You are here

There is really only one kind of sustainability

The Fallacy of Equivalent Concerns

Despite our best efforts, there are persistent and common misunderstandings about the rudiments of overshoot and sustainability. Four come to mind:
1. The exponential function. Albert Bartlett is right about that. I can't get people alarmed by lets say, a 2-3% annual growth rate. Like the magic of compound interest, your town can double in population in a mere generation at this deceptively incremental pace.

2. Efficiency paradoxes. People don't understand that efficiencies, outside the context of a steady state economy, by making things cheaper only provoke more consumption and growth. (eg. Jevons Paradox, Khazoom-Brooks postulate).

3. Social justice doesn't solve resource shortages . The integrity of the lifeboat is more important than how the passengers treat each other. Food can be shared equitably between passengers, but if there are too many passengers, the boat will sink. The law of gravity doesn't care about social justice, human rights or human political arrangements. Moral laws, whether handed down by Stephen Lewis, Dr. William Rees or Moses, are trumped by bio-physical laws. Socialists, liberals, federal Greens, clergymen and humanitarians simply don't get it. There ain't enough to go around, however justly and efficiently things are managed or distributed. And economists of course, are equally delusional, if not mad for believing that with some technological 'fix' we can 'grow' the limits.

4. Limiting factors. The weakest link in the chain can bring a society to its knees. It can have everything in abundance, but a shortage in just one critical area can prove its undoing. This to me is the source of this current fashion of assigning "sustainability" to a series of sectors thought to enjoy some independence from others. It is this misconception which I find most pernicious.


Like the word “green”, “sustainable” or “sustainability” has become the buzzword of the millennia. Corporations and governments of the left or right feel compelled to dress up the most ecologically invasive development proposal or economic activity with assurances that it is “sustainable”. Employed as an adjective it coats the unpalatable with the sweet syrup of delectability rendering the bitter pill of upheaval and damage neutral in flavour. Growth not couched in green psychobabble went down like Buckley’s Mixture, but “sustainable growth”, “sustainable tourism” and “sustainable agriculture” on the other hand tastes like sugary cough syrup. Such is the Newspeak of contemporary growthism, the vocabulary of deceit that promises a new kind of capitalism, capitalism in a green velvet glove, business as usual with apparent sensitivity to environmental concerns that will nevertheless satisfy the shareholders.

Trade-offs or the Fallacy of Equivalent Concerns

But even the compromise suggested by oxymoronic terminology does not apparently suffice to satisfy the corporate agenda. As can be witnessed in the tourist industry, economic considerations have achieved a delusional parity in a “holistic” paradigm that sees “environmental” sustainability balanced off against “economic” and “cultural” sustainability. In this three-legged stool model of viability, environmental issues must compete with other “sustainability” concerns on a level playing field with other equally valid objectives so as to achieve the optimal “trade-offs”. This misconception may be termed “The Fallacy of Equivalent Concerns”. It is the assumption that would, if applied to the human physiognomy, rate the heart as an organ of equal importance to every other organ of the body when in fact, as we know, a patient can survive with one lung, or one kidney , or a colonoscopy, or brain impairment, but when his heart stops all of these important but ancillary parts die with the patient. The economy is a subsidiary part of society. It is, as former World Bank economist Herman Daly described it, “a fully owned branch plant of the environment. “ We make our living in an economy, but we live in a biosphere.

