Three or so weeks ago I wrote a piece on ‘the good society’, setting out what I thought were the primary values that would inform such a blessed state. It was picked up on On Line Opinion, where commenters battled away with each other. Before the final duel began one commenter, Ludwig, wrote that I had missed something really important:
This is to live sustainably. To live well within our means. To keep the scale of everything well within the ability of our resource base to provide not only all the necessities for life but the necessities for a high quality of life, with a big safety margin. If we don’t do this, we will face all manner of problems. The rule of law will be badly eroded. The rich, powerful and ruthless will rule the roost. There will be massive real poverty. There will be enormous civil strife. A good society needs a government that is independent of the enormous influences that drive it to continuously expand and become less sustainable, especially when vital resources such as water are already highly overutilised and stressed right out.
I replied that it was a good point, but that humanity seemed to have thrived when resources were stressed, and gave some examples (the transition from wood to coal and iron, the end of the horse-manure scare, the transition from copper to silicon fibre). I said that I thought living sustainably was the sort of thing one might elect to try to do, (always bearing in mind that if I run a petrol-engined car, it’s not easy to run it sustainably), but for whole societies that aim seemed fanciful to me.
Ludwig stuck to his guns.
It is of vital importance in Australia that we steer ourselves in the direction of sustainability, given how rampantly we are going in the opposite direction. Surely you must agree that we should at least be striving to NOT further stress already highly stressed resources. Water being our prime concern.
We should also realise that the current state of political discontent is very largely due to the LIE that we need evermore growth and the FAILURE of this basic dictum perpetrated by our politicians of all persuasions over many years to address all the issues that this growth has been supposed to address. Striving to live sustainably is surely THE most fundamental principle for building a better society. If we don’t do this a whole range of stresses will manifest themselves, and the ugly side of the human condition will come to the fore.
I responded that I would give further thought to the issue in another post, which is this one. Ludwig’s argument here is a familiar one, and to a degree I think we are doing what he wants. But the main weapon we use is the price mechanism. As resources diminish, or the supply of something is inadequate for whatever reason, its price goes up. As that happens, people get into substitution, or give up using the resource, while others see an opportunity to develop something that is actually better. It is not obvious what the innovation will be. One example is the replacement of the iron lung by the Salk vaccine in the treatment of poliomyelitis.
My reading of Ludwig’s argument is that he sees the need for government to ‘steer’ us via the regulated rationing of the resource, where it is capable of being rationed. On the whole I think that is a bad method, and sensible only in the context of war, where everybody is expected to make a sacrifice, and where many resources are needed for the ‘war effort’. The rationing of water in the Murray-Darling system does not seem to me to have been either effective or efficient, and we have no capacity to foresee when the next flood or drought will be.
And growth is not simply what politicians talk about, though Sir John McEwen loved to use the word back in the 1960s. Our population is growing steadily every year, and we seem perpetually short of about 350,000 dwellings. Our net reproduction rate (the number of daughters reaching reproductive age per woman) was in 2012 at less than replacement (0.929), so our growth is mostly through immigration. The immigration target for the current year is about 215,000, of which 129,000 are to be skilled workers, 61,000 family members of Australian citizens, while 24,000 are in the humanitarian category.
Each of these categories has a rationale, and while one could tweak the proportions I can’t see anyone in office wanting to end any of the categories. On the face of it, Australia has done very well in the last sixty years, through growth, and we have not run out of anything. Yes, there are shortages from time to time, but we have learned how to deal with them. I would agree that faced with World War Three or some other catastrophe, our society would find it very hard to deal with organising its resources. But I see no need to act as though WW III is around the corner.
I’ve written before somewhere that ‘sustainability’ is a slippery concept, and this present debate has only increased my feeling that it would be preferable to talk about not ‘wasting’ resources. Like AGW, ‘sustainability’ can all too easily acquire a religious tone.
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A religious tone, like “growth” perhaps?
“Living sustainably” is one of those puritanical and nonsensical ideas that some people are just itching to shove down our throats, perhaps even by force. The #1 problem with it is, who is to be a judge of what is and what is not sustainable, and what should the sustainability zone radius be. Should I be sustainable entirely within my own home (impossible), or within my farm (possible, but only if you have a farm), or within town, or within a country, or within a trading group of countries? Or within the whole world?
