Is Sustainable Development sustainable?

The other day I got an e-mail from someone with The Economist asking me to participate in an on-line forum/discussion on that science fiction figure called Sustainable Development. Someone at this popular economics publication followed the series on the European Elections that was published here and at the European Tribune.

This time, instead of graphs and analysis, I opted for something a bit different.

Consulting an on-line Dictionary, a definition for Sustainability can be retrieved as the ability to perpetuate existence. In the same resource the definition for Development will be given as growth or progress. A concept gathering these two words together forms what the Greeks termed an oxymoron, an idea devoid of logical sense. Can Sustainable Development be sustainable? Naturally not, for merging together two antonymous concepts, it simply cannot exist.

So why is this oxymoron in the order of the day? Why does it get such attention? Why are so many so willing to discuss it so passionately?

Sustainable Development is one of several philosophical concepts (having as much eeriness as mythology) that emerged in the wake of a series of decades of breathtaking, unprecedented growth. Growth as in development, the physical expansion of the Human-sphere, its population and interactive processes with nature, harnessing energy and concentrated matter, deploying waste heat and dispersing matter. These mythological concepts are simply a reflex of a society intoxicated with growth in front of the first signs of physical constraints to its development.

Sustainable Development became the language of those that promise perpetual growth, and more, the profits that should come along with it. It is the language of those that do not want to reconsider their way of life. Of those who expect the XXI century to be the same as the XX century. Of those that expect to run all the cars on french fry oil or firewater. Of those who call Carbon Capture and Sequestration an energy source. Of those who promote the Hydrogen Economy, forgetting about the Nuclear energy system for which it was conceived. Of those touting Nuclear as Salvation. Of those touting Nuclear as Condemnation. Of those who expect Carbon Trading to reduce the OECD's dependence on OPEC. Of those dreaming with a CO2 atmospheric concentration of 1000 ppm by 2100, accompanied by a 6ºC global temperature rise. Of those saying that the Earth's hydrocarbons are not fossil fuels. Of those drilling their way forward. Of those waiting for the Free Market to replace Fossil Fuels. Of those thinking all they need is changing light bulbs to continue living in 400m2 cardboard houses. Of those claiming to be in their hands a reduction of Fossil Fuels consumption.

Sustainable Development is the philosophy of those fooling themselves, thinking that the Earth is flat, refusing to accept that the planet is a spherical object and thus finite. Of those refusing to face reality, refusing to wake up from their dreams.

A decade from now Sustainable Development will be out of the agenda. By then the word of the day shall be Survival. The Survival of a Culture, a Social and Political Framework, a Civilization.

Hopefully some will be able to wake up in time, leave the intoxicating dreams behind and face reality, however grim. Because then they'll be able to devise a New Future. A Better Future. A Future founded on the real physical entities that run through our Economy, not in abstract, growth dependent, illusions. A Future where each man and woman have their place and are not enslaved by a spiral of virtual accumulation and spending. A Future where having more than the next man isn't a goal in itself. A Future were work and excellence are rewarded by things that have real physical and meta-physical meaning.

A Future.

I certainly agree that we (global society) need a new future. Unfortunately I simply don't see it happening in a rational way but only as a result of collapse and die off. But, who knows how that might play out.

There are too many vested interests for all of them to reach a consensus as to the "good" society. To take my own beliefs on one issue -population density, i.e. a low density, rural, agriculturally based society vs those who posit that the answer is high density cities. I'm simply not willing to compromise on this. I don't have time to go into detail on this although I have mentioned many of the reasons in past posts.

There are those of us who live close to the future you foresee but I don't see people flocking to our doors seeking advice as to how they too could live like we do.


Life in a big city when times were very bad.

This was my and my brothers experience back then. During WWII when for a brief time(maybe 4 of 5 months) my mother came back to the country from St. Louis and took me and my brother back to St. Louis with her. The depression was ending and times were tough everywhere. On the farm though we knew nothing of this.

She had earlier abandoned us at her brothers farm and hauled away for St. Louis, leaving two young tearful children in the dust. But years later she thought that the war was ending soon and came to get us for she felt surely that the father would want to know where his two sons were.

We lived down around Chouteau and 12th street or close to it in a very bad area at the time. All around were buildings that had been demolished and it looked like a wasteland. Huge stretches of fallen bricks,trashed blocks of lots and empty spaces full of junk and places it was not wise to go to.

As she returned to her bars and other men we had to learn to steal from the corner grocery store to eat or else stand by someones back screen door until they took pity and gave us something. She never cooked. We had to survive on our own.

My brother was sitting on the curb on Chouteau with a friend when a car careened nearby,,hooking the clothing of his friend and dragging him down the street. He was then dead. My brother watched it all.

Later my brother had fallen out of a two story window and landed on concrete. As he was later dying of cancer back around 2001 he informed me that our mother had pushed him out that window as he sat on the window ledge. She also pushed him into a hot heating stove.

This life was such that later on I realized I was then going into the first stages of insanity and mental disease. We had to go outside as our bed was being used as a love nest by her and her drunken boy friend/s.

This woman had serious problems. Many women did and acted the same way during that long war. Men likewise.

We never went to the school. We just hid and ran and stole and begged. Once I took a bite out of one slice of white bread and then said I didn't want it. She slapped me to the ground for that.

So I hid her paycheck in the icebox. She went ballistic.

Only a Jewish woman who lived alone with her daughter(our age)would sometimes invite us to her apt and let us eat with them. I never forgot that woman's kindness. To this day I revere Jewish people for that kind act of mercy.

My brother took the worst of that life with him forever and never married or was able to deal with many situations the rest of his life. For 25 years he disappeared off the face of the earth until I finally ran him down,,then he died of cancer soon after. He had become a millionaire but died penniless. He wrote most of the bios code for the Sun Microsystem Workstations when they were in startup.

My father finally came home from the war. We were already back in the country and living more decently by that time. He then abandoned us once more and had divorced my mother. We preferred to live with our kinfolks on the farms and hated the ugly dirty city after that. It was a ugly time. It was very hard on children who had to endure the city life. I remember the cops would beat you for almost nothing.

So due to the war and hard times I never hardly knew my parents until I was 12 years old. I was happy on the farm even though we had to do lots of chores.

I will never ever live in a city. I have for very short periods of time when I was working but always lived on a farm or in the suburbs. The suburbs as little as possible.

When I recall the vast destroyed ugly landscape of that city back then I thought later how much like the ghettos it must have been like for me and my little brother.

Cities for the poor are trashheaps. IMO. And my experiences.

As things cycle down in the near future I don't see how it could be any different than it was back then for me in that terrible place and during hard times. Those are scars I carry of it. I will not ever return to such a possibility. It is not IMO a good place to raise children. Children are the only thing ultimately that will save this civilization. They need to breath clean air and live well.

One last note. I observed many other children that we mixed with and associated with. Their lots were about the same as ours. We would have eventually become thieves and gangsters or hoods. South St. Louis was later full of them.


Aha Airdale,

Now we have traveled Westwardly back to Eden, to your roots.
To your Berraishit Borah. No wonder you have a fascination with the Hebraic version of the Bible. Tim'shell.

Thanks for sharing.

But oh forget thee not that, Jerusalem, it is a city. Kids grew up there too. Young Solomon for example, son of David.

From your writings it appears that another Solomon had his roots in St. Louis.

To further refine what I was trying to convey but perhaps missed, in the above comment I offer this.

"Hopefully some will be able to wake up in time, leave the intoxicating dreams behind and face reality, however grim. Because then they'll be able to devise a New Future. A Better Future. A Future founded on the real physical entities that run through our Economy, not in abstract, growth dependent, illusions. A Future where each man and woman have their place and are not enslaved by a spiral of virtual accumulation and spending."

Directly above is a quote from the essay. Note the 'intoxicating dreams'. Note 'where each man and woman have their place'...and 'are not enslaved'....note this.

And realize that in a high density city you are not FREE. You are controlled. You MUST rely on the food markets or distribution systems. On the water you do not control. On the sewage systems you have no control over. On who is living right next to you and what is he possibly up to?

This is very different from a rural setting.
I rest my case.

Cities will entrap one. Open farmland will not. Even quite small towns where trademen can barter and serve a useful purpose and everyone knows everybody, are worthy.

I have seen all of these and the worse was the cities. Blighted, crime ridden, wasteful and full of danger and very little one could do about any of it.

So at least to me the path is very very clear. Do you wish to control yourself or let others dictate?



I always enjoy reading your post. This thought occured to me a few months ago actually. Freedom is not a result of the country you live in or the laws in your area, but almost completely a result of your population density.

Moyers: What happens to the idea of the dignity of the human species if population growth continues at its present rate?

Asimov: It will be completely destroyed. I will use what I call my bathroom metaphor. Two people live in an apartment and there are two bathrooms, then both have the freedom of the bathroom. You can go to the bathroom anytime you want, and stay as long as you want, for whatever you need. Everyone believes in the freedom of the bathroom. It should be right there in the Constitution. But if you have 20 people in the apartment and two bathrooms, no matter how much every person believes in the freedom of the bathroom, there is no such thing. You have to set up times for each person, you have to bang at the door, "Aren't you through yet?" and so on. The same way democracy cannot survive overpopulation. Human dignity cannot survive it. Convenience and decency cannot survive it. As you put more and more people into the world, the value of life not only declines, it disappears. It doesn't matter if someone dies. The more people there are the less one individual matters.

If you lived in Canada's Yukon or northwest territories or the plains of Mongolia, no one can tell you what to do, because there is no one around to tell you to do it. People are always bound by constraints either from nature or from other people, this is, the ones from people are the only ones you can avoid.

what ho Airdale I think you speak my thoughts: that for a thing to be sustainable it must be worth sustaining. We have, for a moment, bought the potage and have sold the simple joys of making, doing and being with each other. That potage - the corporations and governments that offer a false sense of security in return for a servile life filled with commuting, mechanized meals, structured days and virtual human contact are not sustainable for other than the docile or slavish.

.......................... Are we not men?

Well I don't say that the return to sustainable society will be easy, but on the way it is becoming interesting!

Hey Ignatz,

In the above I gave two examples of life. This was in an era of very much difficulty and very hard times EXCEPT that I didn't know that living on the farm. Hadn't a clue.

But when whisked to the big city? It was overpowerin. No more sitting out in the lawn at dusk and listening to the hoot owls. Slow talk by my uncles,aunts and grandparents,winding down the day until full dark and bedtime.

I attempted to show others how it was in both lifestyles for a young child. And my younger brother.

So to me there is no decision on this. My past settled that before I even considered it hard. No decision. I aleady had been living this way for some years. Many years even though I traveled extensively working on mainframe systems. The farm was always my touchstone.

Any each his own..this is my way.

Airdale-peace be upon you


Excellent essay. Thanks.

I am a longtime reader of the oildrum and a new participant. The oildrum has been an invaluable resource for me. Thanks to the oildrum, I am an expert on peak oil and surprisingly knowledgable about oil and gas production technology.

Most of my colleagues and I are practical people. Honestly I believe it is a stretch to decribe our community as mythological.

Your argument turns on the assumption that our society is facing "the first signs of physical constraints to development." I just don't understand this yet. Personally, thanks to the oil drum, I'm becoming a bigger and bigger fan of wind and solar. The peaking of production doesn't change the fact that there is plenty of fossil fuel left in the ground. Our ability to harnass wind, solar, and other alternatives is progressing at a breathtaking pace. There is plenty of time. I just don't see catastrophe when I look about me.

I would think that you would agree with me that knowledge is the real foundation of wealth and power. The ability of society to share information was, compared to today, primitive at the time of our birth. By the time we die, today's ability to share information will appear, in hindsight, equally primitive. The future is bright. There is every reason to be optimistic. I want to make sure you realize that large groups of thoughtful scientists and engineers believe that it possible to believe in peak oil while remaining optimistic that civilization's best days lie ahead.

One last comment. Most scientists and engineers, myself included, understand that exponential growth eventually comes to an end. Some day, civilization of the universe will, like fossil fuel production, peak and decline.

Welcome to the forum, occr.

You wrote, "I just don't see catastrophe when I look about me."

Hmmmm. It may be that you need to look more carefully and more broadly.

Did you notice that we are in a world financial crisis that started in earnest when oil was nead $150/bbl?

Did you notice that there was a world-wide food crisis due to spikes in food prices due partly to bio-fuels diverting food crops to hummer tanks?

More important, did you notice that the earth is in the sixth great mass extinction event, one which may be greater than all the previous ones, one caused by humans?

Did you notice that the Arctic ice cap, a permanent feature of the planet for millions of years, is now poised to completely collapse any summer now (the five-meter-thick ice that used to predominate has already almost completely disappeared)?

Did you notice that direct human-caused global warming is turning out to be merely the trigger that is setting off multiple feedback loops (or death spirals--from enormous methane release from tundras and sea beds to burning forests, drying soils and dying oceans all giving up their carbon content into the atmosphere.

Not to mention increasing water shortages from changing weather patterns, disappearing glaciers and vanishing aquifers; record droughts and floods becoming yearly occurrences in many locals; spread of tropical diseases and pests into northern latitudes; killer heat waves; islands becoming uninhabitable; ocean acidification......

