those materials will be there in two hundred years and regardless of whether it would be more “renewable” to use two cups and a string.
Why should we want to use solar panels or windmills over and over (leaving aside the fact that they quickly deteriorate and thus require a continuous series of mass-mining projects) if they keep giving us expensive, unreliable energy? Why not use the best, the most progressive form of energy at any given time, recognizing that this will change as we advance and the best becomes better?
Human beings survive by using ingenuity to transform nature to meet their needs—i.e., to produce and consume resources. And the motive power of transformation, the amplifier of human ability, the resource behind every other resource, is energy—which, for the foreseeable future, means largely fossil fuel energy. There is no inherent limit to energy resources—we just need human ingenuity to be free to discover ways to turn unusable energy into usable energy. This opens up a thrilling possibility: the endless potential for improving life through ever growing energy resources helping create ever growing resources of every kind. This is the principle that explains the strong correlation between fossil fuel use and life expectancy, fossil fuel use and income, fossil fuel use and pretty much anything good: human ingenuity transforming potential resources into actual resources—including the most fundamental resource, energy.
Growth is not unsustainable. With freedom, including the freedom to produce energy, it is practically inevitable. We are not eating the last slice of pizza in the box or scraping the bottom of the barrel; we are standing on the tip of an endless iceberg. This is a thrilling prospect for everyone in the world—and certainly for those who live in resource poverty. And if we keep creating resources, I think my future grandchildren will think of my generation of Americans in 2016 as having lived in resource poverty.
Unless we adopt “sustainability” policies that try, not only to freeze progress at current levels, but to force us to adopt regressive technologies like unreliable energy–solar and wind. If they succeed, then my grandchildren will live in a world of real resource poverty.