If the zone of sustainability is to be the whole world, how am I to know if what I do is sustainable? It’s not so easy to answer. For example, is it sustainable for me to eat strawberries in winter? They don’t grow in winter where I live (nothing does) so they have to be imported. Is it sustainable? Well, it’s been sustained so far, so it is obviously sustainable. For the time being. Since, as I said, nothing grows in winter where I live, every food has to be brought here from somewhere else, or stored throughout the winter, so the question of strawberries extends to any fresh vegetables and fruit.
Now, there is a clear, simple answer to all this, known since the days of Adam Smith (1723-1790). The arbiter of what is and what is not sustainable is… the market. The market decides how much various things should cost, taking into account the balance of supply and demand, and the cost of production, delivery, etc. So by paying for my winter strawberries whatever the market demands, I live sustainably. If it so happens that bringing strawberries to the snows of the Midwest is not sustainable, their price will go high, so high that the demand will plummet and so fewer people will be buying them, which will restore the sustainability automatically.
This is the only fiat that I, a free (and proud) human being, am ever prepared to accept from anybody in this matter. As this is something we all have to accept in free societies anyway, the striking conclusion must be that we all live sustainably already. Sure, our lifestyles will change with times and with the market as the latter reflects changes in technology, culture, resource availability and resource kind. But these changes will be always such as to reflect the temporary sustainability arising naturally from the balance of prices.
Gus, how is the market for strawberries on Easter Island going?
Groceries on the Easter Island are very expensive, as they should be. This is first because the market is tiny, there’s only about 4,000 people living there, and second, because it’s 5 hours flight from the mainland. But food you find on the local food stalls is cheaper. People visiting the islands (never for long) are advised to bring groceries with them.
Where do our strawberries in the Midwest come from? They come from Mexico in winter, then from California and Florida later in the year. But we get cherries and salmon from Chile. Cherries seasonally only, but delicious. Our own cherry growing area is in Michigan, behind the Lake Michigan towering sand dunes. But they are highly vulnerable to frost that can damage flowers in the spring. This happens every now and then.
How “sustainable” is importing cherries and salmon from Chile? Well, you can pack an awful lot of fruit and fish into a Jumbo Jet. It obviously pays, and with good profit to boot, to ship the produce from Chile to the US this way. Money that moves in complicated ways to pay for this transaction, balances the cost of fuel, the cost of producing the groceries (the salmon is farmed), and the affordability of the product to customers at its destination. All costs have to be balanced just so, for the business to thrive. And it does.
No single human could devise this operation in every detail and price its every component. This would be too complicated, you see. But the market does, because it is the dynamic effect of countless interactions between humans, machines, products, supermarkets and their bank accounts. And somewhere, in the middle of it all, sits the “sustainability” of the activity itself.
Well said Gus. Sustainable is a catch phrase those in the useful idiot classes bandy about to beat us over the head with. Wind farms and solar cells are classed as “sustainable” but actually they are not. They are with us because the government warps the market with massive subsidies. They same idiots are against the use wood why? It is actually sustainable it does something called growing! The “sustainable” quest is meant to stop us using anything.
It’s interesting that “market forces” are seen as essentially malevolent and grasping. They’re actually no more than a means of priority setting, whereby rewards are applied or withdrawn according to priorities. I find the very people who most readily criticise the gaining of profit, are as fully engaged as any in the pursuit of survival, and that means in any economy, they also must remain “profitable”, and clearly, they do so. Such unconscious hypocrisy.
And while I have your ear, why does this site not attract more who disagree with Don, and many of the regular posters? Brave David is far too much on his own, and it’s unreasonable to ask of him to cover all bases. Surely the argument of the aficionados cannot be all that sound! I think I need to visit a few cantankerous sites, to keep my feet on the ground.
Ironically sustainability has become the core preachment of those who produce nothing and whose chosen habitat is the very vortex of the vast urban resource sinks.
