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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."

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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. 

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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.


I return now to something I started in my first blog--defining terms. Among the thorniest of the terms that run across my blog's banner is "sustainability." I have often suggested that the notion of sustainability suffers the reputation of being both a buzz word and a buzz saw. 

I sympathize with those who see sustainable development as one more new buzz word to contend with. We hear the term a lot these days, especially in advertisements from companies vying for the attention and admiration of the public. With the ever increasing usage of the term, there comes, I fear, ever increasing confusion about its meaning. 

Sustainability, it seems, is in the eyes of the beholder. There is some truth to this. A sustainable society for some may mean a return to simpler--less technologically driven--times (a return to Nature with a capital N). For others, it brings to mind the boy scout adage about camping, only in this case it is human society that leaves behind nothing but its footprints and takes away only its memories as it passes through in its journey on the planet. Both notions are overly romantic and unattainable. Then there are the pragmatists who see sustainable development strictly in terms of dollars and cents--sustained and continuous economic growth. This too is utopian and unrealistic, not to mention extremely narrow.


The dictionary doesn't help a bit.  My computer's dictionary (The New Oxford American Dictionary) defines sustainable as "able to be maintained at a certain rate or level."  There is a certain irony in their choice of "sustainable fusion" as an example for the main definition, given that technology's long history of a future promise never realized. The same might be said of many claims of sustainable technology that are always just beyond the blue horizon.

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It is a sign of the times that even the dictionary has added an ecological definition--one which reads uncomfortably like the boy scout definition I mentioned above. It is one thing for a diligent troop of scouts to strive to have no impact when they camp. It is quite another to presume that human society can achieve such a goal on a planetary scale.

Perhaps the most popular definition of sustainable development comes from the United Nations. It too is overly idealistic. But it at least focuses on the true purpose of sustainable development:

"[S]ustainable development meets the needs of the present without compromising the needs of future generations."

It is a truer definition because it acknowledges that it  is for the benefit of all human kind (present and future) that we worry about what we do to our planet and how we manage our natural resources. For all too many, sustainability is more about preserving Nature (with a capital N) than it is about achieving a good quality of life for all. They confuse the ends with the means. Indeed there is a certain arrogance in the attitude that only we can preserve the planet. Our planet will survive just fine without us. What is important is finding a way to live and thrive (and survive) in the world we have been given. 
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The UN's definition doesn't get us around the buzz word problem, however. Sticking with my scouting theme, I've dubbed their definition the "Kumbaya" definition. It's something we can all join hands and sing along with. Who could possibly disagree with it? Don't get me wrong. I think it was a huge step forward for society that we codified the need to consider the future impacts of what we do today. But this definition offers little practical guidance as to what it means to be sustainable. 

Drilling down in the definition of sustainability inevitably exposes the devil in the details. More on that in my next blog.

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

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This page is an archive of recent entries in the Sustainabiliity category.

Politics of Biofuels is the previous category.

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