It’s winter in the Northern Hemisphere – a season when environmental concerns seem most strange. (And no, I’m not talking about cold winters providing evidence against global warming, for they are not: Climate is the long-term sum of volatile short-term weather patterns, patterns that themselves can be extreme from one year to the next without indicating a particular climate direction).
At a time of year when my ancestors would have remained in bed to conserve calories and body heat, or hunkered down around the fire to stay warm, I am sitting inside completely carefree. My refrigerator is full; the temperature in my apartment is a toasty 25 degrees C (77°F); my usually cold fingers can type without getting frostbites; and I have no worries that I will run out of food or the modern equivalent of firewood any time soon.
One of the strange words to which our symbolic-minded age is addicted is ‘sustainable.’ It hardly means what its proponents use it for. Starting with a dictionary description, ‘sustainable’ is something that is “able to continue over a period of time.” If a process or action is ‘sustainable,’ the object or person doing it can keep doing it for the foreseeable future.
Almost nothing about human life is sustainable, over even short time periods: running, typing, procreating, lifting weights, or eating chocolate cakes. Ultimately even our lungs breathing or hearts beating are unsustainable activities as one day either will stop and we will die.
Think again about winter in the Northern Hemisphere. As I’m writing this, it’s -10° Celsius (14° Fahrenheit); for somebody to simply step outside – even padded up with layers, gloves, beanies and scarves – means a slow decay towards frostbite, hypothermia and ultimately death. Stepping outside on a day like this is by textbook definition unsustainable: I cannot “continue at the same rate” lest I freeze to death.
Thankfully, I have access to several layers of wool clothing, thick winter jackets, gloves and other equipment that slows down this inevitable process of dying. When I reach my destination, or have had enough of the cold, I can return to a comfortably heated home and yet again escape death. By giving me access to better equipment to withstand our inhospitable nature, human society has slowed down the process by which nature kills me. By expanding capitalist markets, distribution chains, innovative profit-seekers, and hyper-specialized division of labor, we have made an unsustainable activity last longer – in effect making life more sustainable, not less.
The sustainability crowd has managed to make this word mean a lot more things than that. So much so that the same Cambridge Dictionary lists a secondary meaning for ‘sustainable:’ “Causing little or no damage to the environment and therefore able to continue for a long time”(emphasis added). The secondary meaning of its opposite, ‘unsustainable,’ is similarly bonkers: “causing damage to the environment by using more of something than can be replaced naturally.”
Lots of things are wrong with these seemingly innocent lines, and I’ll focus on three: the environment as a friendly sentient being, the causal chain between environmental damage and sustainability, and the replacement rate of resources.
Nature Is Not Nice
If it weren’t clear already from the chilling pain of sub-zero temperatures for months on end, nature is not a hospitable all-providing place for humans. In the past I’ve referred to this as the “Bambi syndrome” – thinking that nature is nice, harmless, and providing. That nature is a Garden of Eden devoid of dangers, threats, or pain.
After being exposed to the cold winter air for about ten minutes, my fingers go numb. Without the protection of gloves and clothes I could never have made myself, I would die in a couple of hours. The “climate” or “the environment” wouldn’t care, as my body simply becomes food for some other organism, returning me to dust. Unless we subscribe to some religious naturalism or equate nature with God, “the” environment isn’t an active moral agent at all but a passive background process.
“getting the environment out of the way. […] Life means impact. Life means movement and movement means impact. All these things about eliminating environmental impact is not only against life, it just won’t happen.”
Human beings are the organism that has been the most successful at removing nature’s obstacles from our path, and protecting ourselves from its damaging forces. Even though there are six billion more of us today than in 1900, fewer people die at the hand of nature’s powers. That’s us impacting the environment and it is cause for celebration. Impact away!
Causing No Harm
When “the environment” is damaged – a sentiment that has no meaning to human morality – nobody is harmed. The Cambridge definition for sustainability causally connects environmental damage to what it means for something to go on for a long time. The thing is, the labels “damage” and “long time” are sufficiently wide for us to place almost anything in there.
Taking something from nature, or impacting nature in any way (Bejan’s “getting the environment out of the way”) is what it means to be alive. This is the problem for a deep enough environmentalist believer: any human activity is morally impermissible. For that position, no arguments or actions are sufficient: the precondition for moral reasoning is to be alive, but for life to be alive it must alter nature, and so this argument defeats itself.