The fact is, you cannot force everyone to ‘do it my way’ anymore than you can herd cats. This is the great mistake of the communist regimes. You can seek to persuade and you can set an example but as soon as you codify you may end up creating more problems than you solve. As Gus says, let the market decide.
During the “horse manure scare”, if the then UK government regulated that you could only have one horse instead of two for your cart/ coach/brougham so as to “be sustainable” would it have solved the problem in the long term? Of course not. It was new technology that permently solved the problem – the internal combustion engine.
If, after cyclone Larry (18-21st March 2006) wiping out the north Qld banana plantations, the banana price kept as before (around $2-50/kg); would that have been sustainble ? O course not. The banana price went up to $15/kg. At that price the demand for bananas became sustainable. Market forces at work here solving the problem temporarily until the next banana crop was harvested
During our last drought our dams started emptying out. The ACT Government introduced harsh water restrictions; water demand plummeted, demand became sustainable but cost the community a fortune (many businesses went broke and our lawns and gardens died. Eventually the ACT government decided to built a bigger dam and supporting infrastructure (against the Greens’ wishes to have Canberra continue looking like a browned out desert town). With the new Cotter Dam we are now effectively drought proof with permanent water conservation measures, ie using water sensibly. Problem solved permanently.
The “Peak oil” predictions have been wrong time and time again. We were (and still are) told to buy small cars. However technology has made large powerful cars to be just (if not more) economical than small 4 cylinder cars of old. Technology also made extracting oil in more difficult areas, previously uneconomic or impossible.
It is technology and infrastructure that permanently solves scare resources/pollution/ environment degradation, not “sustainbility” measures.
The “sustainable” argument is at best a temporary solution, but the “Greens” love it because they can use this as a way to make people feel guilty (you are to blame for you have been using far too much (water/fossil fuels/ electricity/meat etc) and you must stop enjoying it/ be punished/ seek redemption); this soften people up accepting the Greens to control/regulate their lives (Bwa ha ha ha).
“the “Greens” love it because they can use this as a way to make people feel guilty…”
It’s Puritanism. Unfortunately, Puritanism is a nasty streak of Protestant cultures. Today, for kids who no longer believe in God, but derive from this culture, Green Puritanism becomes a natural substitute.
Observe how it has relatively little hold on people’s psyche in Catholic societies. There, you don’t have to live with a sin on your conscience: you go to confession, you do your penance, and you can sin again! People are more cheerful. They have cuisine, cappuccinos, Champagne, beautiful churches and deep, very deep décolletage, often embellished with fine jewelry. There’s always something interesting in Catholic countries to feast your eyes on.
You should see all those holier-than-thou Puritan bigots from northern Europe crowding boulevards and plazas of Paris, Rome, Madrid, Barcelona, Vienna, Venice, Lisbon every summer, spending their winter savings and drooling over every scrap of focaccia, every drop of cappuccino, every glass of sangria in sidewalk cafes, watching fandango, listening to fado and marveling at the unsurpassed Byzantine beauty of San Marco. Then, some months later, in Swedish hospitals, Swedish girls give birth to swarthy boys with brown eyes.
Gus, why you you think you are privy to these people’s beliefs, motivations and behaviour in such a generalised way? When I visited Europe I was moved to almost daily tears at some of the astonishing beauty, but your comments reduce all that is true about what you feel to a sleazy perspective through the male gaze. If the Swedish girls are happy with the results of their liaisons then I am happy, if not … male privilege is a sad reality.
People are simpler than you would think. Basic instincts, shared with the animal kingdom, always take over eventually and determine human behavior as they do so for cats and earthworms. We’re no so different in spite of our perfumes, clothes and Pradas. Cultural conditioning, sometimes reaching centuries back, manifests itself in social and behavioral differences between people of Protestant and Catholic Europe. Puritanism, be it religious or environmental, comes from the dreary asceticism of the North and has no roots in the South, where people’s relationship with nature and God has been different for thousands of years. This is refreshing and explains much.
Christianity is not the only religion with its puritanism (or extremism); Muslims, Hindus even Buddhists, also have similar spectrum as do other non formal religious beliefs such as white supremacy, communism and, as we know, AGWers.
