Swans Commentary » swans.com September 11, 2006  



The Catastrophic Illusion Of Sustainability


by Milo Clark





". . . our old style of living based on greed, selfishness and aggression is working against us."
—Ron Nielson, The Little Green Handbook


(Swans - September 11, 2006)   There are few more destructive yet pervasive illusions than that of sustainability.

Whether providing for seven generations from now or hyping pretenses of action with inaction, the illusion of sustainability deludes the masses and distracts the body politic massively.

Simply put, any thing or process dependent in whole or part on non-renewable resources is, by definition, unsustainable. As all present and projected economies from local to international depend on non-renewable resources, there can be no sustainable future, period. The only probability worth betting on is postponement until too late. Some will argue it is already too late.

There are already too many people clamoring for finite probabilities of resources. Even if population growth leveled, the declining base of resources makes less available for more people. The present gross inequalities can only become more stark. Our Katrinas-to-be will come from us, not nature. The big winds are political.

To the extent that we collectively reduce the rates of consumption of non-renewable resources or pretend that there will be future technical fixes to bail us out, we are simply deluded. The best of sustainable practices and processes merely postpone rather than solve. The best of sustainable can be little better than marginally less exploitive. Consumption rates against resource stocks times population equals a ticking clock of decline.

To postpone is a cardinal political sham nearly universally employed. Got a problem out of control? Form a committee or a task force to report after your term has expired.

The sustainable word is widely applied to agriculture. Wishful projections of increased yields depend on technical tricks such as genetically modified plants, better insecticides, improved pesticides, more potent fertilizers, newly developed field techniques of industrial agriculture, etc. Nearly all of the above are functions of chemistry based in fossil fuels.

Industrial agriculture depends on machinery running on fossil fuels and made from non-renewable resources, ores, etc. World statistics now reveal declining yields from declining arable land with declining viability.

Sustainability's fallacies lie in the assumptions underlying it. They are rarely examined in context. They are rarely based in systems perspectives.

The method of industrial agriculture, monocropping -- growing one crop on huge fields -- is essentially destructive of soil vitality, uses massive amounts of irreplaceable fossil water, inundates crops with fossil fuel-derived chemicals and reduces the nutritive values of foods produced.

Should I mention downstream pollution, topsoil losses, etc.?

Industrial agriculture is also transportation agriculture. Crops grown in mid-America, or wherever, are shipped to processing points and then shipped again to distribution points and shipped again and again on their way to end-users wherever they may be, in aggregate, thousands of miles away. The increasing bulk of manufactured products sold in North America and Europe come from Asia, primarily PRChina. They get to end-users through world-girding transportation networks based on fossil fuels and ore-based machinery.

Anything made of metals or plastics comes from non-renewable ores or fossil fuel-derived chemistry. Remember that coal as well as oil is a non-renewable fossil fuel harvested by machinery using very destructive processes.

The more exotic metals now commonly used in military and higher quality civilian products come from equally exotic geographical locations from which they are shipped to processing facilities on their way to end products, all by very complex processes highly dependent on extremely sophisticated manufacturing methodologies consuming massive energies. Your car's exhaust system efficiency is a function of platinum and other very exotic, very expensive metals.

The yields per units of energy involved go more and more negative in exponential relationships with output. To get a gallon of fuel with 10% ethanol to your gas tank requires several increments of energies much greater than the substitution value of the ethanol. Ethanol is a political substitute, not an economic or technological one. Ultimately, ethanol production will become a factor in reduction of food supplies (corn and soybeans, etc.). Drive your car or eat your fritters!

To get a gallon of gasoline from the tar sands of Canada or Venezuela to your gas tank requires many multiples of energy greater than the few miles you may travel on the product. In spite of many years of subsidized effort, gas from tar sands remains an uneconomic fantasy.

Hydrogen substitution is one of the greatest illusions; actually, delusions.

These three examples are only a tiny segment of the myriad energy transfers and exchanges being sold as substitutes. The substitutions or technical fixes nearly invariably, in a systems sense, cost more, yield less. Also, substitutions tend to be available to the richer not the poorer of peoples. Ethanol, for example, typically reduces gas mileage about 10%. A typical pay more-get less substitution sold to a gullible public.

From systems perspectives, I challenge anyone to show any facet of modern economics that is sustainable even in very short range perspectives. Everything I do, everything you do, is totally encapsulated in unsustainable products and processes.

Yet, politicians and business leaders, community groups and activist individuals, all trumpet the illusions of sustainability.

Here in Hawaii, we have "Hawaii 2050: Charting a Course of Hawaii's Sustainable Future." Saturday, August 26, 500 people used various fossil fuel-consuming transport to gather in Honolulu's air-conditioned Dole Ballroom to listen to patently absurd nonsense pandered by leaders and academics who ought to know better. It was a candid illustration that people will say nearly anything to keep their salaries and perks.

