Like “dangerous manmade climate change,” sustainability reflects poor understanding of basic energy, economic, resource extraction and manufacturing principles – and a tendency to emphasize tautologies and theoretical models as an alternative to readily observable evidence in the Real World. It also involves well-intended but ill-informed people being led by ill-intended but well-informed activists who use the concept to gain greater government control over people’s lives, livelihoods and living standards.
The most common definition is that we may meet the needs of current generations only to the extent that doing so will not compromise the ability of future generations to meet their needs. Sustainability thus reflects the assertion that we are rapidly depleting finite resources, and must reduce current needs and wants so as to save raw materials for future generations.
At first blush, it sounds logical and even ethical. But it requires impossible clairvoyance.
In 1887, when the Hearthstone House became the world’s first home lit via hydroelectric power, no one did or could foresee that electricity would dominate, enhance and safeguard our lives in the myriad ways it does today. Decades later, no one anticipated pure silica fiber optic cables replacing copper wires.
Mankind advanced at a snail’s pace for thousands of years. As the modern fossil-fuel industrial era found its footing, progress picked up at an increasingly breathtaking pace. Today, change is exponential. As we moved from flint to copper, to bronze, iron, steel and beyond, we didn’t do so because mankind had exhausted Earth’s supplies of flint, copper, tin and so on. We did it because we innovated – invented something better, more efficient or practical. Each advance required different raw materials.
Who today can foresee what technologies future generations will have 25, 50 or 200 years from now? What raw materials they will need? How we are supposed to ensure that those families meet their needs?
Why then would we even think of empowering government to regulate today’s activities today based on the wholly unpredictable technologies, lifestyles, needs, and resource demands of distant generations? Why would we ignore or compromise the needs of current generations, to meet those totally unpredictable future needs – including the needs of today’s most impoverished, energy-deprived, malnourished people, who desperately want to improve their lives?
Moreover, we are not going to run out of resources anytime soon. A 1-kilometer fiber optic cable made from 45 pounds of silica (Earth’s most abundant element) carries thousands of times more information than an equally long RG-6 cable made from 3,600 pounds of copper, reducing demand for copper.
In 1947, the world’s proven oil reserves totaled 47 billion barrels. Over the next 70 years, we consumed hundreds of billions of barrels – and yet, says the Institute for Energy Research, in 2016 we still had at least 2,800 billion barrels of oil reserves, including oil sands and other unconventional deposits, like those made available through fracking. Constantly improving technologies now let us find and produce oil and natural gas from deposits that we could not even detect, much less tap into, just a couple decades ago.
That brings us to the political arena, where the terminology is circular, infinitely elastic and malleable, the perfect tool for activists. Whatever they support is sustainable; whatever they oppose is unsustainable; and whatever mantra or protective measure they propose gives them more power and control.