“Christianity is not the only religion with its puritanism (or extremism); Muslims, Hindus even Buddhists…”
Well, yes, but in the context of this discussion, about environmentalism, sustainability, climate change, it’s all invention of the EU and the US. Neither the Middle East nor the Far East belong to the cabal (this is even reflected in the papers published). So, it is primarily Christianity, its shades and offshoots, that provides the cultural background for the development.
Now, puritanism is a particular form of religiosity (and environmentalism as well) and is not the same as extremism. The Inquisition, for example, was not Puritan, but it was extremist. Puritans, in turn, although they do have their history of lynching, e.g., the witches of Salem and the persecution of Mormons, by and large kept to themselves and the greatest punishment was usually just expulsion from the community. You can see this today as well, the Puritan environmentalist cabal expels those who stray from the path of righteousness, condemning them in writing and public pronouncements. But through their incessant moralizing Puritans, in America, had profound effect on the development of the country. For example, they brought about the Civil War, the bloodiest conflict in the history of the US.
I like the Greens. I have been known to vote Green. Thank goodness the Greens exist. I don’t live particularly sustainably, sometimes I mix some of recycling in with the waste because it gets to be a pain. I usually have a flat white in my inner city enclave almost every day, so I’m one of those slightly greenish kind of wankers. The statistics that are churned out repeatedly in this blog I find stultifying but as far as the one about women producing daughters who then reach reproductive age and fail to replace themselves, I think we can forget the old patriarchal governmental adage one for each parent and one for the country – I’m with the gent who said he didn’t regard women as baby-making machines, talking of his own daughter. Good on him. Of course now Mr Abbott does want women of ‘calibre’ to start churning them out, the baby bonus having produced a lesser type of parent, one who went out and spent it on a massive flat screen television. How sustainable are all those masses of electronic equipment that get upgraded every few years and thrown away? To live sustainably is to live moderately with a small footprint, with the occasional indulgent, Bigfoot fun break out.
Margaret please be one or the other, you a bit green people drive me crazy. Please think some more about what you are doing to mother earth. Stop using fossil fuels. We have been conned into thinking wind farms are okay but they are not. When they stop or slow down fossil fuels supplement the supply. The only safe option is to switch all power and gas of from your house. Sell any vehicles you own and buy a bicycle. You will be surprised just how fit and healthy you will become by making that your only mode of transport. Start your own sustainable vegetable garden to cut down on travel. Find your nearest source of animal manure to fertilize the garden also use it dried as fuel for cooking and warmth. You do not need house lighting learn to live by natures rhythm sleep when the Sun goes to bed and rises. You should make use of everything waste nothing recycling is a travesty and misses the point. Nothing should leave the property don’t buy things that are packaged such that they have to recycled. Remember the things I have outlined are the only way to salvation in this immoral world.
Fred, I live in a small ground floor apartment, I need electricity. How do I, one person stop using fossil fuels? I grow herbs and my husband grows some vegetables because we are lucky to have a large courtyard and soil to do this. We drive a 13 year old sedan but mainly use the tram or train which we walk to. Having helped look after grandkids while our son-in-law was o/s this month we discovered the so-called joy of waking with a 2 year old’s natural rhythm of 6 am which became 5 when daylight saving ended. I’m happy to be back in my own bed and wake at 7. Sorry Fred your proselytizing is pompous and … practically speaking unsustainable. I shall remain a little green mainly politically, to keep the bastards honest.
PS You may well be in character for a spot on Mad as Hell.
FredG might be crazy but remember next time you vote Green those views are exactly what you are voting for. I voted for Don Chip at one time to “to keep the bastards honest” but the Greens are something else. Green policy if implement would end modern society. I do not vote for those that hate me and my way of life. Electricity costs 20% more now than it should and even when the electorate has voted for repeal of at least some of it the Greens block it. They are undemocratic and the enemy of most of us.
I do understand that their manifesto is extreme and I don’t expect that they will ever come to power, which I guess is why I can feel that they are a tool I can use to exert some protest over the existing status quo of two-party adversarial politics – I am indeed, proud to be naive. Of course, I also love to save forests and wild rivers wherever possible.