What in this list (that could be expanded quite a bit) leaves you so cheerily optimistic? I'm afraid it is the oblivious cheery optimism of technocrats and economists that scares and depresses me more than nearly anything else.

On the main topic, sustainability itself is a profoundly disrespectful term. It suggests that we can essentially preserve business as usual with a few tweaks to make it sustainable. Given the absolutely devastating effect that modern industrial society has has on terrestrial life, "sustaining" our rapacious behavior is like a gang of rapist of a child deciding to continue their abuse at a more measured pace so their victim will live a bit longer, affording them a few more hours of fun.

Well said. I see no cause for optimism. Almost all of the world is seeking a way back to economic growth, because they don't understand that the earth is finite - or choose not to let that small fact get in the way of their dreams of the future.

That occr seems to see renewables as a saviour is sad. He or she needs to start to get to grips with what finite means.

I do have one minor criticism of Luis's essay. Development need not mean growth or universal progress and I think it can be called sustainable if it is targetted only at achieving some basic level of infrastructure or accommodation, that is then intended to be maintained indefinitely. However, I don't think use of the term, sustainable development, is meant to convey that so, in effect, Luis is probably right. An even more blatant oxymoron is commonly used, though, "sustainable growth". If economists and governments don't understand the absurdity of such a phrase then there really is no hope for an orderly transition to sustainability.

Written by dohboi:
Did you notice that there was a world-wide food crisis due to spikes in food prices due partly to bio-fuels diverting food crops to hummer tanks?

You exaggerate with phrases like, "a world-wide food crisis." World population did not decline in 2008 due to mass starvation.

World population is 6.6 billion in 2007

In 2008, world population is 6.7 billion

Doomer's scenarios require population decline. Get back to us when there is a real food crisis.

Written by dohboi:
More important, did you notice that the earth is in the sixth great mass extinction event, one which may be greater than all the previous ones, one caused by humans?

And maybe not greater than all the previous ones. If the K-T extinction event was caused by a meteorite impact, it probably made species extinct at a greater rate than current anthropic efforts.

Written by dohboi:
Did you notice that direct human-caused global warming is turning out to be merely the trigger that is setting off multiple feedback loops (or death spirals--from enormous methane release from tundras and sea beds to burning forests, drying soils and dying oceans all giving up their carbon content into the atmosphere.

The lifetime of methane in the atmosphere is about 10 years making it less of a problem than longer lived fossil CO2. Last I read humans extinguish more forest fires than nature resulting in less burned forest. Have rainfall patterns already shifted enough and been scientifically attributed to anthropic global warming (as opposed to natural variation in climate) to declare "drying soils?" Acidification of the oceans and overfishing are probably major contributers to "dying oceans."

Written by dohboi:
... increasing water shortages from changing weather patterns, disappearing glaciers and vanishing aquifers....

and from overuse and overpopulation, but which are dominant?

Written by dohboi:
What in this list (that could be expanded quite a bit) leaves you so cheerily optimistic?

You have not specified a timeline when such things will reach their tipping points. They could be tomorrow, next century or never for all you know. Doomers tend to ignore the timing believing doom is in the near term. When will the last tuna die? When will the last piece of coral blanch? When will the last bumble bee be photographed? When will there be no more downstream water from the melting glacier? When will 10% of the ice slide off of Antarctica into the ocean raising sea level? Will any of these happen during your lifetime?

Written by dohboi:
On the main topic, sustainability itself is a profoundly disrespectful term. It suggests that we can essentially preserve business as usual with a few tweaks to make it sustainable.

I do not use sustainable to mean a few tweaks because the current system can not be made sustainable using a few tweaks. Luis de Souse has cherry-picked the definition of development to be synonymous with growth or progress to make his point. Development does not have to be exponential development. Development could be a sole village of 5,000 people on Earth replacing their log cabins every 50 years due to rot and termite damage. That would be sustainable development capable of persisting for the remaining lifetime of Earth, ~4 billion years.

"You have not specified a timeline when such things will reach their tipping points. They could be tomorrow, next century or never for all you know. Doomers tend to ignore the timing believing doom is in the near term. When will the last tuna die? When will the last piece of coral blanch? When will the last bumble bee be photographed? When will there be no more downstream water from the melting glacier? When will 10% of the ice slide off of Antarctica into the ocean raising sea level? Will any of these happen during your lifetime?"

When did the 90th percentile of Atlantic cod or Pacific bluefin tuna get taken from the sea?
When did the last Somali fisherman pull up his empty nets, empty because EU and Asian countries' supertanker sized trawlers had taken all his catch?
When did the last dodo bird die?
When did the last carrier pigeon die?
When did the last woolly mammoth die?
When did the last Neanderthal die?
When did the last Ohlone Indian die?
When did Lehman Brothers go belly up?
When did Chrysler and GM go bankrupt?
When did the USSR, Spanish empire, Ottoman empire, British empire, Roman empire, Khmer Rhouge and Nazi Germany disappear?
When was the last chariot raced in ancient Rome?
When did Mono Lake north of Los Angeles start receding?
When did you become a global warming denier who rejects proof of reduced polar ice volumes?
When did Michael Jackson die?
When will you die? (it will happen in your lifetime)

When did Chrysler and GM go bankrupt?
Which times, GM has been bankrupt three times in the last 100years, I think Chrysler only twice?

The view in hindsight is not the doomer's forte.

Written by ken1:
When did you become a global warming denier who rejects proof of reduced polar ice volumes?

I am not an AGW skeptic. I accept the science behind anthropic climate change. The Arctic ice cap is melting while both the Antarctic sea ice and land ice are increasing. Even the climate models project this due to increased precipitation at the poles caused by global warming. The Arctic sea ice is melting from beneath due to increased sea temperature. You can study the data at Cryosphere Today.

I agree that an human caused extinction event is in progress, that humans are consuming natural resources at an unsustainable rate and that humans are polluting the environment in numerous ways. My arguments are against doomerism: there is no solution, don't ever bother because we can't fix it, there are no such things as sustainable, renewable and environmentally friendly human behaviors.... Ideas that are not sustainable with a human population of 6.7 billion will become so once the human population is reduced sufficiently (and I do not mean reduced to zero).

I am not an AGW skeptic. I accept the science behind anthropic climate change

This is good, but you have some out-of-date info or misunderstandings.

The Arctic ice cap is melting while both the Antarctic sea ice and land ice are increasing.

Incorrect. The Antarctic is a net loser WRT the Ice Cap, with warming occurring happening across the continent, but much more precipitously on the WAIS. Accumulations in the center of the continent are no longer overriding losses.

Even the climate models project this due to increased precipitation at the poles caused by global warming.

Yes, but as the deniers like to say, the models were wrong. That is, they underestimated the rate of change.

As for time, either you or someone else derided the idea that time may be short. Anyone who claims to not be a skeptic on climate, but thinks there is plenty of time, still doesn't get it 100%. Rapid Climate Change is a real threat because these things happen in chaotic, non-linear ways. The record shows temperature changes of up to 7C in time periods of less than a decade. Assuming this won't happen is short-sighted, IMO, and even dangerous - particularly since we know we are adding to atmospheric CO2 and CO2e at a rate faster than most, if not all, of the climate record. Pushing a system to its limits makes it that much more likely they will be exceeded catastrophically.


Hmmmm ...

What and where is the line between acceptance (of AGW) and denial?

The important question is why? It all seems so ... lemming- like to me!

(BTW, lemmings don't commit mass suicide, they are too smart to do so.)

As for the doomers; John Maynard Keynes had is right; "In the long run, we are all dead." How can this not drive all human behavior? If I die ... who gives a shit about anyone else?

I suppose the brink and various tipping points will be pulled away from us by economic collapse. Thank god or Yahweh or Jehovah for the mortality of economies! In the long run, economic systems are all dead. Taking away profits means taking away factory smokestacks and the puffs of CO2 that emerge from them. Even though the Chinese and the Indians and whatnot are frantically attempting to ape the USA consumer lifestyle, they cannot know that the whole idea of 'lifestyle' is kaput, replaced by the more old- school 'hard labor'. Hard labor is usually a fatal illness. Again, the human race's reach exceeds its grasp.

Demonstrating again the principal that in most ways it is better to be lucky than good.

Our stupid luck will save us from our own desperate self- immolation. It is impossible to be more lucky than this. Or ... will it? Who knows?

How does all this effect 'sustainability'? It doesn't, in fact nothing does. Sustainability is a conceit, it cannot exist anywhere because the ground rules that nature constantly adapts to are in themselves constantly changing. Since change is constant - in fact the only constant - the only iota of sustainability is effective un- sustainability. It's best to be flexible.

And prepared for disappointment.

Now ... when all in a particular market are calling for some thing ... like growth ... this signifies the end of the market for that thing. Call it a 'turning point' if you will. The existance of growth itself destroys growth because the costs of it are always higher than receipts. Our fantasy charade is we can collect some of those returns ahead of the onrushing costs which grow ever larger.

But, don't worry yourselves. Like all problems the growth issue solves itself by the simple expedient of us doing nothing or also doing something active to solve the growth problem or by outside means destroying the matrix for growth. Hmmmm ... growth is outnumbered by solutions. So is climate change. Climate change does not affect the Earth since the climate has changed over and over and will do so whether we sequester carbon or pump it up the asses of deniers and businessmen and politicians. It won't effect humans since we are all dead in the long run so who cares about our successor humans? Or, other species ... who wants to care about those losers?

(What's a 'species', again?)

It does effect our cars which we love to pieces and are defending literally to the death. If we don't care about ourselves, cannot we care about our dogs and cats?

Blue Twilight,

Last I read humans extinguish more forest fires than nature resulting in less burned forest.

Maybe not for long:

"California Division of Forestry Not Paying Bills, Vendors Demand Cash or Credit Cards Upfront" [Mish Shedlock]

BT, thanks for your reply. Unfortunately, you seem to have already made up your mind firmly on certain things, perhaps for emotional reasons. I will address some of your points for those reading.

If you missed the worldwide food crisis, perhaps you were asleep last year. Perhaps the people involved in food riots in Mexico, Peru, Indonesia, Thailand, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Bolivia, Ethiopia, the Philippines, Ivory Coast, Uzbekistan, Haiti and others were just playing a joke.

Note that I did not say "starvation at a level that significantly reduces world population" though that is the claim you seem to be falsely attributing to me and addressing.

The KT extinction event was the result effectively of a bad afternoon. Modern industrial civilization represents a bad couple centuries, with effects that will last much, much longer.

You say: "The lifetime of methane in the atmosphere is about 10 years making it less of a problem than longer lived fossil CO2."

If you know this much about methane, you presumably also know that methane over this time span is some 70 times more powerful as a ghg than CO2, and that it breaks down mostly into CO2. Either you did know this, and you were just trying to be cute (or something worse) by describing it as "less of a problem," or you actually know nothing about the subject and are just grabbing random facts and spouting off. Either way, there does not seem to be much more reason to engage you on this particular topic.

The same seems to apply to your comment about acidification of oceans. Do you not realize that CO2 is what is acidifying them? DO you not realize that increase in acidity is killing plankton that are crucial sinks in the global carbon cycle, bringing carbon down to the ocean floor as they die.

It boggles my mind how you think weather patterns and glaciers are being affected by "overuse," but in any case, I was just pointing out that these and many other bad things are demonstrably happening, yet occr seemed to blissfully unaware of them.

Do you think that these things are not happening or that they bode well for human on non-human futures?

Timeline? Timeline????

These things are all happening right now. Open your eyes, read a little. It's not always fun, but it helps keep you from saying things that are wildly off from observed reality sometimes.

Glad to hear you have your own definition of development.

"I have my own definition of black and to me it means white, so there is no race problem."

This seems to be about the level of your logic here.

Lots of misunderstandings.

Said by dohboi:

Note that I did not say "starvation at a level that significantly reduces world population" though that is the claim you seem to be falsely attributing to me and addressing.

I am criticizing your sensationalistic use of the term "food crisis" to describe events that do not rise to the level of a crisis. The article, "Global Famine," by Michel Chossudovsky, May 2, 2008, at Centre for Research on Globalization is a political piece biased by its author's hatred of globalization. The author claims speculation in commodities triggers famine by increasing the price of food. He also blames the IMF, World Bank and big agro companies. In this world view overpopulation, drought, climate change, resource limits and peak oil are not factors in causing famine and affecting the price of food. This article fails to support your claim of a "food crisis."

Said by dohboi:
The same seems to apply to your comment about acidification of oceans. Do you not realize that CO2 is what is acidifying them? DO you not realize that increase in acidity is killing plankton that are crucial sinks in the global carbon cycle, bringing carbon down to the ocean floor as they die.

Yes. You wrote "... dying oceans all giving up their carbon content into the atmosphere." The ocean is a net absorber of CO2 from the atmosphere. Your statement suggested that you did not understand this.

Said by dohboi:
It boggles my mind how you think weather patterns and glaciers are being affected by "overuse,"....

"Overuse" refers to a cause of "increasing water shortages," not to "weather patterns" and "glaciers." I was pointing out there are additional factors to the ones related to AGW.