The ladders of abstraction were run up to the stratosphere to provide a dense cloud obscuring actualities. This gathering was a milestone based in the "Hawaii 2050 Sustainability Task Force Report" submitted to governor and legislature in December 2005. This whole process uses the classic technique of round after round of pseudo-meetings targeted far into a future long after all incumbents have retired.

Let's take only one aspect of planning: economic development. Economic development is a great tent of possibilities centered on business development. Presently, Hawaii's economic actualities are based strongly in military and tourism, both of which are highly dependent on non-renewable resource consumption.

Hawaii has no ores or sources of fossil fuels. Everything metal or fossil fuel-based is imported through energy-consuming transport. About 90% of foods consumed in Hawaii comes from external sources, the nearest of which is thousands of miles away across the Pacific Ocean.

We have a volcanic geologic foundation which presently provides tourists with fireworks displays courtesy of Madame Pele, volcano goddess.

Her very hot skirts can be drilled to supply heat for thermal-electric generation, which currently supplies a meaningful fraction of one island's electrical supply. Great plans for inter-island export of Hawaii Island's geo-thermal electricity grounded on the economics of high tension lines under the very active waters between the islands. Turning that heat into electricity is made possible by fossil-fueled machinery beginning with the very sophisticated drilling machines needed and exotic metals used for well casings.

Relatively high land costs throughout Hawaii tend to inhibit unsubsidized industrial agriculture projects. The once vast acres of sugar cane and pineapple are now mostly abandoned or being buried under subdivisions near Honolulu. Only smaller truck farms or specialty growers can compete locally or operate in export market niches.

In terms of carrying capacity, that illusion which suggests that a given increment of arable land can support a given number of people, Hawaii has long ago exceeded calculations thereof. In spite of small increments created by current volcanic activity on the south coast of Hawaii Island, the habitable land available in Hawaii remains finite and thus relatively expensive. Housing and physical development, as elsewhere, crowds out arable land.

Hawaii's workers have a hard time finding affordable housing and, if skilled or educated, finding appropriate, much less meaningful work. Large numbers of Hawaii-born people now live in enclaves in California, Nevada, and Texas. To maintain cultural identity, they send their hula halaus (schools) to the annual Merry Monarch Festival in Hilo.

Hawaiians, with exceptions, share the onus of native peoples nearly everywhere. Low incomes, insufficient education, high percentage of prison population, crowded and substandard housing, alienated and under-represented, culturally denied. The prime survival technique is the extended family.

In discussions about economic development in Hawaii, I recently sought statistics on business formation, distribution of start-ups by type of business and location, relevant demographics, etc. In my experience, these data are the core of economic planning and development. To make a long search shorter, I have yet to find adequate or meaningful data. It may be there, but buried.

Let me suggest that any future for Hawaii will be related strongly to actualities such as business formation, market capacities and the like. The prattlings of Hawaii 2050 are totally ungrounded in such actualities. Hence, QED, unsustainable.

OK, what can be done to undo a couple hundred years of very short-sighted processes? Probably little or nothing that voters would support even assuming the massive educational efforts required. Political courage is distributed here as nearly everywhere, very thinly. Since statehood in 1959, the percentage of registered or eligible voters who vote has steadily declined, now barely half. Inspiration has left the political processes.

The American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) based in Honolulu published a very pertinent study in July 2000. "Barely Making It on Your Own in Hawaii: A Report on the Cost of Living in Thirteen Hawaii Communities."

Their premise: The human faces of the poor really become identifiable when we zoom in on what it costs families to survive in a cash economy. The AFSC assumed that self-sufficiency requires a regular income adequate to meet needs without public support, that is, no subsidies such as food stamps, Section Eight housing, child care, etc.

With the possible exception of the Honolulu area, Hawaii has little reliable public transportation. Jobs with even minimal benefits are scarce. Health care is almost exclusively a function of regular, full time employment (itself thinly distributed). Available employment concentrates in low wage work. Single mothers are particularly vulnerable, with scarce and expensive child care making full time employment difficult.

The study concludes that as of late 1999, wages for about two-thirds of employment positions in Hawaii are insufficient to support single mothers or families. Two thirds of Hawaii's working women are employed in three of the lowest paying jobs: sales, clerical and service. Conditions have deteriorated in the last few years. A follow-up study is essential.

I suspect that similar studies in every American state would report similar results. To have a minimally functional society with majority population adequately supported, much ground work is long overdue. Hawaii 2050 is much too late to deal with today's evident problems.

Quick: Extend the ladders of abstraction and unleash the fog machines. Expect little, get less.


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Internal Resources

America the 'beautiful'

Patterns which Connect


About the Author

Milo Clark on Swans (with bio).



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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
URL for this work: http://www.Swans.com/library/art12/mgc192.html
Published September 11, 2006