28 Comments

You're killing it, a content machine

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I like the idea of sustainable cookies. One could hardly argue that future generations will not need them. While they may evolve, cookies must nevertheless, remain cookies in order to, you know, be them.

Perhaps I will launch a GoFundMe effort to enable to develop said sustainable cookies. The obvious goal must be to develop cookies that are delicious, availlable and self-restoring.

I suspect someone will insist these cookies must be free of sweeteners, gluten and any trace of salt as well as totally vegan in origin, and devastate the entire effort.

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I had never formulated it so muchly, just figured sustainability was undefinable, meaningless pablum to make politicians appear to be concerned and doing something. I did wonder why the users thought previous generations were more interested in destroying resources rather than preserving them, or maintaining them, so they could sell them or pass them on to heirs. I am glad you do take the time to state the obvious, and so well.

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The problem with your post is that there are good definitions of sustainability in ecological economics or systems science and you don't know them or argue about them. For example, Herman Daly proposes 3 principles for a sustainable economy. I'll quote these principles from the article "What Should Be Held Steady in a Steady-State Economy?":

"1. Limit the use of all resources to rates that ultimately result in levels of waste that can be absorbed by the ecosystem.

2. Exploit renewable resources at rates that do not exceed the ability of the ecosystem to regenerate the resources."

3. Deplete nonrenewable resources at rates that, as far as possible, do not exceed the rate of development of renewable substitutes."

When you understand these principles, you will have answers for your questions.

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One of the problems of sustainability is that, at the detail level, it often seems to achieve short-term sustainability at the expense of long-term sustainability. A good example would be the Western insistence that Sub-Saharan Africa not develop its natural gas resources for energy purposes.

Here's the problem. I ran the population growth rates a couple of years ago. With energy austerity Sub-Saharan Africa would have 57 people per two people today. The reason? Falls in population growth rates require three things- education for girls, access to birth control and, most important of all, access to the type of economic opportunity which only industrialisation and markets can bring.

The problem is further compounded by the fact that more affluent Westerners seem to romanticise traditional farming, which in Africa is more accurately termed subsistence farming. Sure, climate and weather events has often lead people in Africa to flee the land to the cities or Europe, but this is vastly outweighed by young people wanting to exchange backbreaking labour working the land with a substantial increase in standard of livings in what the West dubiously terms 'sweatshop' conditions.

And the current imputations to the reputation of Norman Borlaug, the man who saved a billion lives with his Green Revolution is simply disgraceful. Contrary to slanderous Netflix documentary assertions North Africa hasn't increased fertiliser usage, Europe has substantially reduced it, whilst almost all increased usage of fertilisers has been in the world's least developed countries (this Our World in Data source even collates the data into a single graph category).

The worst kind of evil is that which is committed in the name of good, knowingly or unknowingly.

https://ourworldindata.org/grapher/fertilizer-consumption-usda?country=OWID_WRL~Least+developed+countries

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I always looked at sustainability arguments as either direct arguments for renewable energy or pleas against activities that make species go extinct. I never considered it a complete philosophy of economics or anything else.

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Robert Solow took a scalpel to the idea of sustainability here: http://www.owlnet.rice.edu/~econ480/notes/sustainability.pdf

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Sustainability apparently means, in a policy sense (see comments on this thread), "keep the things I like the way I like them for the indefinite, but VERY long future. It works for me, so it must be good." However the policies all seem aimed at some sort of mystical stabile balancing point.

Sustainability then must mean some kind of semi-permanent stasis. Or maybe just death. That seems to be very stable for individuals.

I prefer to think about resiliency. As in what can we do to best prepare indefinitely for an unpredictable future? And stasis/sustainability tends to destroy the ability to be resilient.

Like the argument here against suburbs. It is becoming more and more evident to me that it is cities that are unsustainable. At least given average human desires. The main reason for the existence of cities (being a locus of the transfer of goods, services, and ideas mostly) no longer exists as it has in the past. We don't need to live cheek-by-jowl to readily exchange goods, or services, and especially ideas. Thus we 'lose' the good things about cities while keeping the bad things, like crime, unpleasant interactions with strangers, dirt, noise, etc. Oddly enough many people prefer the suburbs because it better suits their human needs.

And a reasonably well-run suburb can provide the necessities with its own tax base. Especially if avoids the corruption that pervades most (all?) big cities.

Ah, well.

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I've been reading Eliezer's Rationality AI to Zombies (most over my head, but I'd recommend it for at least the parts I can grasp). He gives an exampe of an argument about whether a tree falling in the forest makes a sound, to one, yes, because he means it causes vibrations in the air, to another, no, because he means an audible vibration on an eardrum of an observer.

So for this word, sustainability, it's not always empty rhetoric, although I agree with you as you've used it.