Environmental externalisation doesn't change Mother Nature's rules

Case in point. Newfoundland politicians were warned that the cod fishery was not sustainable, but they replied that without the cod fishery, Newfoundland’s economy was not sustainable, so the fishermen of Newfoundland continued to fish. Nature replied that what the economy of Newfoundland required was irrelevant, and so refused to yield more cod. In any such contest, nature’s agenda prevails. Similarly politicians and developers want the city of Phoenix, already at 3 million people, to grow even further. Mother Nature’s City Council, however, has set limits to the volume of water available in aquifers. One day folks in Phoenix, together with 15 million other refugees in America’s south east, will discover that any economy without water is not sustainable. The needs and wants of an economy cannot trespass carrying capacity. Nature imposes boundaries. Without clean air, productive soils, replenished aquifers---without biodiversity services---any economy will collapse. And once the environment is trashed, try milking your “robust” economy for tax revenues to buy another one. Yet that is what corporate and government green wash implies. Former social democratic Premier of British Columbia, Mike Harcourt, crystallized this confusion with a classic line of obsolete reasoning, “To have a healthy environment we need a healthy economy.” He does not seem to understand that the environment was doing quite well before human activity arrived to “manage” it. His underlying assumption seems to be that the environment is an externality, a desirable luxury that we can only “afford” once we have achieved economic “prosperity”. This reasoning is equivalent to saying that yes, while it is desirable that I have a triple bypass operation, I must postpone the operation until I can afford it by continuing to work overtime at my strenuous job.

Environmental passengers

Imagine if the officers on board the sinking Titanic claimed that the cabins on the third deck were sustainable because each had a barrel of water, ten sacks of beans, a compost, renewable energy and a water-tight door. Trouble is, they would not be sustainable 5 miles underwater. Every cabin was rendered unsustainable when the Titanic itself was unsustainable after the collision. Similarly, the space shuttle Challenger could have been said to have a sustainable oxygen supply, a sustainable food supply, a sustainable waste disposal system, and a sustainable crew compartment. But one "O" ring was the limiting factor that made the Challenger unsustainable. All the other "sustainable" aspects on that space ship were rendered unsustainable by the explosion that blew the crew compartment away, eventually crashing it into the sea. Until it hit the water, apart from the loss of air pressure, the crew survived in a 'sustainable' compartment. Our economy and our culture are like that crew compartment. They are completely dependent on the health of the environment. Without the estimated $33 trillion in free biodiversity services, we're toast. Trash the environment if you like but the so-called 'prosperity' you achieve won't buy you a new one.

Misunderstanding the structure of the real world

We still believe that we can negotiate with nature on our own terms. We can pursue business-as-usual just by genuflecting to trendy green shibboleths. Government and corporate communiqués are now laced with green-growthist double-talk. Try this from a discussion paper from the Planning Department of a typical Canadian city. Note how it attempts to appease environmental concerns with trendyisms while remaining faithful to the political mandate to keep growing as usual: “Several growth allocation/land use scenarios developed and tested for impacts on various sustainability criteria (financial, environmental, social and cultural).” In other words, there are several criteria for sustainability, and the environment is just one of them. So Mother Nature, stand back. Get to the back of the line and wait your turn until cultural and economic needs have been satisfied.

Hair splitting

Of course, what exactly constitutes “sustainability” is a matter of some debate among ecologists. As one wildlife biologist commented in response to this critique, “Because natural systems are always changing or ‘dynamic’ there seems to be some disturbing latitude in what we consider a sustained ecosystem. What degree of impairment can a system tolerate before it loses the very characteristics that ‘define’ it? The term ‘integrity’ often emerges in these discussions with predictable results. It is much easier to define what constitutes unsustainable or an irreversible change in the system. A boreal forest without fire disturbance is no longer "sustainable"? Or, can forestry be made to replace this disturbance? At what point do we no longer have a boreal forest? This does not at all detract from your argument that clearly shows that without a sustainable natural environment, all other constructs of "sustainability" are meaningless.” A dead planet indeed can achieve an equilibrium, but it cannot sustain life. And this may come as a shock to economists and nationalists alike, but human economic activity, culture, language and customs cannot exist without living human beings.