Said by dohboi:
Do you think that these things are not happening or that they bode well for human on non-human futures?

I think most of what you listed is happening with differing magnitudes, and it does not bode well.

Said by dohboi:
Timeline? Timeline????

Have you considered how much time is available to deal with the problems? oilcompanycorporateresearch is optimistic that there is time to deal with these problems to avert disaster. Your response screams of doomerism declaring we have already passed the tipping points so there is no need to bother trying. On the Oil Drum I am labeled a cornucopian because I advocate solutions. Everywhere else I speak about peak oil I am labeled a doomer because I state there are major problems forthcoming if we do not act. There is a gaping chasm between our beliefs about how to perceive the problems and what to do about them.

"I think most of what you listed is happening with differing magnitudes, and it does not bode well."

Then we are essentially in agreement and the rest is window dressing.

"Everywhere else I speak about peak oil I am labeled a doomer..."

I guess you want to return the favor by labeling me in a similar fashion.

I was specifically addressing occr's statement that s/he didn't see any major problems.

I did not opine one way or the other on what should be done.

You once again have chosen to create a claim for me that I have not made and do not hold. I find it hard to continue dialog with people that do this sort of thing.

For the record:

I have taught thousands of people about these topics for decades
I hold seminars for other teachers
I speak in various forums
I am on my city's environmental advisory board
I am active in various ngo's and local political groups
I have planted over one hundred native species in my yard and give away seeds and plantings
I have brought my foot print (cf. to near one earth, giving up all air travel, most car travel, meat and most dairy, most non-local foods...
I garden at home and do much of the work to support a local community garden...

If these all sound to you like the behavior of one who believes "there is no need to bother trying," then I guess there is not much use continuing the conversation.

I happen to think that one needs to have a clear-eyed view of the enormity of the situation in order to know what actions and non-actions are appropriate for the times. Apparently you hold a different view.

Best of luck with that.

Blue Twilight, you wrote "You exaggerate with phrases like, "a world-wide food crisis." World population did not decline in 2008 due to mass starvation."

First, did countries like Ethiopia, Somalia, Iraq etc do a census last year. Even the US only does a census every 10 years. Population numbers are estimates. The population of the world could have held static or gone down last year.

Second, do you know how many people moved from getting a bit more than needed to survive to getting only what they needed to survive? Estimates are that 1 billion live on $1 a day and another 1 to 1 1/2 billion live on $2 a day or less. Perhaps that is now 1 1/2 on $1 a day and still 1 1/2 billion on $2 a day as they have moved down from $3 a day. We don't really know. We do know when food prices go up. If they go up, as much as half the population of the world has a more difficult time getting enough food even if there is more than enough around.

Huge numbers of people live in daily food crisis. A small decrease in the amount of food available or a small increase in the cost of food is a major crisis for them. Last I heard the people of Haiti were eating mud cakes to slake hunger.

More fertlizer and more irrigation are NOT increasing production at the same rates that they did initially. Meanwhile ground water is getting harder to reach as we deplete fossil water supplies in many countries.
How do you get to deeper and deeper water - you use fuels to pump it - how do you get to deeper and deeper oil - you use fuels to pump it - how do you get more and more diffuse minerals out of the ground - you use fuel to mine and process it. Hmmm do we have a problem here? Everything needed to keep as going at current levels of population and consumption takes more fuel these days.

We have little slack in the world food supply - I suppose the greatest area of slack is in the overconsumption by first worlders and especially those in the USA.

"Only 40 days of global grain stocks left
Sunday, March 9, 2008

Two days ago, the newly appointed chief scientific adviser to the UK Government, Professor John Beddington, warned of coming food shortages for the whole world. In a speech given at the Govnet Sustainable Development UK Conference in Westminster he said: "There is progress on climate change. But out there is another major problem. It is very hard to imagine how we can see a world growing enough crops to produce renewable energy and at the same time meet the enormous increase in the demand for food which is quite properly going to happen as we alleviate poverty." (quoted from The Guardian, 7 March 2008)

Professor Beddington also pointed out that as of two days ago, "global grain stores are currently at the lowest levels ever, just 40 days from running out." ...."

Hi, OCCR, and welcome to the conversation.

Our ability to harnass wind, solar, and other alternatives is progressing at a breathtaking pace.

If by "ability" you mean technical ability, I would concur. If you mean our actual harnessing of said energy, I don't think this is true. Renewable energy investment is down by half from 18 months ago. See the second-quarter figures from New Energy Finance. (Yes, there is some pent up demand, but I don't think we're going to see investment levels return to their heights without some dramatic stimulus from some source.)

And even before the credit crisis, the fossil fuel industry (oil, natural gas and coal) was adding more energy to the primary world energy system than renewables were on an annual basis. In other words, during the economic boom times of the 90's and 00's, renewables as a percentage of the overall primary energy mix were decreasing. I presented this rather dismal data point as part of a State of the World talk I gave at a conference.

Your belief points to the fundamental disconnect that I see between the optimists and the pessimists. The optimists say there is plenty of time and the pessimists say that it's largely too late. I fall into the second camp and the reason I prefer is that peak oil means peak credit. Without credit, the transformation of our energy system cannot proceed quickly. Today's drumbeat has yet another story describing how the pace of moving off of fossil fuels has slowed as the economy contracts.

This directly contradicts those people who said that when energy got expensive the pace of moving off fossil fuels would accelerate. In fact, the exact opposite has occurred. One of my pieces uses the example of the passenger fleet turnover rate increasing from 15 years to about 27 years to demonstrate that point. When it comes to cars, moving off fossil fuels is now moving further into the future rather than coming closer:

This is not to say we should stop investing in renewables. Quite the opposite. We should build as many energy collecting machines as humanly possible before the bottom falls out further.


Don't call yourself a pessimist Andre, you are an Actualist as Kunstler calls it or a realist.
Foolish optimism on solar and wind is misplaced, the US total energy consumption per day is 46 million barrels of oil equivalent while after 30 years of subsidies and hype the total output for solar and wind is around 76,000 barrels of oil equivalent.

Maybe the economists and optimists should read this,
To produce an equivalent amount of energy provided by oil in one year would take:
200 Three Gorges Dams
2,600 Nuclear Power Plants
5,200 Coal Fired Plants (not good for global warming...)
1,642,500 Wind Turbines
4,562,500,000 Solar Panels

Oh and we haven't made a new world class mineral find in 8 years and the lithium that the US needs for it's electric economy is found in Bolivia under Evo Morales, not exactly an American friend and China controls the rare earths market pretty much.

ps - Jay Hanson did some work in the 90's that Solar energy is net energy negative. We use more energy producing it then it produces.

Also note that since we are in the middle of the Greatest Depression there simply won't be any money available to finance any of these projects as if you haven't noticed 34 million people are on foodstamps in America as well as an underemployment and unemployment figure reaching some total of 30 million people and we are just getting started as deleveraging is yet to take hold due to out of control deficit spending that is, how can I put it mildly, robbing you and paying for GS bonuses.

That picture of energy equivalents of oil I think comes originally from a Sciam or New Scientist article. It's a bit misleading. The equivalents you quoted actually have to run non-stop for 50 years to get the same energy as oil provides in a year. So you need to multiply all of the equivalents by 50, to get real equivalents. So that's:

10,000 Three Gorges Dams
130,000 Nuclear Power Plants
260,000 Coal Fired Plants (not good for global warming...)
82,125,000 Wind Turbines
228,125,000,000 Solar Panels

So now are you saying, hydro dams , nuclear reactors, wind turbines only last for one year?

No, nowhere in my post did I say that. But this constant cornucopian optimism is going to ensure a die off. If the cornucopians hadn't been mindlessly promoting the hydrogen economy, the nuclear power is going to be to cheap to meter economy, the alternative energy green growth jobs based economy of the future, MAYBE, just maybe people of my generation would have a chance of living till 40 atleast and having a future if only people had listened to the realists and realized that we're killing the planet with our addiction to growth and oil. We could have gone on the path of mass conservation and an economy not based on a ponzi scheme with a quadrillion dollars in derivatives years ago but no one wanted to stop the party and who would listen to party poopers anyway?

Look at the reality of the world around you. The US government has known of peak oil for 40 years or more, and they have not done a damn thing? Why would they do anything now?

The US government is actively robbing taxpayers and transferring it to a dead banking system, thats what the 14 trillion in grants, guarantees, loans and other programs are for. The poor and middle class are f*cked while the elite are going to laugh all the way to the bank. And you still believe that the Govts of the world are going to wake up and solve the energy crisis? (if it was even solvable?)

My question was immediately below Sofistek's statement, but since you replied, I am assuming that you use considerably less electricity than the average 11,000kWh/person/year in US or 8,000 kWh in Europe. Presently 30% of that electricity is generated by non FF( wind, hydro and nuclear), with wind energy adding another 0.5% per year.

We don't have to replace the energy present in 82 million barrels per day, we only have to deliver the equivalent work to the wheels of trucks trains and cars. For the US that 90EJ of FF needs to be replaced by about 25EJ of electrical energy TO HAVE TODAY'S lifestyle. About x5 what we produce today from non FF energy.

If you use considerable less than the average, the US has enough non FF electrical energy today for that life-style. Some countries have more than that some less.

It's my understanding that about half of the total US population have a job(46%), almost a historical record( except for last 25 years), considering that some of the population are children, some retired, some parents are at home, are raising young children and some are so rich they don't need to work. Almost everyone in US has food, shelter clean water, some clothing. I am assuming that you have those basic things and as well access to the internet. Many people in the world don't.

Your anger a the US government assumes one person has been "in control" for 40 years, various administrations have done things to try to reduce reliance on FF, the Obama administration seems to be doing a lot more than the last administration. They could do more, we all could do more to use less FF unless we don't drive, fly, use NG heat or electricity.

My answer to your question is YES I do think the governments of the world will solve the energy crisis but only where they get support from the population. We are the problem, not governments.

That's a pretty optimistic comment, and completely ignores growing populations and growing economies (or at least that's the aim of governments the world over). Did you read the essay that we're commenting on?

I don't live in the US but I see almost no evidence that Obama is making any real effort to reduce dependence on oil. Some effort to move to a sustainable society would be nice but there is no evidence of that either.

So you think that every use of oil will smoothly be transitioned to some other fuel source, used to create electricity? Will electricity extract all of the minerals we think we need? Will the process of creating and transmitting electricity be made 100% efficient? Will our countries never need more energy (or the equivalent work) than they do now?

Governments won't solve any of the myriad crises facing us because no government really acknowledges any of them.

Written by VK:
We could have gone on the path of mass conservation....

You sound like a cornucopian suggesting that 6.7 billion people multiplying exponentially can be preserved by using conservation. World population needs to be reduced significantly and stabilized to make any solution possible. The 6.7 billion ton elephant is still standing in the room and being ignored.

Well, you got that right.

So now are you saying, hydro dams , nuclear reactors, wind turbines only last for one year?

No. I don't know where you got that idea. I was saying the the graphic that VK referenced actually gave numbers of alternative energy production means but included that each would have to run for 50 years to provide the same energy as one year of oil. Consequently, one has to multiply those numbers by 50 to get an alternative to oil that produces year after year.

rechech the source. the poster already did the multiplication

I once did a calculation on what it would take to replace all the coal burners in the US over a twenty year period. If you did it using nukes with a 1 GW output then a new reactor would need to be built every 34 days. The shear scale of the challenge makes me very doubtful that global disaster could be avoided. There is a big difference between what is technically possible and what the politicians could agree to do.

This is the most spectacularly honest and eloquent post I have seen anywhere in a long time.

"Sustainable" development, "recycling", or "reuse", "green" are basically code words to conceal attempts to flog on the unsuspecting and unlearned public what are massive transfers of wealth, power, and money into the hands of the management and operators of these programs.

Evaluating many of these programs in terms of energy / resource consumption, it is amazing how many of them are net energy / resource sinkholes that cost actually more than the "savings" they promise and actually, reduce system wide sustainability.

Those are rather sweeping claims. I agree that this is the case in many areas, and there is certainly a lot of "greenwashing." But I find it hard to see how reusing something is going to "massively transfer wealth, power, and money" into the hands of anyone.

Do you see some initiative that would be worth taking given the enormity of the calamities that are now upon us?

If you reuse something personally (and do not incur significant energy and other costs that exceed buying new), then sure it is a positive.

Nothing is less polluting and resource consuming than to not have to get something new to replace something you already have.

However, the same cannot be said for a lot of recycling programs, which are virtual energy sinkholes that consume far more energy and resources than they save.

For example, recycling of generic glass containers when plastic ones are usable often consumes more energy (to heat, remelt and refashion new glass bottles out of recycled glass) than the energy / resources used in the disposable plastic bottle.

The discussion can only move forward when we talk specifics, not generalities.

Even better is to reuse the glass bottle. In Canada (or at least Ontario) a beer bottle is reused at least twelve times before being crushed, melted and reformed. The populace is very good about returning the used beer bottles.

"Ontario beer consumers returned 98 per cent of over 1.47 billion refillable beer containers. The Canadian brewing industry's standard refillable beer bottle enjoys the highest return rate of any package in the world. Once refilled 12 to 15 times these bottles are then recycled. Ontario beer consumers returned one per cent more refillable bottles than they did in the previous year; resulting in, an avoided 135,000 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions associated with refilling beer bottles rather than having to manufacture a new container for each beer serving."

