The Dark Side of Sustainability

Most of the time when a politician uses the term sustainable it is universally met with applause and praise. Sustainability is one of those terms that almost everyone can agree on. Like a political safe word. But there’s one slight problem….

Nothing about humanity is sustainable!

I don’t care how much recycling you do, or how much green energy is generated, or how many electric cars are purchased, our time here is finite.

Let me illustrate with an example.

Western agriculture practices require roughly 1.5 acres of farmland/rangeland to feed a single person. Continuing there is about 36.8 billion acres of inhabitable land with about 37.7% of that usable for farming. This works out to enough farmland to feed 9.2 billion people. The current world population is 7.7 billion and may reach 9 billion by 2035.

Are we starting to see a problem?

Thankfully other countries are much more efficient with their farmland. Take China, as you can read about in this fascinating article by National Geographic. But what are the chances that western societies switch to the Chinese model in our lifetimes? Or ever for that matter.

What about genetically modified crops? From a research paper produced by Oxford an excerpt states:

GM varieties of soybean, cotton, and maize produced 20%, 15%, and 7% higher yield, respectively, than non-GM varieties

That’s something I suppose but there is great resistance to the emergence of genetically modified crops as the long term impact on people is not well understood. Additionally the United States is losing 175 acres of farmland every hour. Or about 1.5 million acres per year. That’s definitely not negligible. And I suspect that something similar is happening in every developing country around the world.

But even if the most efficient farming techniques were implemented globally, and scientist were unleashed to produce the most prolific crops, and development of farmland was ground to a halt, there is still an upper limit in our ability to put food in every mouth.

Humanity is not a sustainable phenomenon. That shouldn’t surprise us though. Everything in the entire universe has a cycle of life and death. It comes into being and then it is destroyed. Nothing, absolutely nothing, lasts forever. Thus to play politics and implement policies on the shoulders of sustainability as some sort of realistic possibility is like living with your head in the sand.

There is a big difference in how you govern an theoretically infinite society vs an impermanent one.

To illustrate this I would like to refer to this discussion between Neil Degrasse Tyson and Jason Silva on immortality. If you don’t want to watch the clip below he basically states that a side effect of realized immortality (in this example referring to never growing old as opposed to God-like invulnerability) people would never leave the house. Because there would be so much more to lose if they were to get hit by a bus or shot.

The same could be said for how we govern ourselves. We are overly concerned with safety and regulations and living as long as possible because there is this arrogance that humanity is going to be around forever and thus there is so much at stake.

As it is with people, the greatest meaning of humanity will emerge from the acceptance that eventually it is all going to end.

If this idea of sustainability persists it would evolve to take on darker and darker forms. Without enough food we would have to select the people we want to sustain. And once there was too many of those select people there would be even darker practices like population culling to keep up with decreasing supply and ever increasing demand.

Maybe instead there would be preemptive policies of limited reproduction where a lottery selects who is allowed to start a family and who is not. I suspect no one would tell me that these are the ideas you have in mind when you vote for a proponent of sustainability.

In closing, and with tongue partially planted in cheek, perhaps there is no clearer example of the dangers of unchecked sustainability than from the most successful film of the past year:

“Going to bed hungry. Scrounging for scraps. Your planet was on the brink of collapse. I was the one who stopped that. You know what’s happened since then? The children born have known nothing but full bellies and clear skies. It’s a paradise.”

– Thanos (talking about the impact of wiping out half of the population of a planet)

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