Thursday, May 24, 2012

A few thoughts on the mis-use of the new and sexy word "sustainability"

I received an email from one of my "sustainability" mailing lists the other day. It read:

                                      Coal – Energy for Sustainable Development

No kidding. I suppose there is not something that shockingly controversial in the title. Its not like it says "Coal: A sustainable energy supply". But never-the-less....this was an email notification a report released on coal and its role in clean energy. Mmmm. Interesting. Yar, you can look it up yourself...

Anyway. Coming back from a three-week holiday visiting my sister in Australia, and I come back with a few new experiences and thoughts with this kind of thing in mind. How big corporations, and, for that matter, anyone who has profit in mind, have suddenly jumped on the bandwagon of using the words "sustainable" and "sustainable development" in such a way that I am not sure they actually know what it means.

Two of my friends in the Balaton group, a network of sustainability actors I am part of, recently wrote an extremely good paper entitled "Peak metals, minerals, energy, wealth, food and people towards the end of the golden age; considerations for a sustainable society". Here, they give beautiful definitions of what "sustainability" and "sustainable development" is supposed to mean. They say that "sustainability" is about making an activity take such shape that it can go on virtually forever, without ruining its own conditions. They say that this is fundamentally different from "sustainable development", which in itself needs careful thought on what exactly is meant by "development", or "sustainable growth", which in itself, they say, does not actually exist as a reasonable concept. They go on to say

"Hard thermodynamic limits are set by mass balances for use resources in finite supply (energy, metals, structural materials, fibre, and food through phosphorus and nitrogen). Only resources that have inbuilt regeneration function may be made to last for ever. Limits are also set by social systems in terms of personal integrity and security, interpersonal trust, transparency and degree of democracy. These are different from sustainable development which sometimes include perpetual economic or mass volume growth, which is not possible on a limited Earth and therefore greatly unsustainable."

Anyway, back to my trip to Australia. So there I sat on the "cheapest possible flight" my travel agent friend was able to procure for me. This meant me flying from Windhoek, Namibia, via Johannesburg, RSA to Abu Dhabi, UAE, to Sydney, AUS and then finally to Brisbane, AUS - my final destination. Interesting. In the in-flight magazines, there were mutliple articles on how the airlines are trying to mitigate their emissions, reduce their environmental impacts, and so on. is cheaper to fly halfway around the world in several airplanes...than to actually fly a straight, minimum-mile usage, flight path...which would greatly reduce emissions. Now can you imagine how many cheapo people there are out there who are accumulating ridiculous amounts of unnesseray carbon emissions because they are flying via Dubai, when all they need to do is fly from London to Johannesburg, or whatever.

And then...mining. I absolutely LOVE how mining is trying to get in on their "sustainability" slogans. Not that I want to bash them totally...but it seems like such a contradiction to say that "we will mine sustainably". Because within the lines of the definition of sustainability I happen to agree with, mining is not sustainable. It has a short lifespan, contributes much money (often to a tiny amount of people at the cost of many) and then suddenly comes to a halt, leaving behind low qualty, often dangerous and environmentally degraded areas. But wait! There is another deposit....that will buy us another 20 years.

It all just seems so ridiculous. How we can be so intelligent, and so stupid at the same time. We have the ability to live sustainably, and we actually need to do it this way. And yet, for decades, we are brainwashed by the five percent who are forcing the system into what it is, making themselves immensely rich (on value-less items), with the rest of us blindly lapping up the idea that this is what we all want to be: immensely rich. In the meantime the world is slowly becoming a sad and poor place (by poor I mean in terms of things that have value); while at the same time we go around pretending to care about sustainability and superficially doing our part by "using a spoon twice for our coffees". 

Thoughts that are neither here nor there. But something to think about.  

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