This is a perfect example of the recycling propaganda:

"Ontario beer consumers returned one per cent more refillable bottles than they did in the previous year; resulting in, an avoided 135,000 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions associated with refilling beer bottles rather than having to manufacture a new container for each beer serving"

Let's have some facts:

a) how much energy was used in transporting the bottles back to the store and then to the bottling plant?

b) how much energy was used in washing the bottles or otherwise reconditioning them to be fit for reuse?

c)what is the "manufacture a new container" compare? Is it to manufacture a glass one? Or a disposable plastic one? Or an aluminium can?

Since these key facts are obscured and the details are not available in the propaganda, it is impossible to make a scientific estimate of whether this program saves energy.

Here are some alternatives that need to be considered:

A) What about using disposable plastic bottles that are light and easy to ship?

What if these bottles are "recycled" by being burned, thus using their stored energy?

B) What about not purchasing commercial beer at all? Surely that saves even more?

C) What about conversion to home brew beer so nothing except municipal water and a few pounds of ingredients need to be transported to make 5 gallons?

The devil is in the details.

I can only answer your first question. When I lived in Toronto, I, like most everyone else I knew, returned the empties to The Beer Store at the same time I purchased a replacement case; no special trip required and therefore no extra energy consumed.

I fondly remember when, to purchase a bottle of wine in Ontario, you had to go to a separate LCBO outlet, fill out a card and hand it to the cashier, who then went to a back room and discreetly slipped it into a brown paper bag. Quite a shock, when in Montréal, you simple strolled down to the corner de panier and picked it up with your copy of the Montreal Star.

Edit: OK, I looked into this a little further and this is what I found:

First, in terms of waste diversion:

In Ontario, the 2004 estimate by the brewing industry included a diversion of 550,000 tonnes of beer packaging and a savings to municipalities more than $60 million annually in landfill and Blue Box recycling costs. For Ontario the system-wide recovery and re-use rate is 97% for the standard refillable bottle and 95% recycling rate for boxboard and corrugated packaging – making the beer industry the largest single contributor to waste diversion in Ontario.


With respect to the net energy savings, the recycling of Ontario's beer bottles is said to be 2.4 million gigajoules.


Mexico in the 50's 60's 70's-- You needed to return your beer bottles-- in fact they were worth more than the been inside them.
We were always waiting for the boat from Mazatlan, before Baja became the cosmopolitan mess it is now.


I followed this link:

The reference specifically state that the claimed "savings" figure is in reference to the cost of using energy to make an identical refillable bottle.

Page 24 of report.... para starting, "Reusing the same refillable bottle...."

You have made my point for me.

This is the kind of fraud perpetuated on consumers.

First, if the bottles were non-refillable glass, they would be much lighter comparable to a refillable glass bottle

Second, the option is not compared to alternatives like using a plastic refillable (lighter, etc.)

Third, the option is not compared to my preferred solution --- brew my own.

The numbers are bandied about with very little analysis of the underlying estimate / claims and the consequences.

It looks good, and it fools people.

Show me a better study... and I am willing to listen.

Better yet, prove to me that my option (brew my own) is not the absolute lowest Greenhouse gas emitting / waste eliminating solution.

First, if the bottles were non-refillable glass, they would be much lighter comparable to a refillable glass bottle

The 2.4 million gigajoules, as stated, is related to the manufacture of the bottles alone, the same amount of energy as is said to be contained in 491,387 barrels of oil. A heavier bottle will require additional energy in its transport to and from the brewery. However, from that, we can subtract the energy that would be consumed in the collection, transport and ultimate disposal of the equivalent non-refillable bottle and the transport of its fifteen replacements from their point of manufacture to the brewer. On that basis, I think you'll find the numbers tip in favor of the reusable option.

Second, the option is not compared to alternatives like using a plastic refillable (lighter, etc.)

I don't believe plastic bottles can be directly re-filled and resold as they cannot be properly sanitized (I trust someone will correct me if I'm wrong).

Third, the option is not compared to my preferred solution --- brew my own.

Some folks enjoy brewing their own beer much in the same way others enjoy baking their own bread or assembling their own computers. I'm not a beer connoisseur, but I can't say I've been impressed by any of the home brewed beers I've sampled thus far (make mine a Molsons or Keiths .... please).


I've suggested above that the energy used to transport a 15-use glass beer bottle is less than the equivalent single-pass, lighter weight alternative. It might be helpful to sketch out an example to illustrate this point.

Let's assume:

a) the reusable and non-reusable bottles are both made at a plant that's located 120 km from the brewer;

b) the retail outlet is 15 km from the brewery;

c) the consumer is 5 km from the retail outlet; and

d) the recycling plant or landfill where they both ultimately end is 20 km from the consumer.

Let's further assume that the re-usable bottle weighs 263 grams and the lighter, non-refillable bottle is 187 grams (here, I'm using the weight of the standard returnable bottle and the lightest non-returnable bottle identified in the Ontario Brewers report.

For the single-pass bottle, the total distance traveled is 160 km (i.e., 120+15+5+20). We would next multiple this by 15 (i.e., the average number of times a refillable bottle can be used), then by its weight (i.e., 187 grams); the final result is 448,880 gram-kilometres.

For the reusable bottle, the total distance traveled can be expressed as:

(1x120 km)+(29x15 km)+(29x5 km)+(1x20 km) = 720 km

Multiplying this by its bottle weight gives us 189,360 gram-kilometres. Thus, in this example, the amount of energy consumed in the transport the non-reusable bottle is more than twice that of its 15-use counterpart.

You can fiddle with any of the above assumptions, obviously, but I think you would be hard pressed to have these numbers reverse under any plausible scenario. (And if I've mucked-up my calculations, please let me know and I'll make the appropriate corrections.)


First, if beer is sold in non-refillable containers, the material of choice will be plastic, followed by aluminum for small quantities.

It is technically possible to refill or reuse aluminum or plastic or other containers that are far lighter than glass. Without getting into exotics like a carbon fiber composite beer container with a non-reactive liner of ceramic and a passivated metal top that can withstand opening closing multiple times, we can still do some interesting compares.

Right now, plastic bottles are routinely used to handle pressurized content including beer.

In fact, it is standard issue to purchase plastic 2 liter refillable beer bottles to bottle your own home brew / filtered beer.

The technical reasons why these plastic beer bottles cannot be refilled at a plant is because:

- consumers contaminate them by putting in all sorts of things that can damage the plastic (e.g. gasoline).

- the plastic is often left out, where mold, other microbes etc. grows in it, potentially contaminating the plastic.

- at this time, there is no quick and dirty and efficient way to screen out contaminated plastic bottles vs. good ones on a commercial basis.

That is the same reason why ultimately, plastic milk jugs (which once use to be a staple) was phased out --- and replaced with disposable plastic bags.

Milk in bags is lighter to ship, cheaper, safer, and better than packaging in glass (reusable or not), paper cartons, pouches, or anything else.

The reason beer cannot be shipped like milk is because it is pressurized.

There is, however, no technical reason why beer cannot be shipped in pressurized plastic bottles like soda pop.

These pressurized plastic bottles actually are very energy efficient regardless of whether or not they are recycled because they weigh so much less than glass.

That is why where there is not heavy union / vested interests involved (beer bottle reuse creates lots of highly paid jobs handling it), plastic has not been more widely adopted.

While it is true that plastic pressurized soda (or beer) bottles are commonly regarded as non-recyclable, that is in fact not the case.

If these same bottles are properly washed out promptly after use, and no unacceptable content like gasoline is placed in them, these plastic bottles last a lot longer than 15 uses.

Go to your local home brew beer store --- one that specializes in "filtered" beer brewed on site, and you will find that they sell you reusable plastic bottles to take your beer home.

Therefore, the proper and fair energy use compare is not between non-refillable glass vs. refillable glass --- which differ marginally in weight. It should be a compare between ones that offer drastic differences, like plastic or aluminum.

Furthermore, plastic, even if it is not refilled, have the attribute that it can be properly disposed of by burning in an incinerator --- which is actually a very good way to both eliminate solid waste, and generate energy.

Plastic bottles have at least 2 pathways:

- a tightly controlled refilling system (using the existing bottle return system) that heavily penalizes consumers for contaminating the bottles and degrading them by not promptly washing them.

- alternatively, the bottles can be collected and used either for fuel,

- or indeed, even recycled as either food grade, or non food grade plastic.

Another legitimate compare is with the old standby of aluminum containers.


Stainless steel kegs that are used for commercial quantities.

Try running your numbers again.

When you finish with that, I will make the case that if the bottle recycling system make use of large amounts of labor (which is built into the cost of the product), then we really need to consider that these expenditures (paying staff and trucks, etc.) in turn, generate a multiple economic expansion of economic activity that are in turn, energy consuming.

Hence, even if the primary activity comes up with a marginally good number in energy, after the energy / economic multiplier, it can work out to be an energy waster.

Have fun!

I did the first round of math... perhaps would you wouldn't mind taking on the second while I slug back on this bottle of beer?


Here is my very brief compare:

1. Refillable glass bottle as per your calculation above.

2. Non-Refillable plastic bottle. Only difference is this bottle ends up in my personal incinerator, where it produces heat that I need.


We are down to:

Energy needed to manufacture bottle: I don't have the numbers, but rough guess is to say both are equal.

Transport cost: plastic wins hands down --- fraction of weight.

Return cost: plastic wins hands down ---- it is never transported back.

Energy recovery from incineration: plastic wins hands down --- net positive energy released.

This does not take into account multiplier, etc.

I do see initiatives worth taking ---- it is called circle the wagons and concentrate on survival of the self, family, clan, tribe, group, etc. in the face of sharply diminished resources and energy.

Sounds like a good plan to me. Thank you for the clarifications. And I agree that home or local brew, or going without, is the best path for beer. Our local brewery makes such good stuff, most bottled beer seems flat and lifeless by comparison.

What HIH said about beer bottles: "I can only answer your first question. When I lived in Toronto, I, like most everyone else I knew, returned the empties to The Beer Store at the same time I purchased a replacement case; no special trip required and therefore no extra energy consumed." could have been usefully applied to many home appliances, but I fear we are past the time when even such measures could be of much use.

I heard a stat/quip that all recycling efforts so far have only diverted some five percent of material from the waste stream, but they have salved over fifty five percent of middle and upper class guilt about their over-consumption.

Five per cent? That's it?

Halifax is a king of trash among Canada's eastern cities. Its waste-diversion rate - the amount kept out of landfills has reached 57 per cent... Halifax, which has had a full-blown green-bin program to keep organics out of the landfill for 10 years, is hoping to get to 60-per-cent diversion...

Now if we can just get our main sewer treatment plant back online. :-(


Congratulations. But there is lots that doesn't get to the consumer level that doesn't get recycled. And how many of your major appliances get recycled?

I'm guessing that percentage is based out of the total that of things that are considered recyclable.

And good luck with that sewer treatment plant.

(For the record, I recycle. But if I find myself recycling too much, I cut back on the input.)

The US recycles 78% of steel, it would be higher except some construction steel such as re-bar is hard to recover, construction steel is only 35% recycled.

78%, eh? How can that be? Surely most of the steel ever produced is still being used in some building, or car, or whatever? Sure, as these things get demolished or crushed, maybe 78% can be recovered for re-use but what percentage of steel production does that represent?

If you click on the link "recycling rates" gives breakdown of different products.

This is measured at the time products are taken out of service, % recovered for new steel. Cars and appliances recycling is very high and they have a fairly short life(10-30 years). Obviously buildings and bridges , pipelines, refineries are going to be around longer before recycled( perhaps not refineries). This high stock of refined metal is one reason the industrial age will not disappear after FF is exhausted, our legacy to the future. One SUV could make a lot of shovels and axes,

Shovels and axes represent the industrial age?

I don't think the stock of refined metals, in existing structures, is a pointer to the longevity of the industrial age. If that was the only source, for example, it would represent a huge reduction in supply as only 78% of decommissioned structures would be available, for new build, which would necessarily result in less infrastructure overall. Also, in the scenario where recycled steel represented the bulk, or a significant portion, of steel supply, surely we would be looking at a very different world?

But, just to clarify your earlier remark, the US recycles 78% of the steel in decommissioned structures - a bit different from your earlier statement.

Congratulations. But there is lots that doesn't get to the consumer level that doesn't get recycled. And how many of your major appliances get recycled?

Thanks. I suspect the percentage is close to 100 per cent as major appliances are picked up at the curb.


Our firm, for example, recycles tens of thousands of HID and fluorescent lamps each year, as well as several tonnes of metal fixtures, scrap wire, cardboard, etc. Virtually everything we touch is recycled.

And good luck with that sewer treatment plant.

Our brand spanking new, main sewer treatment plant was destroyed by flooding as the result of one of our numerous extended power cuts and the subsequent failure of the site's backup generators.




Good to hear it. I'm thinking my source: 1) wasn't thinking of Halifax County, and 2) was from a few years ago.

