Sustainability ain’t sustainable

Photo by Daniel Hansen on Unsplash



A map is not the territory. — Alfred Korzybski

I’ve always felt there was something a little off about the concept of sustainability, though I couldn’t put my finger on exactly what. It was such an obviously sensible insight, how could you fault it? Not wanting to be a party poop, I kept my doubts to myself and went along.

Now I know what was bothering me: it’s just a figment of our imagination, like heaven or nirvana.

It is an abstraction, like mathematics. Math is a useful tool through which we convert the world into mental quantities. But too much working with numbers tends to put one out of touch with realities. We forget that we are tidying up life more than it really is.

So also with sustainability: it is delusionally tidy. Only a mirage-like map of ecofriendliness, it casts a crazyhouse reflection obscuring the real terrain, lulling us into the assumption that we can see what’s going on.

By definition, if I can keep on manufacturing widgets without lasting damage to the environment, or depletion of resources, then I am doing it ‘sustainably’. But what is being sustained? If I am producing widgets that nobody wants, my business will not be sustained even if it’s being run sustainably! So it can’t be that.

The way it’s used, “sustainable” is intended to mean sustaining the ecology in which the activity is happening, but it doesn’t achieve that either. A more accurate label would be: ecologically harmless. But being harmless doesn’t sustain anything, it just doesn’t harm it. Not only is “sustainability” not self-sustaining — an airplane running on biofuel can still drop out of the sky — it doesn’t protect the environment either.

But people get religious about this thing and lose the plot. They equate sustainability with “safe”. Operate sustainably and make the world a safer place. There is nothing safer about it: it’s not “good”, it’s just not “bad”. Though relabeling harmlessness as protection is harmful: distracting from real solutions as it does.

So it sounds nice, but the world isn’t getting safer in the meantime. Being harmless is not a solution to harm. It’s getting more dangerous every day because of all the people who aren’t operating sustainably.

The theory is that if I operate sustainably they will change their ways to be like me. But they don’t, the majority keep on polluting unless they are forced to stop. So the word “unsustainability” does clearly reflect reality — we can’t go on this way without things breaking down — but its opposite is just an illusion: a clever word trick.

(Perhaps “inadvertant” would be fairer to the early promoters of sustainability, but the first spin doctor to co-opt the term to paint black as white was definitely “clever”.)

A true sustainability movement would be one that aggressively seeks the eradication of pollution and measures its advances by net reductions in pollution, not celebrating genteel but useless “advances” in harmlessness.

I don’t mean to flog this — resorting to polemic seldom persuades anyone who wasn’t already persuaded — but it’s vital to expose the mischief being done beyond any doubt. The most devastating lies are the ones that sound like truth.

Individually, each advance in sustainability slightly slows a negative trend, that’s all it achieves. It can’t even be said to reduce harm or “unsustainability”, just makes the skyrocketing harm that is being done slightly less steep.

To characterise this in terms of sustaining anything is wildly misleading. Even collectively, all supposedly sustainable activity around the world today isn’t really sustaining anything. If adherents of sustainability for the last 30 years were in a tug of war with polluters of the last 30 years, their asses would have been dragged all the way across the country by now.

That’s the true picture of what sustainability initiatives have accomplished to date: somewhat less worse than no tug of war at all. Pollution doesn’t stink quite as bad as it used to: that’s about it. It’s no more practical a solution to the actual pollution problem than mice proposing to bell the cat.

Strip away the wishful expanding horizons of sustainability and what is revealed? Polluting fanatics inexorably sapping the foundations of life as we know it. No doubt that’s why people felt the need to surgarcoat the reality in the first place.

Akin to describing a two-day commando raid as “conquering” while the enemy continues to expand their territory, “becoming more sustainable” is propaganda, greenwashing; nothing more. But still a devastatingly effective way to misdirect effort away from finding truly effective solutions to pollution, while kidding yourself that you are on the side of the angels.

If you want to lull people into a false sense of security, by all means get them to operate “sustainably”. If you want them to deal with reality instead, then avoid the word like the plague.

But what is reality in this respect? Is God mad at us? Are we not visualising the solution well enough for it to magically manifest? Have we not yet reached critical mass on enough people praying, chanting, marching or bitching about it? Maybe it’s just fate or karma or the wrong vibe. En sh’allah.

Being so very good at thinking, we humans do prefer to overthink the hard parts of life instead of facing them. In this case a perfectly good science has been amassing proven practical knowhow of what does and doesn’t sustain life for over 2,000 years. This formal examination of what works is called biology (from the Ancient Greek βιολόγος: one who represents life).

For the past 200 years, biologists have been using the concept of viability to determine the current and likely future prosperity of any animal or group of animals. A viable plan is likely to succeed. A viable community is doing well and likely to continue so. Scientific methods for measuring this realistic compass into the future in relation to any ecology are well established.

The most important question today is not how sustainably are we living, but rather: how viable are my children, how likely are they to prosper into the future? Sustainability experts can’t tell you that, the question would bewilder them. Instead, they would explain to you why it’s the wrong question, a favourite tactic of priests and gurus.

But it’s not wrong. It’s the only question we MUST get right. God help our kids if we don’t.

NEXT IN THE ECOVIABLE SERIES: Ecoviability — an Intro

P.S. No doubt, this will inevitably offend many who have invested their heart and soul in making the world more “sustainable”. It’s not you I criticise, however, but the people who have sold you out. The deeper truth is that “sustainability” is just the latest honourable intention to be subverted by those who won’t face reality. We must stay vigilant to ensure the same thing doesn’t happen to viability.

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