David Friedman on "Sustainability"
By David Henderson
As I mentioned in an earlier post, my university is big on “sustainability;” it has just been having an extended event designed to boost the idea. I responded to an email urging faculty members to introduce sustainability into one of their classes by asking if it was all right if I argued against it in mine, and suggesting that a program which consisted entirely of presentations on one side of an issue looked more like propaganda than education.
This is from David Friedman, “Sustainability: Empty Rhetoric or a Bad Idea.” In his post, he links to a 50-minute audio of his talk at Santa Clara University. I haven’t listened to the talk yet, but I’m guessing that in it, he makes some of the points he made in some earlier posts.
Specifically, after he had proposed a definition of sustainability and pointed out its problems, a commenter wrote:
The generally accepted definition comes from the Brundtland Report, which defines sustainable development as: “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.
There are two problems with this definition. The first is that implementing it requires us to predict what the future will be like in order to know what the needs of future generations will be. Consider two examples:
1. The cost of solar power has been falling steeply. If that fall continues, in another couple of decades fossil fuels will no longer be needed for most of their current purposes, since solar will be a less expensive alternative. If so, sustainability does not require us to conserve fossil fuels.
2. A central worry of environmentalists for at least the past sixty years or so has been population increase. If that is going to be the chief threat to the needs of future generations then sustainability requires us to keep population growth down, as many have argued.
A current worry in developed countries is population collapse, birth rates in many of them being now well below replacement. With the economic development of large parts of the third world, that problem might well spread to them. If so, sustainability requires us to keep population growth up, to protect future generations from the dangers of population collapse and the associated aging of their populations.
It’s easy enough to think of other examples. Generalizing the point, “sustainability” becomes an argument against whatever policies one disapproves of, in favor of whatever policies one approves of, and adds nothing beyond a rhetorical club with which partisans can beat on those who disagree with them.
David has never been intimidated by some university administrators’ or faculty’s desires to turn their universities into propaganda mills. But think about the unseen: what happens at the hundreds (at least) of universities where there is no one like David Friedman?