"it is amazing how many of them are net energy / resource sinkholes that cost actually more than the "savings" they promise and actually, reduce system wide sustainability."

If you're going to paint a claim that broadly, you need to offer up some examples.

While the term 'Green' is vastly overused, it encompasses the actions of many people doing things that are certainly reducing consumption. Driving less, Biking, Growing your own food, Composting and using that soil to improve your gardening, Weathersealing and Insulating.. these are some of the benchmarks of the 'Sustainability' movement at the family level, and I don't see them as sinkholes like you describe. They don't do enough. They don't do it all, but they are heading in the right direction, even if it seems paltry, is there a direction that you would prefer?

The fact that BP and GM (Henceforth, after being Nationalised by the US and GB, they will be known as BM, and part of the new 'Brown' movement) bought a few buckets of Green Paint really doesn't fool anyone who is smart enough to have a garden, does it? (Even the OPED authors at the NYT probably see through it)

I thought Luis was painting just as broadly and ineffectively as you have, with the safe position of 'Academic Objectivity' to lump "Of those touting Nuclear as Salvation. Of those touting Nuclear as Condemnation." Into the same sorry lot of confused dreamers. With boundaries this wide, how can you fail? Well, you might fail to make a useful distinction between programs that are trying to use resources in a way that doesn't deplete them, and those which don't.. but maybe that's not the point.

What's the point?

Looking at your recycling example above, I appreciate the detail.

Remelting and forming glass is certainly far worse than scrubbing and reusing that bottle. I have coke bottle from Korea that had been run through the system for 12 years, if the labeling and the scuffed sides were interpreted right..

But still, reforming that material is certainly better than filling landfills and roadsides with it, as we so recently did. The recycling programs are imperfect, but they're not altogether wrong, they're just working at the tail end of a century with so much spare energy that most people believe they deserve a brand new fresh bottle every time they crack the lid, and that packaging of all sorts is 'meant' to be tossed, and is somehow inherently 'dirty' (The emotional subtext, in my mind, would be that they are no longer 'Virgins', thoroughly unclean!)

So the reason I pointed to your and Luis's comments as ineffective, is that they point out what's wrong, but not what's right. Like an electrical circuit, you need an input and an output to make the circuit move. 'This isn't working well, move away from it. That works fairly well.. get closer to that and see if we need to refine the course again. (and we will)'

When I hear critiques about 'a new paradigm', I hear a voice that is frustrated and wants to change everything.. but we have mass and momentum, here, we have to take steps to turn to a new course.


The real point that Luis and I may be making is we fully recognize (Luis, forgive me for putting words on your post) that there is huge societal and institutional inertia.

Therefore, it is fruitless to try to change the entire system.....

We are better off to look after our own etc. first, and last.

"Therefore, it is fruitless to try to change the entire system....."

That does sound like it's your point. But while a great many people who are gardening, reUSing and reDUCing ARE looking out for their immediate family, they are also well aware that they are not an island, and Cannot be one.. so they ALSO look to the very challenging work of educating and changing behavior at an institutional, community and societal scale.

Convincing or Sidestepping those who think this work is too hard and won't yield worthwhile results is one of their many obstacles..

Maybe it's a matter of just who you recognize to be 'your people', and how much you are aware of your dependence on benevolent strangers beyond your peripheral senses.

Except that they don't originally mean any such thing.

It goes without saying that there is an effort by the corporate feudal lords to contest the original meaning of these terms and to pursue a hypocritical pretense of "sustainability" in which options that corporations are prepared to accept represent the frame and the "most sustainable" among a range of unsustainable options counts as "sustainable.

However, conceding the ground to the corporations and conceding their redefinition of the terms is a defeatist move. It is assuming that the corporations get to redefine the technical language of Ecological Economics any way they want to, and every time the terminology gets established to talk about the challenges we face, once there is enough public exposure to attract the interest of corporations to contest the language, we give ground and start over again.

Instead of granting to the corporations the power to frame the terms of the debate, we should fight back against the greenwashing, rather than simply surrendering the ground that has been gained.

And there is no question that ground has been gained ... otherwise they would not bother to try to greenwash their activities.

I for one have benefited enormously from fossil fuel accelerated development.
You can't have much of a life if you are dead from TB, my probable fate before vaccination or antibiotics.
All animal life is at the expense of life living more directly on sunlight so using fossil fuels is quite logical.
It is the top animal lifestyle, peak oil is just another turning point in our evolution.
Sustainable development is a non-issue if we can absorb it and use it we will just like a crow will take a meal as it can.
Meta-physical meaning that's a good one I expect you have never been hungry in a foreign country and with no idea where your next meal is coming from.
Not sure I want to be part of a civilisation spelt with a Z ;¬)

Can Sustainable Development be sustainable?...
In the same resource the definition for Development will be given as growth or progress.

I can't see any conflict or contradiction with sustainable progress.

1. a movement toward a goal or to a further or higher stage:
2. developmental activity in science, technology,etc..
3. advancement in general.

So it really depends on what your end goal is as to how we define progress. BAU is the antithesis of progress according to my personal goals and my personal definition of progress. Therefore I can strive towards a goal of living sustainably and make progress toward that goal.

So what is your definition of progress and why doesn't it include the goal of living sustainably?

BTW all biological systems and individual entities start out small, they *GROW* (this is not a bad thing),then they mature and stop growing and enter a steady state equilibrium until they either live out their normal life spans or external circumstances change their environments in such a way that they are no longer viable in the new environment and they become extinct.

The vast majority of creatures out there (one-celled organisms) start out small, grow to a certain size, and then divide (doubling the population).

But I agree that progress can mean something besides growth. The problem is that very few others agree with that. Development is also tied to growth in most minds. We can envision a sustainable yet more literate, technologically and scientifically advanced society, but we sure don't have it now. How do we get there?

The vast majority of creatures out there (one-celled organisms) start out small, grow to a certain size, and then divide (doubling the population).


Either the population is controlled and it exists in equilibrium with a renewable food source or the population grows until it runs out of resources and it crashes.

The dynamic may be much more complex in food webs of primary producers, such as photosynthetic organisms, or deep sea bacteria that thrive in hot volcanic vents, that are in turn fed upon by grazers that may support multiple levels of predators. Organisms are eventually recycled by detrivores, bacteria and fungi that break them down into their constituent chemicals making them available again to be taken up by the primary producers. Though the total system always has to be in equilibrium for it to be sustainable long term.

However at the end of the day infinite doubling of any population of organisms, as described by an exponential function will never be able to continue indefinitely.

The problem is that very few others agree with that. Development is also tied to growth in most minds.

Since nature doesn't give a rat's ass what most people think it really doesn't matter. Nature has always been able to solve this problem in the past and it will do so now as well. Whether or not we like nature's solution or come up with a new definition of progress is entirely up to us.

Cheers and best wishes for sustainable progress!

Synchronization vs Dispersion.

We can view sustainable growth as a form of stable growth. But what happens when the nature of our information society generates such unpredictable dynamics that essentially forces the economy to lurch all over the place? The following opinion piece suggests that the way our infrastructure is synchronized that we can no longer prevent bubbles and collapses:

Of course this is written from the perspective of an EE trying to understand the feedback dynamics in our society. He posits the idea that swings in decision making are so synchronized based on internet and mobile technology that we can no longer avoid feedback dynamics that lead to boom and bust cycles. Fixed latencies coupled with positive feedback force economic measures to forever bounce from rail to rail. Note that the stock market is hopeless based on this as well ...

Marced tried to put TSMC's recent problems and those of the industry in context. She said the depth of the economic collapse is unprecedented in the history of the electronics industry. "This is likely to produce the first negative global GDP figure since the Second World War and it is synchronized." Thus Marced made the point that in previous slumps one region would tend to be up while another was down softening the blow and allowing one or more regions to lead the others back into the economic light.

This time, with all regions suffering together, it is going to be necessary to invest and innovate our way out of the recession, Marced argued.

And then it hit me. It is not that we have had an economic crash and it is the worse because of synchronization. Instead it is that we have had a crash BECAUSE we are synchronized; because of globalization.

In the past different regions such as the United States, Europe, Japan had their own locally designed and manufactured products, across all products from automobiles and consumer goods down to integrated circuits and passives. And services were inherently local. This served to keep markets and cultures distinct and running on their own cycles.

However, over the last 50 years this diversity, both economic and cultural, has gradually been eroded.

I highlighted his uses of the word diversity; the term dispersion describes the temporal and spatial dynamics of diversity. Things move and spread at different rates.

I find this interesting because I assert that the extraction of oil is more dispersive than synchronized. As I have shown elsewhere on TOD, the Logistic curve itself derives from a dispersive search mechanism whereby slow rates of discovery prevent huge boom and bust spikes from occurring. This works as a built-in filter that modulates the synchronized dynamics of our economy. This is not necessarily a bad outcome, and will lead to a smoother landing than we would have otherwise. Can you imagine if oil was finite but discovery was synchronized? The collapse dynamics could be as harsh as an extinction event. Events like the infamous passenger pigeon and carolina parakeet extinction and the ongoing phosphate depletion were/are essentially single-shot synchronized boom and bust cycles.

I think dispersion analysis is critical to an understanding and I have spent lots of time coming up with the math to support the modeling of oil discovery. This turned out to be a corner of the probability and statistics world that has actually been critically ignored. Like Peter Clarke in the EE Times piece linked to above, I use many engineering and physics analogies in my analysis (frankly I think conventional econometrics theory, well, sucks). Clarke discusses the synchronization analogy as follows:

The electronic circuit parallel is what happens when you close-couple dynamic systems, and then increase the positive feedback between the elements of the system, as the internet has done in the global economic system. First it starts to oscillate, then oscillate wildly as it goes into a chaotic behavior and this, if allowed to continue, could eventually tip the system over into some sort of self-destructive thermal runaway.

Dispersion on the other hand in electronics leads to fat-tails in responses. I actually came up with a rather novel analytical formulation for the response behavior of amorphous semiconductors to a sharp stimulus.
I actually went through all the trouble of working out this theory in that it could give some credence and help with credibility in laying out the ideas of dispersive discovery. The physics and math is based on the Principle of Maximum Entropy and turns out to have very general applicability. I would rank my formulation for analyzing dispersive transport in semiconductors by itself to be a huge finding, but this importance dwarfs in relation to the use of dispersion theory in understanding our global outlook. This viewpoint is essentially comparable to what N.N. Taleb has done with his Black Swan theory but it shows the flip side to the analysis. He suggests that Black Swan events existing in fat-tails of probability distributions could either kill us or save us, while I say that the fat-tails will stretch out our soft-landing (fortunately).

I hold out hope that sustainment is possible and that however much our global economy is synchronized, that we still are subservient to the laws of entropy and that this will smooth out our road to sustainability.

Wasn't oil production synchronized before 2005 [with the exception of the 70s embrago and Iran-Iraq War]?

So far, it is not going really well and I am thinking that the discovery dispersion had not prepared us at all.

Lovelock on "Sustainable Development(sic)":

Lovelock’s impatience with feel-good “Yes, we can” liberal environmentalism borders on contempt. There are passages in Vanishing that, were it not for their eloquence, could have been uttered by Glenn Beck. The delusional rhetoric about “sustainable development” peddled by green politicians and businessmen, writes Lovelock, just shows that we have “weaved the sound of the alarm clock into our dreams.” In one of the book’s many memorable passages on the green politics of hope, Lovelock compares sustainable development to deathbed snake oil peddled by an alt-medicine quack.

“Just as we as individuals try alternative medicine,” writes Lovelock, “our governments have many offers from alternative business and their lobbies of sustainable ways to ‘save the planet,’ and from some green hospice there may come the anodyne of hope.”

.. and since every reactionary has somewhere an equal and opposite (apostate?) activist, I'll offer these two.

Pete Seeger:

"I honestly believe that the future is going to be millions of little things saving us. I imagine a big seesaw, and at one end the seesaw is on the ground with a basket half-full of big rocks in it. The other end of the seesaw is up in the air. It's got a basket one-quarter full of sand. And some of us got teaspoons, and we're trying to fill up sand. A lot of people are laughing at us and they say, 'Ah, people like you have been trying to do that for thousands of years, and it's leaking out as fast as you're putting it in.' But we're saying, 'We're getting more people with teaspoons all the time.' And we think, 'One of these years, you'll see that whole seesaw go zooop in the other direction.' And people will say, 'Gee, how did it happen so suddenly?' Us and all our little teaspoons. Now granted, we've got to keep putting it in, because if you don't keep putting teaspoons in, it will leak out, and the rocks will go back again. Who knows?"

My Optimism rests on my belief in the infinite possibilities of the individual to develop non-violence. The more you develop it in your own being, the more infectious it becomes til it overwhelms your surroundings and by and by might oversweep the world. ... In a gentle way, you can shake the world.


Non-violence? We can kill billions by using non-violent means. In fact non-violent extermination is far more efficient and therefore likely the preferred means where possible.

Farming is the bedrock of our civilisations. If farming cannot be sustainable (ie. each individual farm sustainable without external inputs), which they are not nor can be. Then how can anything else be sustainable? If food is not sustainable then nothing is. Or am I missing something?

You're missing plenty.