If I say, "I spend more than I earn every month," and someone says, "that's not sustainable," I'd have to agree...if I go into debt at a higher rate each month, eventually the house of cards falls.

If I'm hunting elephants for ivory, that's not sustainable either, evenutally the elephants can't breed fast enough to keep up and they go extinct.

The problem is the connotation of the word and also the "so what effect."

If someone says, "using fossil fuels is unsustainabile," we can say, "yeah, so what? We'll have figured out solar or some other fuel source soon enough, humans are inventive, it's not a problem. Use as much oil as you want, it's probably better, long term, because it forces people to invent alternatives."

So there is this divide, in both elephants and fossil fuels, we can agree that if we use them at X rate, eventually they aren't available anymore, i.e. the use would be unsustainable, however, in the case of oil, it's good, in the case of elephants, it's bad (assuming you like elephants).

I think it gets trickier with some things like farm land use, it doesn't seem sustainable to keep growing more and more wheat, soy, and corn, but maybe it doesn't matter....maybe it does... some things seem to have some unknown unknowns.

Certainly cutting down old growth forest or slash and burn farming isn't "sustainable" in, just like elephants, old growth trees and/or certain forests/jungles can't regrow fast enough.

So there's some (seemingly) gray areas here. The cod fisheries (and others) seemed to not only not have been sustainable, they seem to be lost forever. Maybe it's not problem, protein is protein and the people can eat talapia.

In the mid-90s I went long-line fishing with my dad, at the time, in Hawaii, shark finning was legal. The crews of tuna boats killed a lot of sharks for their fins. That wasn't sustainabile by any means, and if it hadn't been made illegal, eventually the ecology would have flipped in ways that might have been very bad for the fisheries in general, certianly bad for the sharks. I didn't really care at the time, I needed the cash, but in retrospect, I think it was irresponsible and selfish.

So, yeah, I don't think it's fair to argue about sustainability unless it's well defined about what you mean.

If you mean using up fossil fuels and in general building roads and stuff, it seems that's going to go well and fine, we adapt, and as you mention, we don't know the future. But if you mean, "yeah, go ahead and extinct blue whales because we don't know if our great grandchildren will reallly care about whales," I'd definately disagree with that position. I can imagine a world in which nobody cares about whales or elephants, or maybe they make robot AI whales and elephants, but still, I think that would be a net loss for humans (although I concede 98% of things have already gone the way of the dodo).

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I really like the example about sustainability of horse riding circa 1900. That I think really hammers in the question of what we mean by sustainability. Personally, when I think about sustainability, I'm actually mostly thinking about efficiency, especially long term efficiency. For example, the unsustainability of suburb development patterns is actually evident in the ongoing money-losing proposition that suburbs inflict on cities. Just as a ponzi scheme is unsustainable because its a money losing venture, so are US-style suburbs unsustainable because the infrastructure they use can't be feasibly paid for by the taxes suburban residents can produce.

Similar to the above but with things other than money, I also view things that aren't sustainable as things that are destroying things of value. Habitat destruction, soil depletion on unsustainably operated farms, pollution of the oceans with plastics, styrofoam, and other garbage, and the proliferation of space garbage in orbit. These are all things that destroy value, mostly as negative externalities, but notably in the case of farmland destruction, it seems that the ultimate result (sub-par produce) falls on the consumers who are ignorant of the low quality it causes.

I agree that ecnomics will automatically work things out if we run out of fossil fuels. Its seems unlikely in the near future that we will, but an angle that fits with the concept of destroying something of value would be: what if we run out of fossil fuels, then the ice age hits, and we have nothing to burn to stave off another snowball earth? Its possible the rampant use of fossil fuels today could mean we won't be able to use them for a much more valuable purpose in the future. Again, very hypothetical.

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A sudden population collapse could indeed be problematic, but I do not see a gradual decrease in the global population as a problem. If anything, the contrary. Resources needed by humans would presumably become less scarce and therefore cheaper, although this would probably be partially off-set by a smaller population producing fewer man-made resources. If a population collapse were to happen in the developed world only, an immediate solution could be to simply open the borders to people from third world countries. They and their descendants would soon flourish and and thus bolster the productive population.

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For most people, sustainability means not using resources faster than you can obtain them.

Sleep is a good example of something that needs to be done sustainably.

I will try to put it in economic terms: Wakefulness is highly correlated with patience with your children. Wakefulness is a limited resource that runs out after a certain number of hours.

Let's say I practice sustainability by taking a nap in the morning. My kids are up at 4, and if I don't take a nap sometime between then and 3pm, I'm not going to have any patience left for bedtime.

Or maybe I'm saying that short term sustainability makes a lot of sense. I'm not sure anyone is really applying it to the long term.

Many things in life are

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