Sustainability is Unsustainable

It is a sad fact about philosophy that physicists tend to do it better… David Deutsch does it better! A pioneer in the fields of quantum computation and the many universes interpretation of quantum mechanics, Deutsch also thinks that we have it all wrong on climate change. Not the science! He agrees with the consensus regarding our CO2 admissions and the warming of our planet. But when it comes to the philosophical implications of that scientific understanding, we are entirely confused.

Imagine yourself drifting through the ocean, underneath the waves, in a large, well designed submarine. Equipped with all the latest safety mechanisms, escape valves, and improvements in performance, this submarine is the pinnacle of technological advancement — the pinnacle of human knowledge — the best that we can do… so far. Every comfort that you enjoy in life is due to the technology around you, but it is also your life support system — without it you would die almost instantaneously, swallowed by the ocean.

Now imagine that one of your fellow passengers, born into the safety of the submarine, begins staring whimsically at the picturesque beauty outside. Then, forgetting just how unimaginably inhospitable that scenery actually is, and ignoring all warnings that it represents our near certain death, they open a hatch in order to get a better view.

For Deutsch, the submarine works as an analogy for civilization as we know it and the progress we have made as a species. The opening of the hatch is a commonly exhibited failure to properly understand just how fragile a position we are in, as well as just what it took to get us here — safe, alive, and relatively comfortable inside our biosphere. The person opening the hatch, and ending the whole project of human life, is representative of the sustainability movement.

To explain this properly we will need to take a step back to the Great Rift Valley and our origins as a species in Eastern Africa. We first evolved there with genes specifically designed for our environment, living — just as with all other species — the normal, sustainable life for which nature intended. And just as with all other species, including all other species that have ever lived on this planet, it almost killed us. “Nasty, brutish and short doesn’t begin to describe it” — it was “sheer hell!

The rivers were clean, the skies were clear, the earth visibly untouched by human endeavour, yet we never had it so bad. Beyond the obvious fears of starvation, exposure to extreme weather and threats from predators, micro-organisms such as cholera bacillus were also evolving specifically to kill mammals like ourselves. As far as we can be considered, on balance, to be polluting the biosphere today, the opposite was true for all of pre-modern history — the biosphere was polluting Us!

The statement that ‘99.99% of all species that have ever existed have gone extinct’ is repeated so frequently that its meaning is often not properly appreciated. There is a real lesson in this perpetual genocide: that is, in the natural course of events, environments kill their inhabitants. Improvements in gene technology, through evolution, offer the means for a brief, backs-to-the-wall resistance — but one that is destined to eventually fail. As witnessed by all those other species.

Yet unlike all other species, We have a unique weapon in this fight for survival — the capacity for explanatory knowledge. And there exists an intimate link between explaining and controlling the world around us. Our ancestors needed explanatory knowledge to survive the Great Rift Valley (knowledge that is now lost to most of us), just as new forms of such knowledge allow us to survive, and occasionally thrive in, our environments today. How hospitable an environment is, is simply based on what the inhabitants know.

The trouble is, those immediate descendants of the move out of Africa — people with brains nearly identical to our own — continued to live similarly miserable lives. Their “ability to make progress remained unused”.

If a future archaeologist were to discover your remains at some point in the future, they would be able to accurately place your age — likely to the exact year — by analysing your surrounding technology. However scientists studying those ancient civilizations cannot place discovered artefacts (technology) for anything closer than a period of 10,000 years. Inventions, such as improvements in spearheads, better designed farming techniques, or even fire, were so uncommon, that in the course of an individual’s life, nothing ever changed.

But it wasn’t for lack of trying. “In every aspect of their lives they wished for progress, just as we do, but they failed almost completely to make any. They didn’t know how to”. For David Deutsch, the “tragedy of that protracted stagnation isn’t sufficiently recognised”.

Human history is a history of hardship and suffering not because it has to be so, but because it is also a history of near-complete stasis. And this is why ‘sustainability’ is such a dangerous idea. The term has two complementary meanings: ‘unchanging’ and ‘providing’. It’s the idea that we can find a stable, non-dangerous way of life, where no more existential problems arise that require creativity and progress to solve. This is Garden of Eden-type thinking — environments never sustain anything!

For this reason, we simply don’t have a recorded history for most of the static societies that have existed, because they just don’t survive very long — destroyed by the first major problem they encountered that required progress and innovation.

So what changed? Well the enlightenment was the break-out moment, but what had actually changed was a rejection of sustainability and the attached parochialism that claimed: everything that can be known, is already known. Understanding that “we shall never reach anything like an unproblematic state”, that solving problems inevitably produces new problems, and that the only solution is to keep moving forward, We, for the first time in human history developed “the capacity to deal with unforeseen, and unforeseeable failure” through a commitment to rapid, open-ended progress.

It was inconceivable that we would look back with envy — Global warming has now changed all that!

The risks of a rapidly warming planet — droughts, floods, sea-level rises, agricultural failures, mass extinction, etc. — are undeniably real. But it is also true that by the time that our best theories of human induced climate change began to emerge in the late 1970’s, we were already, by any reasonable consideration, locked-in to a catastrophic scenario.

High concentrations of carbon were already in the atmosphere (the warming effects and environmental changes are often delayed), there were few viable alternative energy sources, and underdeveloped populations around the world had already bet their poverty-reduction strategies on exploiting carbon-heavy energy sources. (Not to mention our now demonstrated psychological resistance to altering our standard of living in this regard).

The solution, according to Deutsch, is, and should have been, obvious: we ought to be working on discovering new technologies for removing carbon from the atmosphere or for lowering temperatures by other means. Fringe research in these areas currently involve: encouraging aquatic life to consume more carbon, generating clouds as a means to minimise warming, and placing mirrors in space in order to reflect sunlight, but “neither supercomputers nor international treaties nor vast sums are devoted to them”.

Instead they are devoted to, and our imaginations are consumed by, the idea of reducing our carbon output — the idea of returning to sustainability and stasis. Yet we have been here before. This is not the first existential crisis that we have faced, and it won’t be the last. But if climate change moves us back to pursuing the status quo, then even if it doesn’t kill us, the next problem will.

Tactics of prevention and delay can be useful, but they never constitute a future strategy in themselves. For example: “If you have been punched on the nose, then the science of medicine does not consist of teaching you how to avoid punches”. “If medical science stopped seeking cures and concentrated on prevention only, then it would achieve very little of either”.

The dangerous thing to do is to imagine that some solutions are beyond our reach. As Deutsch explains, any physical transformation not explicitly forbidden by the laws of nature, is achievable given the right knowledge. And there is just no reason to believe that cooling our atmosphere is a more intractable problem than that of developing without carbon emissions. What is certain is that “If we stop solving problems, we are doomed”.

This brings us back to Deutsch’s submarine. Embodied within all that technology, all that comfort, and all that safety, is a continuous stream of problem solving — not just problem avoidance — stretching all the way back to the enlightenment. Now we are being told that our progress is itself the problem. That we should open the hatches and shrink back into sustainability — the same sustainability that killed all our cousin species. But this has things around entirely the wrong way — “Sustainability is the disease and people are the cure”.