Brainless Sustainability

One of the envirobuzzwords of the 21st century is sustainability. I recently googled the term “environmental sustainability” and there were over 11 million hits. The National Science Foundation makes grants for sustainable engineering which “typically considers long term horizons.” More generally, most people think of sustainability as the capacity to endure.

There can hardly be any doubt that the word sustainability has captured the envirolandscape. Here is just a trifle of a list to make my point: (food) (architecture) (ag)

I could go on for a looooooong time, but you get the picture. Sustainable is certainly enduring, if in nothing more than the word. People worry about sustainability for a lot of reasons, and I would say mostly good ones. Pondering and preparing for the future makes great sense. However, being brainless about it seems odd. And I choose that word for a very particular reason.

If you asked most people what the most important natural resource is today, you would surely get a variety of answers. Some would say water, others oil. Some might say air, others sunlight, and who knows what all else including wolves or even snail darters. But there is a modern school of thought in economics and elsewhere that uniformly gives one answer, human brains. One of the architects of this movement, Julian Simon, liked to say, “It is your mind that matters economically, as much or more than your mouth or hands.” Matt Ridley has written extensively about this in his latest work, The Rational Optimist. Following these giants, I take the position that human minds are the world’s greatest natural resource.

Ponder the sustainability question from a slightly different slant. Who really deeply, truly cares about whether buggy whips are sustainable, or candle tallow, or firewood? Isn’t what we really care about being sustainable are the outputs of these inputs: transportation, home lighting, and warm houses? A hundred and fifty years ago, whales neared extinction owing to their fat for lighting lamps. We have light at night today not because whale oil is sustainable but because our ingenuity is sustainable and some smart fox invented kerosene; and who really cares whether kerosene is sustainable so long as we have nuclear, or solar, or wind energy to light our homes. The concern over sustainability is real and important, but leaving the human brain out of the equation, brainless sustainability, makes hardly any sense.

I too am concerned about whether we will have all the things we care about tomorrow and into the future for our kids, but I truly don’t care whether our trees are sustainable. What if some genius figures out a way to make housing lumber out of corn cobs or waste water? I will then care less about certified wood products. Forest sustainability isn’t important to me. There are lots of services that forests provide besides housing lumber, such as, clean air, animal habitats, luxurious views, and hikes to name a few. It is reasonable to care about having an ample supply of these into the future too, but don’t neglect our capacity to build spaceships or other ways to achieve the same ends. There is almost always more than one way to skin a cat, and human energy and other resources that we dedicate to maintaining the status quo are resources which could have been used to help us advance.

Just imagine if 150 years ago society had gone on a crusade to create whale oil sustainability. It is entirely possible that the geniuses who created and brought kerosene to the world would have been sidetracked into trying to find ways to make whales procreate faster or to have certified sustainable whale oil. That’s brainless sustainability to my way of thinking.

Let’s get behind brain-powered sustainability and figure out ways to build houses out of non-wood products, and electricity out of non-fossil fuels, and eat food which uses less land, water, and labor. Let’s create human, mind-based sustainability instead of land or nature-based sustainability.


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