Against Sustainability

Few buzz-words are as popular today as sustainability, i.e. the idea that we should alter our social and economic activities in such a way that we can keep doing what we are doing indefinitely. This of course stands in marked contrast to how human beings live in the Industrial Age: we consume fossil fuels at a rate immeasurably faster than they are generated, we pollute the air and our rivers and oceans, and we constantly keep re-organising our societies. The way human beings live has changed more drastically over the last two hundred years than over the previous two thousand.

And thank God for that! Primitive societies may have been sustainable – they often changed very little over the course of centuries and millenia – but they were also horrible. Life in them was nasty, brutish, and short, and no one who isn’t blinded by romantic idealism wants to return to such conditions. It is precisely by excerting ever greater mastery over nature and using its ressources more effectively and extensively that we’ve been able to escape from the desperate poverty that is man’s natural state.

The more resonable among even the most ardent environmentalists acknowledge this fact and do not urge an abandonment of industrial technology, but seek to modify our economy to work towards becoming sustainable. Examples include “green” energy, recycling, and limits or taxes on pollution and carbon emission.

While some of these measures are justifiable based on the short and medium term impact of pollution, resources prices, and so on, sustainability is not a sensible goal. Why should we worry whether we can sustain what we’re currently doing for centuries to come when we have every expectation that we won’t even want to do these things in future centuries? Our way of life has changed very rapidly over the last two centuries and there is every reason to believe that this trend will continue.

To see the absurdity of planning hundreds of years into the future, just consider how well the people two hundred years ago could have planned to solve the problems of today. Back in 1817, Europe was just recovering from the Napoleonic Wars, the Industrial Revolution was picking up steam in England, the Middle East was dominated by the Ottoman Empire, China was a massive empire ruled by the Qing dynasty, Japan was an isolated backwater in which virtually all progress had been halted for two hundred years, and in America, James Monroe had just become President. Most people around the world worked in agriculture, many of them as slaves or serfs.

If the smartest minds of the time had thought long and hard about the problems which might be afflicting humanity in 2017, they might perhaps be worried about population growth outstripping agricultural production, thus leading to famine. But they certainly wouldn’t be worried about the ozone layer (the what?), global warming, running out of oil (you mean that gooey black stuff found underground that reduces the value of otherwise perfectly suitable farm land?), or nuclear war (war of the core? what’s that supposed to be?). We have every reason to think that our present predictions of the future will be far off base. Any measures we take now to solve the problems of future centuries are likely to be wasteful.

The only prediction I am willing to make about life in 2217 is that it will be radically different from today in ways we cannot even yet imagine. If human civilization keeps progressing without any major collapses, we will be technologically and economically so much further advanced that any effort we make today to solve tomorrow’s problems will likely be as feeble as a toddler’s attempt to help his parents with their tax returns, even if we somehow managed to identify the correct problem.

Our current industrial civilization is not sustainable, there is no feasible way of making it sustainable, nor should we attempt to do so. We are currently engaged in a grad experiment of rapidly changing human living conditions. So far it’s been a smashing success and has yielded improvements in the standard of living of ordinary people that no one would have dared dream of in bygone eras. This experiment is not without its risks. It is entirely possible that some sort of catastrophe brought about by our technology, such as nuclear war or artificial intelligence misaligned with human goals, will lead to civilizational collapse. We are on a train heading into the unknown at three hundred kilometres an hour, and there are no breaks on this train. We might crash at some future point, but so far it’s been one hell of a ride. Let’s continue to enjoy it.

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