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Coming to terms--sustainability and Scrooge

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About ten years ago, I proposed doing a study for the US Department of Energy to determine the sustainability of producing ethanol from corn stover. One DOE staffer, whose opinions I respect a great deal, immediately squelched the idea of having DOE take on sustainability. It was, in his mind, a buzz saw. Only a fool would deliberately try to address such a controversial concept. In the end, he felt, we would invoke the wrath of those who saw sustainability as the rallying cry of anti-industry environmentalists, while simultaneously disappointing those environmentalists whose views on sustainable development could not be satisfactorily addressed by DOE. It would be, in short, a lose-lose proposition for the Department. 

We did, in the end, prevail in keeping sustainable development as a key focus of the study. But I completely understand the reticence to engage in the political charged dialogue over sustainability. It has a long and controversial history.

While we think of sustainable development as a contemporary concept attributable to our more environmentally sensitive modern society, it is a notion that has a long--and unfortunately--negative history.

In my opinion, the origins of sustainability can be found in the writings of the 19th century writer, the Reverend Thomas Malthus--well. at least the doom and gloom side of sustainability. Malthus wrote, in his infamous (both now and then) treatise entitled An Essay on the Principle of Population, about the inevitable clash between the limits of natural resources and what the modern day Malthusian E. O. Wilson called "heedless population growth."

Sustainability Definition Scrooge.jpg

Malthus--wrong in many of the details, but right at least in identifying a limit to the capacity of our planet--was the first of many to run into the buzz saw of sustainability.  He offered a very simple, if stark, hypothesis based on two assumptions: 1) the planet has a limit in its capacity to support a given population; 2) the population will grow exponentially without regard to that capacity. When population exceeds the planet's capacity--according to his hypothesis--Mother Nature will step in makes things right. The tools of choice for correcting the over-reaching population? death, disease, war and famine. 

Sustainability Definition Malthus Exponential.jpg
This grim perspective didn't win him any popularity contests. It did win him the ridicule of Charles Dickens, whose character "Scrooge" was known at the time to have been an obvious attack of Malthus. Today, the Malthusian label is used to disparage and downplay anyone raising warnings about environmental consequences of our society, as when the Wall Street Journal named Al Gore "Senator Malthus" after Gore published his book Earth in the Balance.  (With Nobel Prize in hand, one has to wonder whether Gore had the last laugh.)

Malthus didn't count on technology improvements and a fossil energy fueled fertilizer industry that spurred dramatic improvements in agriculture. Nor did he count on the ability of societies to voluntarily adjust their population growth rates, particularly as they grow in economic well-being. But does that mean his notions are simply quaint and naive? I don't think so. The question of our planet's carrying capacity is at the core of our understanding of what it means to be  sustainable.

It's unfortunate that the stage for the debate about sustainability has been set in such dire terms. The ghost of Malthus has loomed large over the environmental movement, starting with Paul Ehrlich's The Population Bomb, the early work on Limits to Growth at MIT in the 1970s and continuing today with Lester Brown and the large number of environmental NGOs that have proliferated in the past two decades. 

Views on sustainable development now seem to fall into two camps. On one side, there are free marketeers and economists who believe that profit driven innovation will always find an answer to our resource needs. On the other are folks like David Pimentel, who have concluded that we are already well past the carrying capacity of the planet.  And biofuels is caught in the middle. If you are a market optimist, you see biofuels as a waste. If you are a resource pessimist, you see biofuels as a fool's gold for energy that will only aggravate the burdens on our planet. Neither view has it right.

1 Comment

What a nice post.

Reverend Thomas Malthus he's a lil bit right about over population on earth.

He meaned about End of the World if we reach the capacity on earth.

  The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author(s) and not necessarily
  of the Institute on the Environment/University of Minnesota.

About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by John Sheehan published on January 25, 2010 1:08 PM.

Coming to terms--sustainability as an undefinable, unattainable ideal was the previous entry in this blog.

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