If you want to read Gandhi's example of non-violence as a Euphemism for intentional overpopulation or benign neglect in the face of it, then you're just laying in your own message. It's not his. He is saying be awake and aware, and deal with people and issues with conscience and imagination.

Lovelock and Luis seem to take any creative reaction to this crisis and lump it in with the opportunists. I don't doubt the frauds are out there in force.. but to conflate them with people who are working the problems of overconsumption, economic injustice, energy waste.. it's a convenient, uncareful analysis. In short, it's reactionary.

Perhaps you're attacking a (recycled?) paper tiger.

As someone who was involved in the discussions that lead to the launch of the "sustainable development" bandwagon, I had, and still have, reservations about the concept - but these have nothing to do with the polemic of this thread. What the Brundtland Commission proposed in 1987 was not a magic eco-fix to ensure sustained econonomic growth ad infinitum. The idea was that perhaps it wouldn't be a bad idea if both industrialised and developing countries (dubious categories that were popular at the time) were to switch to development paths that would enable them to transition from stock-depleting/environmentally destructive techno-economic systems to ones that could be sustained over time ("steady state"). Not an inherently bad idea - definitely better than business-as-usual.

The problem I had, and still have, with this is that our natural environment is anything other than steady state - it gets increasingly unsteady as we throw all kinds of noise into its feedback loops. Even our resource base is getting unsteady (check out a recent issue of the New Scientist on methane clathrates: on one page a cogent argument for focussing on CH4 rather than CO2 to address climate change concerns, a few pages away an article highlighting early stage technologies that might enable CO2 injection to push clathrates into massive use, but they may not - we don't currently know; clathrates may/will be a big headache as the permafrost melts but - hey! - happy resource times could be round the corner, take your (currently random) pick).

My conclusion is that what we need need is lifeboat development. For the Davos policy crowd this probably needs to be re-branded as something like "mitigation development", where the mitigation has to do with resource depletion as well as climate change - and where, as with the Brundtland Commission, the scope clearly prioritises the needs of the poor that constitute the global majority.

Alas, we're nowhere near genteel steady-state day-after-day tea-at-4 solutions. We are in an emergency. We seem to have depleted massive hunks of our capital stock of low entropy/low cost-to-extract-and-process energy and material resources whilst continuing our fun-loving exponential ways, and to have ejected equally massive and ever growing amounts of problematic entropy-increasing substances into the atmosphere and hydrosphere. The Titanic is heading for lots of icebergs. We need to do whatever it takes - preferably yesterday. Most probably it won't be as pretty as "sustainable development". It will need better fossil and nuclear (thorium anybody?) technologies as well as oodles of renewables and, far and away the most important, much more discernment at the root of the problem: energy demand (aka "energy efficiency" or "rational energy use" or "frugality").

It's time to move on from the paper tigers to the real tigers.

- Colin Moorcraft


An excellent reply. Sadly, we are left with using terms as they have become, not as they were intended to be used. This is the nature of language. Are you feeling gay? Er, I mean happy? Isn't he/she hot? Er, I mean good looking?

So, sustainable development is used generally to mean Greenwashed BAU.

Lifeboats. Yup. Yet, I can't get my friends and family to even notice the sea is getting a little rough, let alone that a Nor'Easter, ice bergs and mines all lay dead head.

I fear David Farragut will have the last word, but with a far different result.


This article is another restatement of the fact that in economics, as in mathematics, 2+2=4 rather than infinity. Of course since the vast majority of people believe that in economic arithmetic 2+2= infinity, repeating this obvious truth is worth while. However, the vital question is how do we restructure our social institutions so that ecological intelligence can effectively inform our economic decisions?

Right now the US economy is contracting, which is to say that we are consuming less resources than we were two years ago. Intelligent contraction is obviously the way forward, and yet it is almost impossible for people not to desire that "consumer confidence" should recover and that merchandise should start moving off the shelves of our stores at "healthy" rate. Our job security and the security of our retirement funds depends on this sort of economic "health".

I have quoted Kenneth Boulding's assertion that "Anyone who believes that exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is a madman or an economist" to several people and received a very positive response. And yet any suggestion of a solution which goes beyond private capital market driven infrastructure investment is rejected out of hand. The reason for this rejection is the (correct) perception that any attempt to seriously limit the power of private finance capital will required a radical rewriting of the social contract which will (at best) be painful and difficult to achieve.

Make no mistake about it, however; The social contract will be rewritten. This change may happen in a purely reactive mode and the result may be something highly unpleasant (i.e. right wing dictatorships, left wing dictatorships, warlordism, etc), but one way or the other political change is coming.

It took me approximately ten seconds after I realized that peak oil was a near term problem to understand that the rewriting of the social contract was the place where the rubber meets the road. I am still surprised by the relative dearth of discussion of this issue on TOD. Even the relocalizers are not really addressing it in my view. Getting most of your food, building material, etc. from nearby is a reasonable technical response to rising transportation costs, but such actions do not in and of themselves address the issue of the social contract. If local economies are based on the every nuclear family for itself / the larger my savings account in the local bank the more secure I am principle, then the problems of the larger economy will be reproduced in miniature.

From my casual reading in cultural anthropology, my impression is that cultures with truly local economies (i.e. hunter-gathers bands and neolithic villages) spent large amounts of time and emotional energy performing ritual ceremonies which psychologically and emotionally bound the community together. It is quite ironic that people whose level of technology would have allowed a nuclear family to survive on its own were emotionally bound to their tribe in a way that modern homo-economicus cannot begin to comprehend, while a modern family living out in the country with a pickup truck, two automobiles, a garage full of power tools, and a house full of electronic appliances can rattle on about how the "independence" of the nuclear family is the foundation of advanced civilization.

We are, as a matter of objective fact, dependent upon each other and upon the services of the ecosystem in which we are embedded. Functioning, healthy, social and ecological communities are the only possible source of long term security. If recognition of this objective fact makes me a communist in the eyes of some people, I can only raise my hand and plead "guilty as charged". I am not, however, a Marxist or a believer in dialectical materialism. I do believe that our primary job as economic actors should be to preserve the true sources of our long term wealth rather than to accumulate private fortunes.

I realize that all of this talk about economic cooperation will raise in many people's minds the specter of a creepy socialist group think which will completely destroy individual freedom. I personally do not see why these two ideas are inextricably linked. At the level of the family where cooperation and resource sharing are the norm, I do not perceive that individuality, creativity, and freedom are inevitably annihilated. There is more in heaven and earth that was dreamt of in Lenin's and Mao's philosophy In any event if the only choices are cooperation or war to the death, I will attempt to bring about the former even if it turns out to be a losing cause.

We are, as a matter of objective fact, dependent upon each other and upon the services of the ecosystem in which we are embedded. Functioning, healthy, social and ecological communities are the only possible source of long term security.

And the only truly effective social institution for managing this is probably via a system of patronage. Where the current holders of the social assets pass them on to those that they see fit to conserve and protect them for the long term benefit of the community. Obviously a sense of community must prevail over a sense of self and I also believe this is our default nature. We will submit to community over the self if we believe it is equitable.

The first things that must go are economics, fiat currencies, banks, politicians and other non productive occupations. True producers and services need no PR or marketing as they are required by the community and supported as such.

I am a just recently graduated senior from highschool, and I will be attending the University of St Andrews in the fall. The main reason I applied to the school was for the degree they offer in "Sustainable Development". I sat in on a introductory talk about the course on visiting weekend and got the sense that the course focuses on the following things: energy, the environment, water, species extinction, health, general resources, etc. What wasn't entirely clear was in what regard these subjects are studied. I wasn't really able to get a sense of whether they were in the camp of "we can grow sustainably for the forseable future" or if they are actually more understanding of the fact that the name "sustainable development" is an oxymoron, and they just use the name because the UN told them to create the course.

Anyway, I will probably found out all the answers to these questions in a few months when I start school, but I was wondering if anyone knew more about the course, or could comment on the UN effort for Sustainable Development in universities.

As a side note, I heard that St. Andrews recently hosted an "energy conference" thingy, to which Colin Campbell was invited.

I wouldn't worry too much. I believe departments of ecology and evolutionary or behavioral biology were virtually unheard of before around 1965.

So you might be on the cutting edge, and start programs elsewhere after you graduate.

Personally, I would love to see a department called Ecological and Geological Economics. It might not have much of a future though.

Definitely would love to take ecological economics. However the only place I have heard of that is where Nate Hagens is, the Gund Institute at UVM, and that is a graduate school.

There have been some excellent posts over at Bill Totten's weblog recently about the work of Frederick Soddy, A 1921 Nobel laureate in chemistry for his work on radioactive decay who set aside chemistry for the study of political economy. In four books written from 1921 to 1934 Soddy carried on a quixotic campaign for a radical restructuring of global monetary relationships. An article by Eric Zencey at The New York Times is especially good, and this concise observation I believe captures the heart of the matter:

He offered a perspective on economics rooted in physics - the laws of thermodynamics, in particular. An economy is often likened to a machine, though few economists follow the parallel to its logical conclusion: like any machine the economy must draw energy from outside itself. The first and second laws of thermodynamics forbid perpetual motion, schemes in which machines create energy out of nothing or recycle it forever. Soddy criticized the prevailing belief of the economy as a perpetual motion machine, capable of generating infinite wealth - a criticism echoed by his intellectual heirs in the now emergent field of ecological economics.

Following Soddy, Georgescu-Roegen and other ecological economists argue that wealth is real and physical. It's the stock of cars and computers and clothing, of furniture and French fries, that we buy with our dollars. The dollars aren't real wealth, but only symbols that represent the bearer's claim on an economy's ability to generate wealth. Debt, for its part, is a claim on the economy's ability to generate wealth in the future. "The ruling passion of the age", Soddy said, "is to convert wealth into debt" - to exchange a thing with present-day real value (a thing that could be stolen, or broken, or rust or rot before you can manage to use it) for something immutable and unchanging, a claim on wealth that has yet to be made. Money facilitates the exchange; it is, he said, "the nothing you get for something before you can get anything".

Problems arise when wealth and debt are not kept in proper relation. The amount of wealth that an economy can create is limited by the amount of low-entropy energy that it can sustainably suck from its environment - and by the amount of high-entropy effluent from an economy that the environment can sustainably absorb. Debt, being imaginary, has no such natural limit. It can grow infinitely, compounding at any rate we decide.

Whenever an economy allows debt to grow faster than wealth can be created, that economy has a need for debt repudiation. Inflation can do the job, decreasing debt gradually by eroding the purchasing power, the claim on future wealth, that each of your saved dollars represents. But when there is no inflation, an economy with overgrown claims on future wealth will experience regular crises of debt repudiation - stock market crashes, bankruptcies and foreclosures, defaults on bonds or loans or pension promises, the disappearance of paper assets.

It's like musical chairs - in the wake of some shock (say, the run-up of the price of gas to $4 a gallon), holders of abstract debt suddenly want to hold money or real wealth instead. But not all of them can. One person's loss causes another's, and the whole system cascades into crisis. Each and every one of the crises that has beset the American economy in recent years has been, at heart, a crisis of debt repudiation. And we are unlikely to avoid more of them until we stop allowing claims on income to grow faster than income.

Garrett Hardin had much the same thing to say in his book "Living Within Limits: Ecology, Economics, and Population Taboos". I highly recommend reading the chapter "Growth: Real and Spurious" which I transcribed into PDF format and which the Garrett Hardin Society graciously agreed to host on their site:


This post reminds me of a post I wrote back in March called What does sustainability mean for energy?

In it, I showed this graphic:

I probably also could have added, "Doesn't depend on rare minerals" even though this is more or less a subset of "Low Imports".

Rated on this scale taking into account these factors, wood comes out best, but the catch is there isn't very much of it. It is hard to find anything renewable that is very scalable.

You need to add or remove circels depending on the physical region.
There are manny regions where there is plenty of natural rainfall and water is
close to limitless as long as you do not pollute it and get downstream problems.

I also question why sustainable systems would need to be low tech and low imports.
Needing imports is ok as long as you have something tangible to pay with and
manny regions can have such win-win exchanges. And I expect that the capacity to
produce high tech products will be very resilent since it is the core capacity for
military ability, modern toys and entertainment and efficiency in all kinds of
endavours. Why would all that disappear and be unavailable for endavours that for
instance need automation?

A follow up on Magnus's comment about "low tech", I am not sure why you think "high" tech is any less sustainable? After all , deforestation with a hand axe and a match is fairly low tech, what about electronic sorting of recyclables such as metals and glass is this too high tech to be sustainable?.

Why is a wind turbine less sustainable because it uses rare earths ( that can be 100% recycled) than a hand axe. We are not going to run out of rare earths any more than steel to make axes, it just takes a social structure skilled labor communications and electric grid, infrastructure that we expect to be maintained. Rare does not mean "not available" it means lower concentration. Gold is thousands of times "less abundant " than Neodymium, but some will always be available because it's valued.

Lower concentration usually means more energy required for extraction. If we don't have enough energy, it means that some ore will be cut off from availability, because we don't have money for extraction.

Recycling can be a help, but it will take energy for recycling as well, and some of the rare minerals will be lost in each round. If we are trying to ramp up to offset depletion, it will mean that more and more or these rare element s will be needed.