Sustainability doesn't come in different brands

Even those organizations committed to imposing limits have succumbed to this flawed understanding. An emerging immigration reform organization declares, as one of its aims, “To promote the creation of a sustainable Canada through urgently needed reform of immigration policies that are in the national interest.” Well and good. But then one opinion has it that this proposal “has some merit because it implies sustainability across a number of areas---cultural and institutional as well as environmental.” But mass immigration is not, as Samuel Gompers characterized it, fundamentally a labour issue, nor is it a cultural one. It is not about how many people our economy requires or how many people our culture can assimilate but how many people our environment can sustain. Contemporary culture as we know it cannot survive an ecological meltdown. The nation itself would not endure. When the water you drink is polluted or inaccessible, when the farmland needed to provide food to Canadians after international trade collapses with stratospheric fuel costs, when our exhausted soils starved of fossil-fuel based fertilizers cannot yield crops, when our forests are mowed down and the air unfit to breath, the fact that a lot people in the neighbourhood are wearing strange clothing or speaking in foreign tongues will be of little importance. Cultural “sustainability” in this context will be a mirage. There is ultimately only one “sustainability”. The sustainability of the whole, not its constituent parts.

Tim Murray
February 4/2010

Image icon Spring-cod.jpg58.58 KB
Image icon venus-cod.jpg5.42 KB
Image icon Spring-cod2.jpg65.12 KB


Thanks Tim for this very timely article. I'm very interested in Herman Daly, CASSE, Ecological Footprint, Tim Jackson's "Prosperity without Growth" and some great articles from the new economics foundation. These seem to be the voices that are relevant to the future, 'til, as the Beatles said, 'til there was you.

O.k. a few points I would make:
Sustainable development has, as you say, been taken to mean many things to many people, MOST bastardising the definition of "development" which has at its core, "to make better" - as opposed to sustainable "growth" - to grow, meaning "to reach maturity". This of course indicates what you implied, the finiteness of the single planet, which MUST, at some stage, have SOME body which concerns itself ONLY with environmental limits. What do we have now, - cost benefit and risk analysis.

Hence the necessity for the Ecological Footprint to be the assessor of consumption and production and the 'standard' of sustainability. (I know the current "system" is flawed in that it sets aside ALL productive earth for human consumption without allocating anything for the spacial needs of biodiversity. BIG problem).

I don't agree with the population argument totally. It is demonstrable that indigenous populations have a very small footprint, India & China being cases in point. The reason large populations BECOME unsustainable is when they adopt western industrialised "lifestyles". As stated in "Agenda 21" in 1992, "the main reason for continued degradation of the environment is the unsustainable methods of production and consumption, particularly in industrialised society" (Chapter 4 ,Agenda 21)

Overshoot tells us that not too long ago, the planet was (excuse the term) sustainable, (even though equality was non existent) sometime in the 80's. Yet we are so enamoured with growth.

Although funnily enough I heard of a Federal Treasury "body" called the "intergenerational committee" which has just made a pronouncement that "growth" for the next 40 years should be standardised at 2.7% instead of the recent past 3.5%. Growth economies are slowly coming to realise the environmental limits that exist. Peak Oil a classic. Our whole current monetary system, relying on "interest" payments with borrowings, sets the accepted standard for the growth that must occur to service these debts.

New economics foundation latest paper is called "Growth isn't possible", and explores all the options as far as "efficiency", energy intensity etc that have sprung out of nowhere, confined to the trash can of the future along with things like "offsets".

I think I read in some of Herman Daly's reports that SOME growth, (gleaned from the "natural" abundance of the planet) is possible. Fish do breed - except when they come into contact with the "factory ships" that swallow everything.

But what does this mean? Work, less work for everyone, a shared experience.
Government gets bigger, to regulate and supervise the natural resources that it oversees.

People reduce consumption and production runs on Life Cycle Analysis. It means the end of voodoo economics.

The Australian Greens "Green New Deal" is very much based on Tim Jackson's work, altho' to openly advocate at this low environmental ebb, would be political suicide.

I'm a great believer in numbers, and at present they're just not there, nor will they be I fear within the short time that is left. 25% of the vote, around Pauline Hansens % is needed to even begin a critical mass.

"The simple fact is while food production has increased by 32 million tonnes a year, an annual increase of 44 million tonnes a year is what's actually needed to meet the food targets for 2050 set down by the World Summit on Food security," Professor Tester said.