I think FredG is having a lend of you, but at the expense of the extreme greenies (which you are not), who seem to forget that their comparatively well-fed medically and technologically supported life styles have been built through applying fossil-sourced energy over many years. I also ride a bicycle as well as use a car and public transport, grow some vegetables, have over previous years on farms planted thousands of trees, fenced selected areas out from grazing, applied rotational grazing to encourage soil enrichment through the accompanying root decay and resurgence, have loved our Australian bush since earliest childhood – I’m sure your outlook is shared by many on all sides of the political spectrum.
Incidentally, what are some of the examples for you of “stultifying statistics churned out repeatedly on this blog”? This is a serious question; I’m wanting to understand what is meaningful to people in this debate on AGW, and what some see to be of little point.
Well Peter, many of us non-experts hate acronyms – take AGW – we don’t know what the A stands for – oh it stands for Anthropogenic (sp.?) – that means man-made. Who would have known? Then there are statistics, Statistics are confusing to those of us who didn’t like mathematics and they don’t help us understand what is supposed to be starkly evident in their swooping graphs and the other bamboozling data presented in for us boring and obfuscating diagrams . Most of us just ignore them and listen to people like Professor Fiona Stanley who tells us that she and other health experts didn’t get a look in at Copenhagen etc. etc. And then having read her article we scratch our heads – that didn’t really help to understand the argument either – the so-called ‘science’ remains a mystery and we just use our native intelligence to figure out that beginning with the dark satanic mills and now with jet planes lumbering around the world carrying the scientists off to conferences and the tourists off to see those marvellous non-puritanical southern european countries that are cheap as chips to travel in owing to their GFC collapses, but boy do they make great cappucinos have fabulous ruins and women (according to Gus) – that the planet really wasn’t designed for all the cleverness and greed that humankind is able to throw at it and we should all pull back and re-assess what we are doing to it. Take away the egos and cut to the truth and make it understandable for the layperson.
Thanks for your answer – much appreciated, and given with a lovely sense of humour! I agree about the acronyms – used properly, they’re just shorthand – but I remember someone once gently reproving me in a meeting “don’t use acronyms – they exclude people”. I take your point.
On graphs and charts? Many I see I don’t understand, because I don’t know enough about the meanings of the X and Y axes, which is my problem, not the author’s. But many I find are very useful to convey a good picture, so often worth that 1000 words. All I can suggest is that you have another go at making sense of some charts whose topic might be interesting to you. I find charts are good ways of presenting sets of numbers, especially some statistics which indeed can be very complex.
On re-assessment? Yes, I think continuing assessment is always needed. But for me, as well as using commonsense judgment, I want to draw on knowledge and facts, not just on gut feel. I know you’re not advocating “stop the world, I wanna get off!” However, I suspect some people are proposing just that (as long as those jumping off society’s advances and benefits don’t include themselves). By all means let’s change what we consider we need to change, but let’s be sure we identify the right reasons for whatever we do, and be sure we understand the implications well enough.
So when it comes to the heated issue of catastrophic anthropogenic global warming (CAGW), I don’t think the evidence is clear. In fact, we know there’s been warming since the Little Ice Ages of the 1700s, we know there has been no atmospheric warming or cooling now over the last 17 years despite carbon dioxide levels rising steadily, we can’t see accelerating rises in sea levels, we don’t detect any increase in the rate of ocean temperature rises, the predictions of serious flooding and temperature rises that have been given since 1990 have not eventuated .. . . so what is the point of jumping up and down about fossil fuels right now, as if they’re the Devil’s gift to humanity? Goodness, if we leave the coal in the ground as some advocate, we condemn 1.5 billion people to ongoing energy shortage, dung and wood fired stoves in huts with all that smoke inhalation, and an energy shortage that condemns them to continuing poverty, disease and premature death.
That doesn’t mean we don’t forge on with strong efforts to cut pollution (carbon dioxide is not a pollutant, as you know), clean up rivers, you name it – I’m absolutely with you on that! And think about what we do, how we spend our personal energy, how we use the resources around us.
I’m trying to cut to some of the truth; I hope what I say is also understandable.
