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We were talking about the notion of Sustainability in class on Monday, and it got me thinking, what is the long term success of sustainability, and where has it gotten us?

I  know sustainability is a recent thing.  We’ve only recently emerged from the “poison monkeys” phase of our relationship with nature.  But one of its central tenets is “leave enough for future generations”.  This homily to the Iroquois “Seven Generations” principle is nice and all, but is it really useful?

Do we car about what previous generations left us and didn’t leave us?  Are we worse off for having fewer horses or slaves?  Do we now have less water and air because they used it all up?  Did we run out of our ability to make paper, rugs, or furniture?

In fact, we have gotten better at making these things and processing them through our economy and technology.  What used to take weeks to make locally with craft now takes minutes, then takes weeks to ship with a thousand items just like it.  We are no in the era of readymades.

We would not have come to this if we were not dissatisfied with the way that things were made before.  A cheap blanket is better than an expensive one, not because it is better in quality, but because more can afford it.  Fewer of the poor have to sleep under newspapers or packing quilts.  Those things itch.

In almost every measurable way, even the poor of the world are better off than they were a century ago.  Not because our ancestors held their defunct currencies in an interest bearing savings account, but because they pursued opportunities where they found them.  If they ran out of something, they learned how to substitute, got it from someplace else on an ever widening transportation network, or they changed businesses.  Sustainability was not as important as pluck.

Of course, we live in a different time, the Anthropocene.  Humanity now uses 40% or more of the energy we get from the sun, and we aren’t showing signs of abating.  Thought our birthrates are declining as more women get educated, humanity is still growing faster than any other mammal outside of lemmings in off years.  Sustainability is a rational strategy to manage a world suddenly in our thrall.

The problem is, it may be rational, but it is not reasonable for most of us.  No human, or even animal, can be managed so well without force.  Everybody reading this has an unsustainable life course of betterment.   The fixed and conserved resources of sustainability are finite.  If everybody literate and connected enough to read this is working to make their lives richer, then just as many must work to make their lives worse.

Or so the simple version goes.  The real gains of sustainability are in efficiency: doing more with less.  This does not always result in us using less (SUVs, refrigerators), but sometimes it does (bikes, lighting).  The currency we really need to sustain in ingenuity, we’ll figure out the rest.


Next week, I’ll be in a position to share some long run quantitative data.  Things have been a little hectic.  I predict they will calm down by the new year.