Nothing Is 'Sustainable'

The Spectator, August 31, 2002 | Go to article overview

Nothing Is 'Sustainable'


When it comes to doing his bit to save the planet, no one has a right to feel more smug this week than President Bush. No amount of power showers will lift his personal carbon consumption to the level of the 105 world leaders who, unlike him, will be blazing trails of noxious pollution through the lower stratosphere on their way to Johannesburg this week for the World Conference on Sustainable Development.

Those who express disappointment at the American President's absence have a poor understanding of human nature. Who, save for the star-struck contestants in The Weakest Link, voluntarily turns up at a ritual designed to bring about his humiliation? While tens of thousands of lobbyists' jobs depend on the concept of 'sustainability', on examination it is nothing more than a ragbag of incoherent protests against the supposed sins of rich nations in general and America in particular.

Contained within the concept of sustainability is the presumption that there exists some theoretical nirvana in which mankind can live in a healthy and unchanging state, plucking the fruits of Eden no more quickly than they can be replenished, co-existing with an equally unchanging global inventory of plants and beasts. No such state ever has existed and neither will it, for the simple reason that greed and short-termism characterise the behaviour of all living beings in their consumption of the world's resources. Even if Man were removed entirely from the equation - as the extreme end of the environmentalist movement, a sect called the `human extinctionists', advocates - bunnies would continue to procreate unsustainably without a thought for global carrot stocks, and pandas would carry on gobbling bamboo until they had eaten themselves to extinction.

The environmental lobby is correct that many human activities are, in simple terms, unsustainable. There is, presumably, a limit to the supply of fossil fuels - though the oil industries' geologists continue to confound the Jeremiahs who once predicted that the last drop of petrol would disappear into the tank of some Chevrolet around 1990. But, given that fossil fuels are in finite supply, it makes no difference whether we keep on buying bigger and better cars or stick to the Kyoto protocol: any level of usage of oil is ultimately unsustainable. To conclude from this that the Western way of life is doomed is wrong. The history of mankind's progress is one of passage from one unsustainable activity to another. Each time, technology has moved us on to better things before the crunch point has been reached.

The mediaeval settlement of England depended on consuming vast quantities of native woodland. …

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