Yes, it’s understandable and thank you for taking the time to explain your pov (acronym alert). However, I am not prepared to join a side in the agw debate, it’s too politically driven and seems kind of pointless and going nowhere. I think as you say individuals should think about what they do and what effect if any they can have on something that is either a huge problem or, not a problem at all. Three small words is my contribution –
I don’t know.
Margaret, your sense of humour makes me LOL. And I think you have every right to your pov, as you read btl whenever someone or other comes out with yet another message that the sky is falling. BTW, may I suggest a BLT hamburger with your well-earned flat white?
“… carbon dioxide is not a pollutant, as you know”
Peter , as you should know, you can’t make absolute proclamations about any element like that. It all depends on the circumstances and concentrations. For example, (as I have posted before) water is generally not regarded as a “pollutant” but drink too much of it and you can develop dilutional hyponatremia, which can cause cerebral edema, seizures and eventually death.
The AGW hypothesis is that CO2, which has risen from 280ppm to 400ppm and projected to keep rising to 600ppm, is a pollutant. Others of course may disagree. But that’s the debate, isn’t it?
Taken to the extreme, the term “pollutant” would also apply to oxygen at very high concentrations. The word has been misused in the CAGW debate very deliberately, and is typical of the exaggerations on the pro-AGW side that initially led me to investigate further. My copy of the Concise Oxford gives this definition: “to pollute – to destroy the purity or sanctity of; to make foul or filthy; to contaminate or defile (man’s environment)”. The term has been abused in the debate to sway people emotionally. Very frequently the “dioxide” is dropped, so we have ridiculous “carbon” pricing schemes, distorting people’s already limited understanding of the chemistry of life.
A recommended standard for carbon dioxide levels in air conditioned schools is at or below 1000 parts per million (ppm), and 800 ppm for offices. A level of 600 ppm is quite safe for humans, and excellent for plants. Calling it a pollutant at this level is misrepresentation. The debate is not primarily about the level; it is really about an alleged warming due to higher levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. In the context of current and foreseeable levels, carbon dioxide is not a pollutant. But perhaps you were having a lend of me.
Peter I am not having a lend of you.
Declaring a substance a pollutant is one extreme, and the
other extreme, is declaring it not a pollutant. A more judicious approach is to always provide some context, as I point our above.
How about this: ‘carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is not a pollutant at levels experienced in the last century — indeed, all the evidence suggests that the amount of carbon dioxide added so far has improved plant life and thus agricultural production’.
If I had more time I could add a cautious statement about what we might expect in the future, too.
Yes, that’s fine. 🙂
Plants respond positively to higher concentration of C02, higher than 1000ppm. In nuclear submarines, the CO2 is kept e3ven higher, up to just under 8000ppm! So that gives an idea when CO2 becomes ” a pollutant”. My view is at 400ppm CO2 is nowhere near a pollutant.
Having been raised by parents who lived through the Great Depression, and having learned to re-use lots of stuff (you should see my garage and the things I try to squirrel away), I find it very hard to recognise that what was once perfectly good electronic equipment becomes superseded. I can’t run a personal museum; who would visit, and how much would my children thank me for it all if i leave it for them to throw out, as they surely would have to do?
And so I’ve had to discard my old Macintoshes and IBM PCs with their single floppy drives which had done me such good service, and likewise my old brick phone. I recognise that the cost of technology is not simply its hardware; included is the software and the supporting operational and maintenance costs. Replacement equipment has become much cheaper to produce, much cheaper to run, and provides substantially more capability. But it is stupid to dump all that superseded equipment into landfill rather than re-use its materials, and fortunately there is much less of that dumping happening today.
A critical resource that we humans often ignore, is the value of our own time, intellect and energy.
Sustainability is simply a recognition that the environment is not limitless resource and that some planning is prudent. The first published photo of the “blue marble” in 1972
was instrumental in changing the way humanity now relates to our planet.
It’s still awe-inspiring, thanks for sharing this reminder that we don’t own the earth, we simply rent here and we should be good tenants.
[…] catch-phrase that seems to mean whatever you want it to mean. I’ve written about that, too. In a piece I wrote some time back I argued […]