A Weblog monitoring coverage of environmental issues and science in the UK media. By Professor Emeritus Philip Stott. The aim is to assess whether a subject is being fairly covered by press, radio, and television. Above all, the Weblog will focus on science, but not just on poor science. It will also bring to public notice good science that is being ignored because it may be politically inconvenient.

Monday, April 17, 2006

The unsustainability of 'sustainability'.....

If I hear the word 'sustainability' again, I'll reach for my imported 'organic' cranberry juice [Sweden via California via... - 'tonnes' of air miles per sip]. We have heard it all before. Remember Limits to Growth, Small is Beautiful, and The Blueprint for Survivial? These were the utopian 'flower power' of the dire 1970s. The most recent New Economics Foundation (Nef) report is straight from the same mould: 'Britain now "eating the planet"' (BBC Online Science/Technology News, April 15 - nice to be quoted, mind you);
"The UK is about to run out of its own natural resources and become dependent on supplies from abroad, a report says.

A study by the New Economics Foundation (Nef) and the Open University says 16 April is the day when the nation goes into 'ecological debt' this year."

Good grief. Talk about Easter-egging the trade in chocolate. The UK hasn't been agriculturally self-sufficient since the 18th Century. And 'Ecological Debt Day', I ask you? How about 'Trade Benefit Day'? And there is ample evidence that the posher the 'ecological footprint', the more ecological recovery follows. It is surely time to shed the sandals and to put on those designer heels.

Now, W.H. Auden's 'Unknown Citizen' might well ask: "What on earth is 'sustainability' all about?"

'Sustainability' is a classic, 'empty' phrase that Humpty Dumpty can employ to mean anything. 'Sustainable development' was born out of the 'Left-Green' agendas of the 1970s and 1980s, including such apocalyptic constructs as the population time bomb and 'limits to growth', both of which have (yet again!) proved false prophets.

'Sustainability' received an initial airing in the World Commission on Environment and Development in 1987 (although its roots lie in Neo-Malthusianism), but gained hegemony during the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) held at Rio de Janeiro in 1992. Rio generated a programme, Agenda 21, for implementing 'sustainable development' throughout the world. The more recent Johannesburg jamboree was little more than Rio+10, a lack-lustre attempt to revitalise the UN system for 'sustainable development'.

But what is 'sustainable development' today, and how does it relate to ecological, economic, and political realities? In 1987, it was defined as "development that meets the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs." This was jolly good motherhood and apple pie sentiment, but how has it worked out?

Today, 'sustainable development' is a ubiquitous, politically-compliant phrase, a pleasant-sounding palliative to inexorable and inevitable world change. It is dished up as a placebo to ecochondriacs the world over. It hides the fact that ecological and economic change are the norm, not the exception; that equilibrium solutions are impossible goals; and that we inhabit a rather disturbing non-equilibrium world in which volcanoes erupt, earthquakes quake, tsunamis flood, seas rise (and fall), and climates change, whether under human influence, or not. Like James Thurber's tigers, 'sustainable development' lurks everywhere, in government documents, shareholder reports, and research grant applications. Without it, you can get no money. For business, it is a neat PC word, all PR and 'ethical' investment, but signifying nothing; for scientists, it means, "Please give me funds for my research", and for politicians ('Cameron sleds to a Norwegian glacier'), "Your nice 'Green' vote."

The biggest problem, however, arises when authoritarian, neo-puritan-style, environmentalists hijack the phrase. Then, 'sustainable development' becomes either no growth at all, or limited growth of a type only approved of by an elite few – wind farms, yes, nuclear power no; organics, yes, GM no. This is why, so often, environmental organisations try to portray business as the arch enemy of 'sustainable development'. Like 'biodiversity', another key word from the Rio Convention, 'sustainability' is thrown into any argument to block development and growth; it is even employed to conjure up a return to an imagined, usually rustic, utopia. 'Sustainability' has thus embraced a gamut of modern obsessions, including anti-globalisation and anti-Americanism.

Theoretically, however, 'sustainability' flies in the face of reality. We are learning, from anthropology via physics to zoology, that the world does not function in equilibrium, but rather on chaotic, non-equilibrium, principles, whether with respect to the stock market or to climate change. Yet, 'sustainability' is intrinsically an equilibrium idea seeking equilibrium solutions. It is far too easily employed to 'soften' the fact of change, and, in doing so, it underplays human dynamism, creativity, and adaptability, not to mention the natural harshness of the world.

This is particularly exposed in the much-touted concept of a 'sustainable climate', the most farcical oxymoron. The idea that climate can be managed in a predictable way by manipulating just one factor, carbon dioxide, out of the thousands of factors involved remains 'Alice-in-Wonderland' science, with the verdict before the trial. This is the ultimate flaw: the sheer hubris of humans maintaining a 'sustainable climate' - a 'stable climate' - demonstrates all too vividly the delusions of the 'sustainability' myth.

'Sustainability' is an unrealistic, and potentially dangerous, concept. It has become part of the hegemonic language of an insidious new Grand Narrative that is striving to fill the authoritarian vacuum left by the bitter collapse of Communism and Marxism. It is but Old Socialism... through the back door.

Ultimately, however, we need strong, flexible, and growing economies, coupled with a political will to help the poorest, the most afflicted by inexorable and unpredictable change. Moreover, we should be seeking diversity in energy production, not because of climate, but because diversity is the key to flexibility.

It is time, once more, for real development to become more sexy than the Northern-constructed 'environment'.

Philip, "'Ecological debt day'? Bah! Humbug! Nef off!" I'll trade in these Easter Scrooges any day. Lunch - from New Zealand, Kenya, Spain, China, and Australia, with Colombian cut flowers to grace the table? "Have a truly cosmopolitan Easter Monday, Bunnies All. Cheers!"

[New counter, June 19, 2006, with loss of some data]

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