A response to Trevor Blake’s post “Sustainability”

Trevor Blake, in his never ending contrarian quest to dismiss anything he deems “PC” (and therefore oppressive) has turned his attention toward sustainability. First, he cites Wikipedia’s definition:

The ability to maintain balance of a certain process or state in any system. It is now most frequently used in connection with biological and human systems. In an ecological context, sustainability can be defined as the ability of an ecosystem to maintain ecological processes, functions, biodiversity and productivity into the future.

He concludes: “It is prudent to make decisions today with a cautious eye toward the future. But sustainability has nothing to do with that.”

Uhh… has nothing to do with that says who? With nary a citation, could it be that the esteemed Mr. Blake is creating a straw man? Actually, “Making prudent decisions today with a cautious eye towards the future” is a pretty good English translation of the Wikipedia definition of sustainability.

“Many small corrections along the way will do more good than making One Right Choice now and forever.”

Trevor: what is the “One Right Choice” sustainability promotes? “Sustainability” is a problematic word. The Wikipedia article Trevor cites dedicates considerable space to the debate of the word itself.

As a concept “sustainability” and the related “green movement” is associated with people ranging from the marketing staff at BP to John Zerzan, and stops by Al Gore, Alex Steffen, and Rob Hopkins along the way. Hell, you can throw Bjørn Lomborg somewhere in there too.

So some “sustainability” advocates obviously have unified theories – megacorporations say we should just buy different products. Primitivists say we should go back to a bronze age way of life. But even here things get fuzzy. Which products, for instance? I’m sure the Kaczynski-Klub or whatever has plenty of internal disagreements.

As for the “mainstream” sustainability movement – those situated between Al Gore and Alex Steffen on the sustainability scale, let’s say – about the most you can say is that there’s an agreement that the use of carbon should be reduced. Other than that, there’s a pretty healthy debate going on everything from food miles to geoengineering.

I’d also like to unpack a couple other things in Trevor’s post. “Is science so advanced that the current knowledge of processes and systems is sufficient to freeze them into stasis without the possibility for great harm?”

This is a misunderstanding of sustainability writ large. If you can’t parse the definition of sustainability that you quoted in your opening, then I’m not sure I can help you.

“And nature is nothing if not change and indifference to that bit of nature that is humanity.” Change is the one unifying theme across the spectrum of sustainability. But there are a few fundamental human needs that have not changed (the need for food and water, etc). Is it foolish to try to preserve our sources for such needs? According to Trevor, our actions should only strive to “correct error in the very near future.” How very near? Tomorrow? Next week? A month?

So we should never worry ourselves with thoughts of the medium to long term? Certainly it’s harder to predict the medium and long term. Which is all the more reason to be more conservative about how we expend resources, and more proactive at finding new ones.


  1. Klint wrote: “So some ‘sustainability’ advocates obviously have unified theories – megacorporations say we should just buy different products. Primitivists say we should go back to a bronze age way of life.” This is the answer to his/your question “what is the ‘One Right Choice’ sustainability promotes?” and is in agreement with my essay. Most of what I’m reading and hearing about sustainability boils down to ‘if we do/buy X then things will be indefinitely okay.’ X changes according to who’s doing the talking, but the mistaken idea that science progresses by truth and not error remains.

  2. You’re still grasping at straws here. First of all, I’ve demonstrated that mainstream sustainability advocates do not say ‘if we do/buy X then things will be indefinitely okay.’ There is active debate in all areas. Even companies generally don’t claim to have THE answer, just a product that has a lower ecological impact than competing products.

    Any “applied science” – be it medicine, engineering, or “sustainability” (such that it is) takes information from science and tries to create solutions from it. You might as well criticize public health campaigns that tell us not to smoke and to wash our hands and brush our teeth as “not understanding science” because they too are based on “the mistaken idea that science progresses by truth and not error.” Or perhaps all materials from environmental or public health campaigns should include Popperian language?

    “It is currently believed, because it has been tested and not yet been proven wrong, that dumping mercury in water may lead to series long term health consequences. Therefore we propose a temporary moratorium on the use of rivers, lakes, streams, oceans, as a means to dispose of materials that have not been proven to not contain mercury or have not been proven to not break down into mercury when dissolved in water, until such a time that further tests can be conducted to attempt to disprove the hypothesis that putting less theoretically-mercury containing products into water supplies will reduce the mercury in water.”

    Because just saying “Studies show that mercury is dangerous, therefore we propose to restrict the dumping of mercury containing products into water supplies betrays a clear lack of knowledge about how science works.

    Oh, and doctors should have to tell patients “Scientists postulate that this drug will cure the disease that I believe, perhaps mistakenly, that you are experiencing. The FDA attempted to disprove this hypothesis, but failed. They also managed to disprove several alternate hypothesis regarding the dangers of this medication. At some point, we may learn that this drug is not as effective in treating this disease as previously thought, or other side effects may be discovered and not disproved. Furthermore, I could be, as earlier noted, wrong in my diagnosis. It is merely my own well informed opinion that you should injest this drug.”

    Because only an unscientific idiot would say “The FDA has approved this drug for treatment of the disease you’ve been diagnosed with.”

  3. This argument seems confused and rather meaningless. But for extra cents in the well…

    I think an aspect of “sustainability” that can be critiqued is (on the literal surface at least) is that it is not forward looking to – “What kind of world should we be in and what can we do to get there,” or the converse “What kind of world do we not want to be in and what should we do to redirect our path away from there.”

    I mean clearly what we are “sustaining” isn’t business as usual so what does sustainability even mean?

    For example – what does sustainability have to say about space travel/resource harvesting?

  4. Bill Whitcomb

    May 20, 2009 at 11:53 pm

    I’d be relatively happy if we could just stop doing things where we KNOW it will suck in 50 to 100 years. It would be a welcome change if we could just move towards being sustainable-ish. Certainly, we have to use min-max optimization type calculations — some things can’t be solved no matter how much money and effort you apply if the technology required isn’t there (as someone once put it, it steam-engines when it’s steam engine time — but we’ve made a lot of decisions hoping that people down the road will fix things. That’s my definition for not sustainable. What we’re doing is worse than buying on credit…it’s buying on credit when you know that the bill will be sent to your descendents. Buzzwords aside, we should pay up front instead of strip-mining the future.

  5. In the paraphrased words of the late, great WSB:
    They have sold the ground from under unborn feet forever.

  6. It would seem to me that sustainability is a sort of governing principle from which the answer to the question of “What kind of world should we be in and what can we do to get there” can be derived, a principle akin to freedom and justice– principles which necessarily inform the society based on them. On the whole, this seems a more flexible and dynamic approach than attempting to decide on a common utopia and working towards that goal. Is it more effective? Debatable. There is a pretty long history of failed utopias, but at the same time you can hardly call this a free country without substantial sarcasm, despite the noble intentions in both our founding documents and current political rhetoric.

    All we know for sure is that if things continue as they are, we are all royally fucked.

  7. I hate to sound like who I am sounding like, but I think the problem here is really in the framing and marketing of sustainable culture terminology.

    If it was called ‘Layaway Slack’ it may fare better.

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