Sustainability (sustainable development) is one of the hottest trends on college campuses, in the news media, in corporate boardrooms and with regulators. There are three different versions.
Real Sustainability involves thoughtful, caring, responsible, economical stewardship and conservation of land, water, energy, metallic, forest, wildlife and other natural resources. Responsible businesses, families and communities practice this kind of sustainability every day: polluting less, recycling where it makes sense, and using less energy, water and raw materials to manufacture the products we need.
Public Relations Sustainability mostly involves meaningless, superficial, unverifiable, image-enhancing assertions that a company is devoted to renewable fuels, corporate responsibility, environmental justice, reducing its carbon footprint – or sustainability. Its primary goal is garnering favorable press or appeasing radical environmental groups.
Politicized Sustainability is the untenable, even dangerous variety. It relies on ideological assertions and theoretical models as an alternative to actual outside-our-windows reality and evidence. Like “dangerous manmade climate change,” its real purpose is gaining greater agitator and government control over people’s energy use, lives, livelihoods, liberties and living standards. It reflects an abysmal understanding of basic energy, economic, resource extraction, manufacturing and human rights realities.
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.”
Among other alleged human wrongdoing doing, Political Sustainability thus reflects the assertion that we are rapidly depleting finite resources. Therefore, we must reduce our current needs and wants in order to save those resources for future generations. At first blush, it sounds logical, and even ethical.
However, under sustainability precepts, we are supposed to predict future technologies – and ensure that today’s resource demands will not compromise the completely unpredictable energy and raw material requirements that those completely unpredictable future technologies will introduce. We are supposed to safeguard the assumed needs of future generations, even if it means ignoring or compromising the undeniable needs of current generations – including the needs, aspirations, health and welfare of the most impoverished, malnourished, disease-ravaged, energy-deprived, politically powerless people on Earth.
For thousands of years, mankind advanced at a snail’s pace. Then, as the modern fossil-fuel industrial era found its footing, progress picked up rapidly, until the speed of change became almost exponential. How today is anyone supposed to predict what might be in store ten, fifty or a hundred years from now?
Moreover, 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 forth. We did it because we innovated. We invented something better, more efficient, more practical. Each advance required different materials.
Who today can foresee what future technologies we will have … and what raw materials those future technologies will require? How we are supposed to ensure that future families can meet their needs, if we cannot possibly know what those needs will be?
Why then would we even think of empowering activists and governments to regulate today’s activities – based on wholly unpredictable future technologies, lifestyles, needs and resource demands? Why would we ignore or compromise the pressing needs of current generations, to meet those totally unpredictable future needs?
“Resource depletion” claims also fail to account for new technologies that increase energy and mineral reserves, reduce their costs – or decrease the need for certain raw materials: copper, for instance, because lightweight fiber optic cables made from silica (one of Earth’s most abundant minerals) can carry thousands of times more information than a huge bundle of copper wires that weigh 800 times more.
In 1887, when Wisconsin’s Hearthstone House became the world’s first home lit by hydroelectric power, no one could foresee how electricity would come to dominate, enhance and safeguard our lives in the myriad ways it does today. No one could envision the many ways we generate electricity today.
A hundred and twenty years later, no one predicted tiny cellular phones with superb digital cameras and more computing and networking power than a big 1990 desktop computer. No one expected that we would need so much cadmium, lithium, rare earth metals and other raw materials to manufacture thousands of wind turbines.
No one anticipated that new 4-D seismic, deepwater drilling and hydraulic fracturing technologies would find and produce so much oil and natural gas that today we still have at least a century’s worth of these vital energy resources – which “experts” had just told us we would run out of in only a few more years.
And yet, we are still supposed to predict the future 50 or 100 years from now, safeguard the assumed needs of future generations, and ignore the clear needs of current generations. We are also supposed to presume that today’s essential natural resources have to last forever. In reality, they only have to last long enough for our creative intellects to discover real, actually workable replacements: new deposits, production techniques, raw material substitutes or technologies.
Of course, all of this is irrelevant to Politicized Sustainability dogma. That doctrine focuses on ridding the world of fossil fuels, regardless of any social, economic, environmental or human costs of doing so. And regardless of whether supposed alternatives really are eco-friendly and sustainable.
For example, mandated U.S. ethanol quotas eat up 40% of this nation’s corn, grown on over 36 million acres of cropland, to replace 10% of America’s gasoline. Corn ethanol also requires billions of gallons of water, and vast quantities of pesticides, fertilizers, tractor fuel and natural gas … to produce energy that drives up food prices, damages small engines, gets one-third fewer miles per gallon than gasoline – and during its entire production and use cycle emits just as much carbon dioxide as gasoline.
Imagine replacing 100% of US gasoline with corn ethanol. How would that in any way be sustainable?
Mandated, subsidized wind energy requires millions of acres for turbines and ultra-long transmission lines … and billions of tons of concrete, steel, copper, rare earth metals and fiberglass. The turbines’ subsonic noise and light flicker create chronic health problems for susceptible people living near them, and kill millions of birds and bats annually – to produce expensive, intermittent, unreliable electricity that must be backed up by dozens of fossil fuel generators or billions of (nonexistent) land- and resource-intensive battery arrays.
Meanwhile, American and Canadian companies are cutting down thousands of acres of forests and turning millions of trees into wood pellets that they truck to coastal ports and transport on oil-fueled cargo ships to England. There the pellets are hauled by truck and burned in place of coal, to generate electricity … so that England can meet its renewable fuel targets. How is this sustainable – or “climate friendly?”
Why not just build the fossil fuel power plants … mine for coal and frack for natural gas to fuel them – or build more nuclear power plants – and forget about the ethanol, wind turbines, wood pellets and other pseudo-renewable, pseudo-sustainable false alternatives … until something truly better comes along?
Meanwhile, more than 1.2 billion people still do not have electricity. Another 2 billion have electrical power only sporadically and unpredictably. Hundreds of millions get horribly sick, and five million die every year from lung and intestinal diseases that are due to breathing smoke from open fires … and not having refrigeration, clean water and safe, bacteria-free food.
As Steven Lyazi has noted, these people simply want to take their rightful, God-given places among Earth’s healthy and prosperous people. Instead, they’re being told “that wouldn’t be sustainable.”
They’re being told they must be content with a few wind turbines near their villages and little solar panels on their huts – to charge cell phones, pump a little water, power a few light bulbs and operate tiny refrigerators.
Politicized Sustainability is irrational, unjust, inhumane, eco-imperialistic and environmentally destructive. It is especially harmful to the world’s poor.
It’s time to rethink and overhaul this insanity.
Paul Driessen is senior policy analyst for the Committee For A Constructive Tomorrow (www.CFACT.org), and author of Eco-Imperialism: Green power – Black death and other books on public policy.
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