Sensible environmentalism moderates this position and places harm with the moral agents that can feel it: humans. When one human or a group of humans do something that changes how some process of nature operates that in turn harms other humans, we have a conflict – a moral trade-off between one person’s benefit and another person’s costs. This is standard externality reasoning. As such, they have solutions. If the benefit is sufficiently valuable, we can negotiate the damages; we can redistribute the costs and we can reimburse those negatively affected if we can tie the environmental damage to others’ actions.
The thing is, climate gases (primarily CO2) linger in the atmosphere for a very long time: the vast majority of these gases were emitted by people who are already dead and couldn’t have known the impact of their actions. Even if by waving a wand we could cease CO2 emissions tomorrow, grand changes to a number of climate indicators (sea level, glacier melts, temperature rise) are already baked into the system. Unless we figure out a cost-effective way to remove CO2 from the atmosphere (which we are and should be doing), the only way to prevent harm to other humans is to ensure that they have the same revolutionary access to protective measures that I have in mid-winter.
How is it that I have those? Growth, trade, economic well-being and yes, fossil fuels are the best protection we have from a nature that isn’t nice – so in the name of sustainability, let’s have more of those things.
This part of the ‘unsustainability’ definition is most odd, and feeds into the resource scare that returns every generation. Fossil fuels like oil are made by decaying plants and life over millions of years; gold and other precious metals arrived when this planet was bombarded with meteorites. There is in other words no way that humans can use any of these objects and not fall prey to the “unsustainable” label. That makes the label meaningless.
Besides, we have ingenious mechanisms to make sure that we never run out of any of them.
In 1944, we had access to something like 51 billion barrels of oil. According to the BP Statistical Review of World Energy, at the end of 2019 we had 1,733 billion barrels of oil in proven reserves – and that’s after having used quite a lot in the 75 years in between. The same holds for gold and other raw materials, of which we have loads. With better technology, and higher prices to justify their extraction if and when they run low, we can always find more. As long as oil or raw materials have a market price that makes digging for them worthwhile, we will never run out.
How can that be?, asks everyone from David Attenborough to Greta Thunberg. We’ll dig up the wells and deposits we already know exist – and then we’ll go search for more! Nobody thinks we’ve already found all there is.
Another aspect of this problem is the timescale involved. If I cut down a tree, the hours I spend doing that is by all means unsustainable; a similar tree would take decades to grow back, not hours. If I keep chopping trees faster than the rate at which they grow back, I can still keep doing that until they run out. The boundary is not the replacement rate as the definition implies – but zero (or the minimum amount required for it to grow back).
Example: Britain’s forested area today is almost as large as it was in 1086 – before kings “unsustainably” ravaged the land and the fiery pits of industry “unsustainably” consumed every natural resource in its path. Over a millennium-long time frame, then, forestry in Britain looks perfectly sustainable: Brits burned, cleared, and chopped their verdant forests for a while until they stopped, and then let the forests regrow. At any point during decades and centuries of heavy deforestation one could have cried “unsustainable” since what they did could not have continued indefinitely. But continuing indefinitely was not what happened; we know that when societies get richer, they divest from chopping down trees and can afford to keep more of nature intact.
This historical illustration has great implications for today’s deforesters, where the Brazilian Amazon is the go-to example. Yes, the rate at which loggers – legal and illegal – cut that pristine forest is unsustainable, but so what? They won’t do it forever, and there is a mind-bogglingly large amount of it still standing. (If you worry about climate feedback loops and loss of biodiversity and other highly privileged things to worry about, you should begin by cutting loggers and farmers a check).
Cold, dark, and biting winters illustrate more than anything else that nature is not nice. We should thank our lucky stars – or more properly the profit-seeking innovators and capitalists around the world – for the wool gloves and fossil fuels and heated homes that protect us from the elements. Not to mention the productive economies that let us purchase them by fewer and fewer of our labor hours.
By standard definitions, what we are doing is “unsustainable,” but most human activities are. Over some time period every activity is unsustainable, but that’s not an indictment, practically or morally, of doing them. When the environment is harming humans (the default position of life), we should offer those humans the best available protection against that – with or without a worsening climate.
In winter, when our technological capacities and global distribution lines save us from freezing and starving to death, this should be more clear than ever.