Thursday, January 19, 2012

Now Playing: The Sustainability Con

Although the issue of “sustainability” has been around a while, recently it has grown in popularity and influence. The way it’s happening follows an all too familiar pattern.

There are several common ingredients in how the left enlarges its control over our lives. The first is the selection of some aspect of reality — global warming, carbon footprints, population growth, inequality, diversity, for example. The second element involves designating the selected aspect of reality as a crisis. The third step is to explain that the only way to avoid Armageddon is by reducing everyone’s freedom and by giving more centralized power and control to those who understand the magnitude of the crisis. The rest of us are told that our freedoms are a luxury we simply can no longer afford.

Another common element of the process is defining the crisis as ambiguously as possible. Ordinarily, a desirable characteristic of a definition is that it draws a bright line between what is included and what isn’t. Clarity, however, is contrary to the objectives of the crusaders — in regard to defining the problem, the slipperier the better. For example, climate change (or climate disruption) beats global warming. Global warming is too quantifiable in comparison to climate change. No one is quite sure what “climate change” is or isn’t or how it can be measured. Sustainability is even more ambiguous than climate change and thus has more sustainability as a ruse.

Ideally the designated crisis is as expansive and open-ended as possible. A vague, loosely defined crisis provides politicians and bureaucrats with what amounts to a blank check or a no-limit credit card, a credit card where someone else gets sent the bill. A problem having no clear definition is a problem without borders.

At Arizona State University you can get a B.S., M.S., or Ph.D. in sustainability. ASU has an entire “School of Sustainability.” The school’s website offers several answers to the question, “What is sustainability?” Here are four of the answers they offer:

“Sustainability is a concept with as much transformative potential as justice, liberty, and equality.” Michael Crow President Arizona State University

“Sustainability is larger than one person, one company, or one country. Its scope, scale and importance demand unprecedented and swift solutions to environmental protection and other complex problems.” Julie Ann Wrigley President Julie Ann Wrigley Foundation

“Sustainability is living in harmony with our social and natural environment, based on a sense of justice and equity.” Sander van der Leeuw Dean School of Sustainability

“Sustainability is a process that engages every discipline to provide dynamic solutions to complex problems.” Brian McCollow Student School of Sustainability

Are you clear now on what sustainability means and why a “School of Sustainability” is of paramount importance?

Academic papers on the topic of sustainability often include such concepts as “intergenerational equity” and “inter-temporal welfare.” The left somehow manages to insert its obsession with inequality into every imaginable issue. Inequality is not only a problem at a point in time, but also between time periods.

The Environmental Protection Agency recently spent $700,000 on a study entitled Sustainability and the U.S. EPA. The abstract of the report states:

Recognizing the importance of sustainability in its work, the U.S. EPA has been working to create programs and applications in a variety of areas to better incorporate sustainability into decision-making at the agency.… This framework provides recommendations for a sustainability approach that both incorporates and goes beyond an approach based on assessing and managing the risks posed by pollutants that have largely shaped environmental policy since the 1980s.… EPA should also articulate its vision for sustainability and develop a set of sustainability principles that would underlie all agency policies and programs.

Obviously the EPA sees sustainability as a golden opportunity in its quest for more power, control, and funding. The EPA’s new lease on life is going to diminish everyone else’s lives.

What is sustainability, really? It is actually an old concept that has once again been warmed over for the umpteenth time. Sustainability is simply the latest incarnation of Malthusianism. Writing in 1798, Thomas Malthus warned that England’s population growth was going to outstrip its available endowment of resources such as agricultural land and coal. The specter that Malthus described was summarized as population increases geometrically, food increases arithmetically. Based on that logic, starvation and suffering were seen as inevitable. Malthus, in other words, was saying that England’s economic growth was not sustainable. It was that profoundly pessimistic theory that resulted in economics being described as “the dismal science.” England, of course, has gone on to experience over 200 years of historically unprecedented economic growth.

As John Maynard Keynes later observed, “Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.” Although Malthus certainly ought to be defunct, his diagnosis of the world continues to have broad appeal.

Obviously, Malthus’s predictions did not come to pass. Why not? Malthus’s error, in a nutshell, was failing to appreciate the impact of an increasing stock of knowledge and the resulting technological revolution. The sustainability crusade is wrong for essentially the same reasons Malthus was wrong.