My problem with high tech is that it usually needs more inputs to be reproduced. It should be pretty easy to make a new ax, with local materials. (If need be, a sharp stone could be tied to a wooden stick.) It would be a lot harder to make a new wind turbine or solar panel.

Wind turbines are built to produce energy, so providing the EROEI is high( which it is), using a small amount of energy to extract or recycle a very small amount of metal is not an issue. Most of the energy used to build wind turbines is the embedded energy used by employees(6.6MJ/$GDP) and the smaller amount of energy used to produce or recycle steel(115tonnes/MW capacity). A 1MW turbine will produce 58,000MWh in it's 20 year lifetime.

The issue of ramp-up capacity, say at >30% per year, is more of an issue, especially for energy that has a longer energy pay-back, such as solar and nuclear. The rapid payback of wind(<6 months) would mean that capacity could increase by 100% per year, and existing capacity would still provide all the energy needed for growth in new capacity.

So wood comes out best but doesn't fulfill the "sufficient" category at all.

It is hard to find anything renewable that is very scalable.

Because being "scalable" would not be sustainable or renewable. Nature adapts to fit and fill all sorts of niches; therefore diversity and local solutions. Nothing scalable.

cfm in Gray, ME

Permit me ro relate a true story re: sustainability. I may have told this story long ago on Clusterfuck Nation, Jim Kunstler's blog. I was invited to the first Chancellor's summit on campus sustainability. She had a panel of invited experts on energy, both local and invited from out of towm. I looked around the room and saw many familiar faces, the energy aware from many of the physical sciences departments. There were presentations, and Q&A from a open mike. The main topic was how the campus was to continue paying such a high price for its air conditioning, this was a main focus I kidd you not.

So, while I'm sitting there, trying to think of some clever question to ask this bunch about our energy future, I start to look around the room. It was held in Thomas Jefferson hall of the East-West Center. The architect, a famous one, won an award for it. Presidents, foreign and domestic, have come here to give speeches when in town. The ceiling is probably 40 feet high of the floor. There is fabulous hardwood paneling that soars up to cement scupted I-beams supporting the roof. I thought of the sheer aamount of energy that it took to make it all, and what it would take in the future just to maintain it, much less replace it. And there we were, some of the brighest minds on campus, with all the energy experts in attendence, worrying about the rising cost of campus air conditioning.

I'm as skeptical about 'Sustainable Development' as any, but let's try a little thought experiment.

I had a patch of grass. For many years the grass grew and died, grew and died. Not a lot was removed or added to the field. Sustainable.

Then I dug it up and turned it into a vegetable garden. All very organic and permaculture with no artificial external imputs beyond labour; waste was composted, including from the compost loo. Instead of rough grass there was now a complex and diverse ecosystem of fruit and nuts, vegetables and flowers. Sustainable. But now the field supported the feeding of me.

I think that is development. It may even be Sustainable Development.

Clean, unlimited, cheap energy will be our's sooner than most of you think.

The next boom is going to be RE: atomic, wind, geo. It will happen very fast, and it will be a tough transition, but it will happen.

And it will succeed, because it CAN succeed. It is logistically possible and so it is the path we will take.

Then there will be a second, atomic energy boom after that. Then, when we have free energy, it will be easy to fix the other problems in the world. We have yet to see the golden ages. Anyone in science or tech surely knows what I am speaking of.

Unlimited resources / unlimited pollution cleanup (co2 extraction) / unlimited food. It's coming.

Conventional geothermal is over-rated. If you're talking about hot-dry-rock, that is still unproven. A lot of the places where it would work are limited by inceasingly scarce water supplies.

Wind needs huge energy (now fossil fuel) to make and maintain. Even if it continues to grow, it has a long ways to go from <3% of the US energy mix. As you scale wind, the energy cost of making and maintaining the infrastucture will scale also.

Nuclear suffers the same infrastructure problems as wind. It is much less dispersed, but containment requires huge investments in infrastructure. There are only so many sites you can place power plants that need cooling water and are not sitting on a fault zone. Again, water (climate) is trumping our options.

With nuclear, one also has the problems of limited supplies of uranium, leaving breeders (plutonium) and/or thorium as alternatives that are at the edge of our technology.

It is physically possible to build vast ammounts of wind power and pumped storage and it is physically possible to build high temperature breeder reactors that can handle a large earthquake and be cooled with dry coolig towers, ie heat exchangers.

But it would require vast resources, retooling of industries, training of lots of people and large scale development and testing and that takes time even if it is possible to bootstrap during a shortage of oil and other resources.

I am sure that massive things can be done but it takes time.

"I am sure that massive things can be done but it takes time."

Bingo. It's that time aspect. Procrastination will be our collective undoing. This time, after we have waited so long before recognizing the severity of the problem and the time needed to avert the impacts, many will suffer.

Cassandra was right. For her efforts, she was killed by the doomed.

Procrastination is not that bad, what realy irritates me is wealthy and influential
people fighting tooth and nail and investing all their resources into not changing and
not investing in the future. One of the best developing example of this might be the
US governmnet handling of the US part of the financial crisis. I only have to wait
about another year to see if it will become a perfect example for this kind of action.

Don't bother commenting about technologies you know nothing about.

Your comment wasn't even a comment, yet.

'Free Energy, easily fixing C02 and Food Supply..'

Make your case. Until then, it's just blather. PROMISES of Blather.


'And it will succeed, because it CAN succeed. It is logistically possible and so it is the path we will take.'

Please make this more clear for me. I mean, we know that junk food is bad for us, that it is actually killing people.. so logic would dictate that we'd have gotten rid of it by now, or soon will.. only the dictates of logic seem to have other factors running.

I think it's good systems theory to think that IF an evolutionary direction toward significantly cheaper energy is logistically possible it will indeed be likely to be the path taken. Exploratory systems tend to find more than the obvious opportunities, not less. That said, however, I think it's nuts to think it's logistically possible, except in the same sense that Amory Lovins has solved all the world's problems with a conceptual flourish every Tuesday for the past 30 years.

The pension people have for visionary solutions that overlook the deep layers of natural system infrastructure getting in the way seems infinite. Here's my test. Until you see the costs of living going down and down as the earth gets ever more congested, I wouldn't bet on it.

Well at least with Lovins, you get some samples that show the theory. He may be a cornucopian, but he also does his homework and has shown results for many if not all of his promises.

The statements by EngineeringPhys were totally unsupported, and then printed on glossy cardstock to boot. We need some nouns to go with those adjectives.

This 'Significantly Cheaper Energy' is the promise of promises. There was an allusion to new nuclear tech in his post, and the actual word 'FREE', which I'm willing to cut a little slack on, but not much. There are a lot of overbudget builds going on out there.. I haven't heard any being called really cheap at this point.. and even if a gen3 or 4 system shows up with far better numbers, there is still the issue of the bottlenecks of a very complex and transport/labor/fuel intensive fuel cycle. 'It would be cheap as hell if it was allowed to run smoothly, but all these 'above ground' factors beyond our control just kept knocking us down!'

If you're willing to bet the survival of civilization on contradictions of the conservation laws and entropy, then feel free. I just recall that when I was a kid "all the experts" expected energy would become "too cheap to meter" if a couple decades.

From what I can see now, despite an endless stream of grandiose plans, every single resource we rely on is actually running out of the cheap supplies and all the practical substitutes are successively more expensive. Still, the economists don't look at the whole systems response of the planet, but do in fact prefer to bet on limitless real doubling in the scale of wealth every 20 years forever, so apparently betting on someone inventing cheap perpetual perfection machines to let us do it.

Which particular ones do you think I know nothing about? I was doing geothermal resources research in 1968. What were you doing then?

And we will get Ian M. Banks "Culture universe" AI:s that do all the free thinking and work needed to get the free energy and free solutions to all problems?
Don't worry, be happy

"Our children will enjoy in their homes electrical energy too cheap to meter . . . It is not too much to expect that our children will know of great periodic regional famines in the world only as matters of history, will travel effortlessly over the seas and under them and through the air with a minimum of danger and at great speeds, and will experience a lifespan far longer than ours, as disease yields and man comes to understand what causes him to age."

Lewis L. Strauss

Right! What the "enlightenment" failed to be enlightened by is that *everything* on earth that takes care of itself, and that we entirely rely on doing so, is out of control. Our culture having not noticed that seems to have gotten to this point understanding nothing at all about how that could possibly work! It's a living planet, and we are still hoping it can be managed like a machine!

Are you a keynesian? :)

I believe in opportunity, and I believe in discovery. Discoveries that shock people and change the way we do things.

Where was I in the 60s - the answer is that I was not even born yet. Does that guy keep up with what the industry is doing half his life later? The most arrogant posts come from old people on this site, probably those who hold grudges against society and blame others for how poor their lives have been. This is not 1968, this is 2009, four decades later. This is my generation's turn, my vision, my time. You f*cked yours and that was your choice.

I know from studying under nuclear scientists what the future holds for us in that area. I know from studying fluid dynamics and wind what the skies hold for us. And I especially know that it doesn't take oil to produce wind turbines. Stop living in the past, and start living now. I didn't say it would be easy to get to where we're going, but I did say that we have yet to experience our golden age.

Don't disprove me by referring to other posts or what other people said. Buy some textbooks and learn what can be done, not what will be done. We have no clue what will be done, but the ceiling is only what can be done, and it's very very high up there.

"And I especially know that it doesn't take oil to produce wind turbines."

Oh, how so? I suspect that oil saturates every part of a wind turbine, every composite material, every plastic coating of every metal widget. How did the materials get produced and transported to the plants? How did the workers eat and transport themselves to work and back? How did the finished parts get transported to the wind power site? What kind of equipment assembed the parts in the field? How did the workers get to the remote sites and back?

"This is my generation's turn, my vision, my time. You f*cked yours and that was your choice."

That's correct. I'm geting old. My body is not what it was 40 years ago. I suspect my brain is not as fast a processor, also. But, my young friend, I am much, much wiser that I was 40 years ago. And if you were wise, you would listen to the advice that old people here are giving away for free. Why? Because we care. We know that precious time has been wasted, and maybe that was our generation's fault, but we cannot now undo what was done. I admire your youthful exuberance, but you'd better listen to your elders, because we know and we're trying to help. Please start by questioning your and others' assumptions.

Please read my post I referenced elsewhere on this thread:

In this case I unify fluid dynamics and semiconductor transport via dispersion theory. It sounds like you are willing to go the extra yard and contribute to our common understanding. It takes some effort but lots of good ideas get started on TOD.

Then, when we have free energy, it will be easy to fix the other problems in the world.

Umm, I would kinda expect someone who calls him or herself "EngineeringPhysicist" to have a grasp of the laws of thermodynamics. Free Energy? Surely you are joking Mr. Feynman!

Comparatively speaking, fossil fuels WERE nearly "free energy" compared to wood, which was nearly "free energy" compared to food. Historically, we have always used "free energy" to grow our problems. Why would we be any wiser with truly "free energy?"

And, if we do "get free energy,"* imagine what awesome weapons it would engender!
Nuclear weapons so far enable only the extinction of all multi-cellular life on Earth's surface.
"Free energy" weapons should finally make it possible to annihilate planets, stars, and galaxies!

What force would stop us from developing such weapons? ...and, why didn't that force stop Israel, USA, France, Great Britain, Russia, South Africa, India, Pakistan, China, North Korea, etc. from deploying nuclear weapons?

Cellulosic ethanol technology would make a great military defoliant, too! Could very efficiently eliminate all food crops and forest cover, maybe permanently, in "extremist" countries.

*Impossible (see thermodynamics.)

To do justice to the question "IS Sustainable Development sustainable" you need to consider the range of possible definitions.
you have stated one;
Sustainable Development became the language of those that promise perpetual growth,

I don't accept that definition any more than I accept that renewable energy is just running a car on cooking oil, or that CCS is an energy source.

The definition I accept for Sustainable development is " improving the worlds human development index( or other measures of standard of living) using resources that will be available OR CAN BE REPLACED by other resources for as long as we expect civilization to continue"( read tens of thousands to millions of years but not an infinite time).

This may require more energy and resources per person or a more even distribution of present resources or a big increase in per capita resources but a decline in population. It will require some energy resources used today to be replaced by others in the future, it doesn't require infinite growth in resource consumption, but some growth in consumption of some resources.

I don't know anyone who is in favor of "sustainable development " who thinks this means infinite growth in resource consumption, but I do know of people who are not in favor of sustainable development who think this is the definition.

Analogy of Sustainable Development to Intelligent Design.

I think that life probably was the result of intelligent design, however, the use of Intelligent Design was taken by people who I couldn't disagree more with. I didn't get to decide the usage of the terms myself and neither will I decide what Sustainable Development means. My WAG is that it will end up being used (already is, I suppose) by those that promote economic growth through free markets and Capitalism.

Sustainable development is a broad enough term that does allow a number of different definitions. I just don't agree with the definition that Luis uses, and think very few people using the term "sustainable development" would accept Luis's definition.
for example Wikipedia:
"Sustainable development is a pattern of resource use that aims to meet human needs while preserving the environment so that these needs can be met not only in the present, but also for future generations. The term was used by the Brundtland Commission which coined what has become the most often-quoted definition of sustainable development as development that "meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs".