Food crisis looms, warn scientists

Professor Tester warns the current diversion of food into the production of biofuels is putting even further pressure on world food supplies.

Earlier this week, the Northern Australia Land and Water Taskforce released a report that concluded northern Western Australia is unlikely to become South East Asia's next food bowl. Already our existing food bowl, the Murray Darling, is under stress. Professor Tester says this is a pity, but believes Australia has enough to sustain a growing population. For how long though?

Should having enough food be the only criteria for population growth in the face of the global runaway population explosion?

The Brumby Government’s north-south pipeline is to transport 75 billion litres of water each year from the Goulburn River system for use in Melbourne. The Goulburn River is already under extreme stress and was found, by the Murray-Darling Basin Commission’s Sustainable Rivers Audit in 2008, to have "poor" to "extremely poor" health, the worst of any of the 23 rivers in the Murray-Darling Basin.

A moribund river system will be exploited even further.

The extra $70 million for the upgrade our water infrastructure to accommodate the north-south pipeline project will add to the public's water bill, along with the $3.5 billion Wonthaggi desalination plant. Our water bills are said to double in the next five years to fund all this extra infrastructure.
The massive Thomson dam was finished in 1983 and was supposed to "drought proof" Melbourne. However, population has exceeded the level the dams were intended to cater for.

Brumby's desperation to supply water to Melbourne, at our expense, is not about a sustainable water supply solution in response to climate change, but sustaining water for our socially-engineered population growth.

"Feral animals may threaten our rich biodiversity, adversely affect our landscapes and waterways, and often have severe economic and social impacts."

Just because a politician has gone feral, doesn't mean the rest of us should follow his manic big Melbourne impulse. Brumby's big Melbourne policy is a lemming suicide plunge taking Victoria over the sustainability cliff.

In 1990, Joan Kirner left behind a depressed Victorian economy. Brumby is driving marvellous Melbourne into a depressed Dickensian society, overcrowded in an 'age of foolishness.'

John Marlow 13/2/10 is right of course ..... but .... it is worth remembering that if you can't lick 'em you'd best join 'em .... you tend to last a bit longer that way..... and also to remember that the REAL problem is built into every last one of us.

We haven't much by way of choices in managing our own hormones it seems , let alone those of 6 or 7 billion others ... and an equally promiscuous Mother Nature (Lemmings ,Rabbits ,Cockroaches etc.).

Harold may be defeatist and may lick his foes to survive into old age along with other meek whom are primitively convinced they may inherit the Earth.

If humans follow rabbits and cockroaches in plague proportions then we may have to rely on Iran to drop their new bomb. But financial carrots and sticks to encourage two child families long term is more sustainable and ethical.

One shouldn't subscribe to the human pathogen, but respect the Earth as a gift for each of us while we are here for 80 odd years each - such a short time. We should benefit from it while we grow, and then once wise, give back once we know.

I first worried about this people populating thing in 1936 .
The years since then have proved , beyond doubt , that 50% of people are below average intelligence with respect to any intellectual endeavour one might choose .... (the footy player's response to Dick Smith and Bob Carr earlier this year is evidence of it) .
For this reason alone neither stick nor carrot will be of any use in this populating matter .... it will roll on until all sellable resources are sold , or, if we are stupid enough to demur , they come to take it .

Because of a "stick" there are now 20 million or so of them wifeless , a much larger army this time around .

Forget Iran ..... Lock up your daughters ... and wake in terror.

Melbourne , Australia has come up against its weakest link in the chain of necessities: water.

We will soon have our first desalination plant or water factory located on what was hitherto an unspoiled beach a couple of hours from the city. It is quite amazing how far we have come along the road to environmental collapse during my lifetime.

If one was to scheme to undo the positives and values of this lucky country, one would have a fettish for a big Australia, suck the blood from its resources, sell its assets, to fuel that fettish.

Future generations will wake in fright.