A CLOSE RELATIVE OF SUSTAINABLE is “renewable.” An obsession with renewability has resulted in many of our silliest and costliest public policies — subsidies and mandates for ethanol, windmills, and solar panels, for example. A reflex response has been ingrained in public policy that renewable is always and everywhere better than non-renewable. Buzzwords like renewable and sustainable act essentially like thought-stoppers.

When in the history of civilization have we actually exhausted or totally depleted any significant resource? The answer is never. What makes us believe we will in the future? Somehow we buy into the notion that something that has never happened in history is going to doom us in the near future. It is another reflection of the inflated self-importance and myopia of the current generation.

The Stone Age did not end because of a stone shortage. It ended because an expanding supply of knowledge created superior alternatives to stones. That dynamic represents a central theme in the history of civilization. Iron ore was around before and during the Stone Age, but the information needed to make it useful did not exist at the time. Petroleum was not even a resource until we knew how to access it and refine it. We also invented new ways to use it, especially for transportation purposes. Sand was not a resource until we learned how to turn it into glass and concrete. As the late Julian Simon observed, “Resources in their raw form are useful and valuable only when found, understood, gathered together and harnessed for human needs. The basic ingredient in the process, along with the raw elements, is human knowledge.”

In the 19th century lanterns were the main source of illumination and whale oil was the main fuel for lanterns. If that had continued we might have driven some whale species to extinction. Why didn’t that happen? (It certainly wasn’t because Greenpeace was harassing whaling vessels.) We invented ways to convert coal to kerosene and later, petroleum to kerosene. Kerosene was about a tenth as costly as whale oil and smelled better. Then lanterns as a light source were made obsolete by Edison’s invention of the incandescent light bulb.

Copper is an important resource with many uses. It could be categorized as a finite, non-renewable, exhaustible resource. How big a problem is that? To answer that question, consider the numerous ways we have developed superior alternatives for many of the traditional uses of copper. For example, copper wires were once the only alternative for long-distance communication — namely, telephones and telegraph. Now most communication is sent, not through wires, but through the air (cell phone towers and satellites, for example). A single satellite does the job of hundreds of tons of copper. What information is still sent through wires is likely to be done not with copper but rather with fiber-optics (glass). Glass is made with sand or, more specifically, silica. Is sand a non-renewable resource? What’s the likelihood we will ever use it all up?

Whether a particular resource is or is not renewable or sustainable is often not what matters. The most important consideration to bear in mind is this: if there are good or even superior substitutes for a resource, its non-renewability is essentially irrelevant and inconsequential.

Another reason we shouldn’t worry so much is that all resources are not equally valuable or important. Information is the resource that is far and away the most important in terms of generating human welfare. The foremost reason our current generation is so much better off than previous generations is our access to a greater stock of information and knowledge. We truly are living in the Information Age. In a sense all previous ages have been defined by the amount of information available at the time.

Information is the polar opposite of a non-sustainable resource. Information has the almost magical property of being able to spontaneously generate and expand exponentially. Information gives us the power to create resources and to increase the effectiveness and efficiency of all other resources. The resource that is the most powerful and valuable in regard to human welfare is also the resource that has the most fortuitous characteristics. How lucky could we get?

Coming generations of humans are as likely to be as creative and inventive as the past ones have been. Again to quote Julian Simon, “The ultimate resource is people — skilled, spirited, and hopeful people who will exert their wills and imaginations for their own benefit, and so, inevitably, for the benefit of us all.” A necessary ingredient for exercising our wills and imaginations is, of course, a large degree of freedom.

Rather than stressing about hallucinatory anxieties and imaginary problems that are unlikely to ever become real problems, we ought to be celebrating how blessed we are. And we especially should not be giving up our freedoms on the basis of the disproven theories of “some defunct economist.”


Now Playing: The Sustainability Con January 18, 2012,

Ron Ross Ph.D. is a former economics professor and author of The Unbeatable Market. Ron resides in Arcata, California and is a founder of Premier Financial Group, a wealth management firm located in Eureka, California. He is a native of Tulsa, Oklahoma and can be reached at

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