I don't see any mention of "economic growth or free markets and capitalism".

True, no mention of economic growth. But I wonder what is meant by "needs". I'm pretty sure it means "wants" because very little, development is required to meet the needs of people now and, in some areas, none at all is required. Certainly, needs can be met without damaging the environment but I'm not sure wants can.

And what is meant by "future generations"? It that the next 3, the next 7, the next million generations? If there is no limit here, then surely it is better to talk of sustainability, period, which doesn't have a time frame. If we only consume the yearly budget afforded by nature, and do so without damaging our habitat, then that would be sustainable. If we over-consume or damage our habitat, that is not sustainable and, so, must end. Somehow.

Yes indeed, that's where the real deception enters in. The SD people I know (many many) all use the good metaphorical meanings of their term. The physical consequences are a different matter. If they conflict with their believing in "their mission" and sort of "get in the way", they're ignored.

The potential value of SD is for a time when the economies stop multiplying, otherwise it just multiplies our impacts more efficiently. It really does involve very sophisticated design that does indeed have lower impacts per unit of value, in some ways, than other approaches.

It will be useful that someone went to the effort to learn how to do that when someone else finds how the economy can stop doubling in size every 20 years. At the moment SD is driven by professionals making a buck and vying for market share, trying to make money in a growth economy, and going out of their way to ignore the contradictions...

There are real reasons why there is a whole gigantic industry of sincere, intelligent and dedicated people devoting their lives to "sustainability", pursued by the technique of "development".

The reason they are unaware of the deep contradictions has to do with their never having learned how to think.

I’ve talked to them extensively. They don’t have the ability to see decreasing rates of increased quantities as still being compound accelerating increases. They can talk about 'scales' and 'rates' and 'totals', but it’s all metaphors, and they really don’t know the difference between integrals and derivative, rates, scales and accelerations.

When I talk to them I doo succeed in giving them anguish, yes, but after years of considerable effort I have not found a way to provide them any light. I conclude that's more or less the heart of the reason we're in such deep trouble.

Even people here on TheOilDrum where nearly everyone understands quantitative reasoning there are major lapses that get pointed out over and over but just never register in the discussion and might as well have not been mentioned. Should I mention them? I don't know, it seems that mentioning anything "off topic" even if it underlies or over hangs the topic, and is relevant as hell, is "off limits" here as elsewhere. What humans engage in is “banter”, and it has to do with engaging in the social activity, and is actually easier to have disassociated with understanding and steering complexly interconnected physical systems.

The linkages we need to understand are so vast and complex it is daunting to even refer to them. As a result our whole society has a major reasoning problem, disconnected issues, endlessly enjoying the banter of discussing our separated meanings for physically connected things and almost never noticing the irony or foolishness of it.

I’ve yet to persuade anyone, for example, that the problem with resource depletion is not that anything runs out. As our use of all our interlinked resources hits its point of diminishing returns EVERYTHING gets ever more expensive at once. Affordability is what runs out. We passed that point some time ago now from all indications, and those who are most actively pushing up the prices squeeze others out of having access.

We have a whole life support system actually dedicated to using up all the earth’s cheap resources at as rapidly an accelerating pace as humanly possible. That’s the definition of ‘optimal growth’, the direct consequence of maximizing the returns on investments devoted to expanding investments (i.e. 'making money').

But, as they say, discussion of “the whole system” is “off topic” and does not fit much of anyone’s compartmentalized view of the issues, so no one ever seems to have a ready response or curiosity about it, and it keeps getting passed over.

for ways to connect it...

The reason they are unaware of the deep contradictions has to do with their never having learned how to think.

I do not really agree with this statement. The level of logical thinking required to understand the limitations of the infinite growth paradigm is really quite trivial. Most people solve more difficult logical puzzles on a regular basis in carrying out the practical activities of their personal lives. The problem is not lack of ability to think logically but a refusal to apply logic to large scale economics systems issues. The spell of "normality" cast over our way of life is absolutely unbreakable with certain personality types. You can deliver body blow after body blow (metaphorically speaking) and the inspelled person just bounces back onto their feet with their religious belief intact because they could not stand to get out of bed in the morning and face the world otherwise. In in spite of possessing a rational faculty which we can apply to specific problems, we are not fundamentally rational creatures.

"The problem is not lack of ability to think logically but a refusal to apply logic to large scale economics systems issues."

Sure sounds like an inability to think, to me.

My reasoning is that the inability to incorporate rather simple contradictions, like how improving the efficiency of growth still results in multiplying impacts, is the evidence of an inability to think.

The evidence is that the sustainable development crowd does indeed understand that when it is explained to them, but does not see that it invalidates their way of making the earth sustainable because it disagrees with their belief in their own work.

We could be saying much the same thing, though I think an ability to think means being curious about contradictions to your way of thinking....

We have a whole life support system actually dedicated to using up all the earth’s cheap resources at as rapidly an accelerating pace as humanly possible. That’s the definition of ‘optimal growth’, the direct consequence of maximizing the returns on investments devoted to expanding investments (i.e. 'making money').

Yup, making the most money as rapidly as possible depends on our chewing up the planet as thoroughly and rapidly as possible. Even the concept of "investment" is fubar.

We're past that now. Only a matter of the dust clearing before it becomes visible.

cfm in Gray, ME

I've actually spent about 30 years studying the problem and solutions. When I found the 'obvious' logical way to stabilize growth economies without their crashing first, I found that the economists J.M. Keynes and Ken Boulding had found it first. They, however, also got the same treatment for that part of their work as I do, total disbelief.

It's real obvious when you actually think it through that the one and only way to preserve the system's wealth as it approaches natural limits is for it to stabilize itself like an organism does at its limit of growth, rather than push on to a failure of growth and destabilize itself. Doing that in a market system would necessarily include redirecting the system surplus that was being used to multiply the system to be used for something else.

That basically means finding one or another way to persuade people with wealth that in order to preserve their wealth they need to spend their new earnings, and stop multiplying their money pushing the system as a whole toward collapse. I can prove it’s quite necessary as part of the solution, but for almost everyone it seems inconceivable that a critical mass of people smart enough to get it could set off a wave of interest in it to make it happen.

some details...$.htm

While I agree that a socially agreed upon concept of economic maturity, a concept of "enough" in the realm of material wealth is essential in order to pass beyond the growth paradigm, I do not think that your proposal for acheiving this maturity would be effective. If the level of wealth at which rich people stop accumulating more wealth is not a level which the whole population can attain to then the efforts of the middle class and the poor to catch up to the rich will continue put pressure on resources.

I see two possibilities for ending the emphasis on wealth accumulation. One is the creation of rigid heirarchy with well defined levels of wealth and controlled access to the upper levels. The other is an egalitarian income structure in which the majority of competent workers who are employed on a full time basis receive approximately the same income. This income equality does not imply complete lack of competition with respect to labor efficiency. If you can fire two incompetent janitors and hire one who can accomplish the same work by himeself or herself you are free to do so. But the janitor does not earn less than the CEO. I realize that this proposal will be laughed at even more hilariously than your proposal, but it does address the fundamental problem which drives economic growth.

I heard somone claim once than in traditional Navajo culture being more conspicuously wealthly than your neighbors was frowned upon. I think that we need to adopt this attitude. Earning our daily bread should be about earning our daily bread, and if we must compete for glory and honor let the reward be something other than the right consume more economic output than our neighbors.

Salk wrote a book, "Survival of the Wisest", which is basically a story of survival based on the recognition of resource limits and developing a reduction in resource use along with population control. Henshaw also did, "This Side of Yesterday" which covers all the concepts quite well. Odum is the most current author to spell out the consequences and the necessary steps to survial.

At first I thought that Lious had horsewhipped this concept to such an extent that I could think of nothing to add.

Then I thought about something I just posted on another article,about looking over the elephant from a distance and from all pionts of view,without prejudice,and dealing in FACTS first and ethics or morality and desires second.

Anyone with an understanding of basic biology and physics or chemistry,plus just a smattering of other sciences such as astronomy or geology must come to the conclusion that sustainable development is just another head fake,an analog to religion as an opiate of the masses,or more accurately an opiate for the date rape of the masses.The irony is that some advocates are undoubtedly serious believers(remember Lenin's/Stalin's useful idiots)and that the "winners" will lose like the rest of us,but perhaps a few years later from the pov of individuals.

The fact is that the world is a Darwinian place and shall forever remain so,in the true sense of the word Darwinian.The physical facts are on the table and there is essentially a zero chance that we will not pay the same price as all other species in massive overshoot-dieoff.(But maybe not right away in places like the US where the population density is low.)

Unfortunately the word has been hijacked first by some radical right wingers as a rationale for living high on the hog at the expense of the rest of the human race,as a reward for thier supposed "superiority",which is in actuality simply the luck of the lottery-being in the right place at the right time to get a big insurmountable lead. (Diamond's Guns Germs and Steel is absolutely essential reading for anyone who wants to know why the people on top are ARE on top.)

Then people on the left found it necessary to condemn social Darwinism as a philosophy because it offends thier sense of fairness(mine too!) and they wished to deprive thier enemies of a potent intellectual rallying point-even though neither side understands the facts.

So now except for the techie nerds like us,the discussion of our future has been circumscribed to a large extent by a new social taboo successfully created and enforced by well meaning people who may one day realize thier mistake-too late.We just aren't supposed to SAY that word in rspect to human beings,unless the object is to discredit the existing priesthoods so they may be rplaced by others consisting of political scientists,sociologists,psychologists,etc,.

Actually I think that's a close match to what seems to be the "usual cause" of complex society collapse, the inability to question failing beliefs. Complex societies organized around beliefs that work for a while but then run into environments that make them false, apparently try not to worry about it.

Luis - a nice rant which I will refer to in future. You could add "those who believe financial services create wealth".

In answer to your main question "is sustainable development sustainable?" the answer must be that is is more sustainable than unsustainable development in that it buys time. I think the only way toward true sustainability will require measures to control population. In other words fewer people using resources in a more considerate way than now.

"Sustainability" that allows population to grow toward 10 billion has clear limitations.


you wrote:

". . . the only way toward true sustainability will require measures to control population. In other words fewer people using resources in a more considerate way than now."

I note from the above that measures to control population in your view are neither "the only way toward true sustainability" nor sufficient for this goal. A transformed ideology of considerate resource usage is also requisite.

So I wonder if you've considered the fact that the transformation of ideology is itself eminently capable of ending global population growth ?

Or the fact that the population control measures you urge would need, for best effect, to be targeted specifically at those nations with least acceptance of ideologies of considerate resource usage, such as USA ?



Luis -
I'm puzzled as to why you set up the straw man of disfunctional definitions of sustainable and of development -

To put the issue into a multi-millenial perspective (for evident sustainability), when the pre-historic inhabitants of this part of Wales started coppicing the native oak-woods along the mountains' shoulders (presumably at some point in order to provide good straight pales for pallisades around the hillfort up the valley) they were unaware that such coppicing would continue for thousands of years thereafter - they were, predictably, content that it functioned well in their lives and did not impoverish their childrens' heritage.

With a little replanting at each harvest (maybe 2% each 25 years) the coppices thrive as very productive woodland, supporting exceptional biodiversity, and allowing some valuable sheltered winter grazing for the flocks once the regrowth is well up.

The economics of capital resource erosion led to the local woods being left to go derelict when they should last have been harvested, and the 30 acres or so under my hand is now being considered for development from "Semi-natural" woodland into productive Coppice.

So perhaps you can tell me just why this development would not be sustainable ?



It sounds like it would be but I don't think it is the kind of development that most people think about when talking/writing of sustainable development.

Sustainable development has some biological precedents. Probably the best is a seed. The plant produces a zillion seeds of which a few will survive depending on the conditions where the seed ends up. Spores of fungus achieve the same thing. An interesting organism is the slime mold. It lives a solitary life until things get bad - lack of food as indicated by hight CO2 levels. They then form up into a multicellular slug that moves off a short distance and then some of the cells become a stalk and the rest migrate up to the top of the stalk and then become spores that blow off into the distance. Hibernation sort of works in this same way, the bears need lots of food to build the fat to get them through the bad times. (Sort of 7 good years and 7 bad). However the one that I like best is the case of the tadpole. The pond is drying up and the tadpoles absorb their tails and develop into a frog and hop out just as the pond dries up. It used to be a algal eater, but now consumes insects. The tails sacrifice themselves for the survival of an entirely new organism. Lichen represent the same process as algal cells and fungus cells get together. The algal cell generally needs a lot of water to survive and the fungus generally eats the algae. The lichen however is an arrangement where the algae provides the food and the fungus protects the algae. The lichen can now live most any place whereas the algae needs water and the fungus had to live next to the water to have access to the algae. This is a nice story of how cooperation enables the organisms to survive the pool of water that is drying up. It also is an increase in the degree of cooperation than existed before and might be considered to be an example of evolution.

These are at least some examples that might be considered to be an attempt to develop sustainability.

While thinking about this check out an old movie of Woody Allen called the "Sleeper". "The Flight of the Phoenix" with James Stewart provides some insight as well.