David R. Henderson  

David Friedman on "Sustainability"

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As I mentioned in an earlier post, my university is big on "sustainability;" it has just been having an extended event designed to boost the idea. I responded to an email urging faculty members to introduce sustainability into one of their classes by asking if it was all right if I argued against it in mine, and suggesting that a program which consisted entirely of presentations on one side of an issue looked more like propaganda than education.
This is from David Friedman, "Sustainability: Empty Rhetoric or a Bad Idea." In his post, he links to a 50-minute audio of his talk at Santa Clara University. I haven't listened to the talk yet, but I'm guessing that in it, he makes some of the points he made in some earlier posts.

Specifically, after he had proposed a definition of sustainability and pointed out its problems, a commenter wrote:

The generally accepted definition comes from the Brundtland Report, which defines sustainable development as: "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs".

David replied:
There are two problems with this definition. The first is that implementing it requires us to predict what the future will be like in order to know what the needs of future generations will be. Consider two examples:

1. The cost of solar power has been falling steeply. If that fall continues, in another couple of decades fossil fuels will no longer be needed for most of their current purposes, since solar will be a less expensive alternative. If so, sustainability does not require us to conserve fossil fuels.

2. A central worry of environmentalists for at least the past sixty years or so has been population increase. If that is going to be the chief threat to the needs of future generations then sustainability requires us to keep population growth down, as many have argued.

A current worry in developed countries is population collapse, birth rates in many of them being now well below replacement. With the economic development of large parts of the third world, that problem might well spread to them. If so, sustainability requires us to keep population growth up, to protect future generations from the dangers of population collapse and the associated aging of their populations.

It's easy enough to think of other examples. Generalizing the point, "sustainability" becomes an argument against whatever policies one disapproves of, in favor of whatever policies one approves of, and adds nothing beyond a rhetorical club with which partisans can beat on those who disagree with them.


David has never been intimidated by some university administrators' or faculty's desires to turn their universities into propaganda mills. But think about the unseen: what happens at the hundreds (at least) of universities where there is no one like David Friedman?


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COMMENTS (18 to date)
Mark Brady writes:

David, thanks for this and the links to David Friedman's posts. I'll be notifying my Economic Development class of this discussion.

Bill writes:

Robert Solow's talk on sustainability has some useful ideas.

http://www.mi.uni-hamburg.de/fileadmin/fnu-files/courses/Estsus/solow.pdf

Philo writes:

A university that has no one like David Friedman is already in a bad way; propagandizing about "sustainability" will be the least of its sins.

Mike Linksvayer writes:

The lesson: sustainability needs long-term prediction markets.

Cole writes:
"But think about the unseen: what happens at the hundreds (at least) of universities where there is no one like David Friedman?"

You mean like George Mason, where a mandatory tuition hike for a 'green fund' is being considered.

Jacob Oost writes:

Good to see somebody at a university calling this sustainability rhetoric into question. I never hear anybody give an adequate definition of "sustainability" that doesn't raise a host of concerns, as Friedman points out.

My usual reaction as a university student is to roll my eyes and not take them seriously. It's hard to take people who talk about "sustainability" seriously when they so continuously advocate economic arrangements which are unsustainable.

Can David Friedman go on a university tour? Or at least to OSU?

Stephen Hicks writes:

Re: "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs".

Clearly, then, we need to move immediately to laissez-faire, as most developments in government compromise present and future generations' abilities to meet their needs.

Jim Glass writes:

Three items (in order of decreasing strict relevance):

1) Data on how the more the economy grows the less it consumes.

During 1965-2005 as US real GDP per capita increased 125% mineral consumption per capita decreased 40%. That decrease is in absolute terms per person. Per real dollar of GDP, mineral consumption declined 83%.

2) George Carlin on environmentalism. The man was a genius in his day. It's funny because it's true.

3) "Earth Day co-founder killed, composted girlfriend" -- MSNBC.

Methinks writes:

The lesson: sustainability needs long-term prediction markets.

We already have that. We have a market for fossil fuel, for solar panels, for different kinds of cars, etc.

Markets are forward looking.

GabbyD writes:

whats wrong with his examples?

"Generalizing the point, "sustainability" becomes an argument against whatever policies one disapproves of, in favor of whatever policies one approves of, and adds nothing beyond a rhetorical club with which partisans can beat on those who disagree with them."

but this is exactly the point of sustainability -- arguments/positions we have today should be arguments/position we should be CAPABLE of having in the future.

Doc Merlin writes:

" But think about the unseen: what happens at the hundreds (at least) of universities where there is no one like David Friedman?"

DOOM!!!
Seriously, every large organization needs a David Friedman or some similar person to poke the consensus in the eye and claim that the emperor really has no clothes. Without that person, delusional ideas can spread far and wide before reality forces them to crash, causing much more harm than if they had been killed in their infancy.

John Papola writes:

One has to wonder what the total net value of higher ed actually is to society given how much intellectual damage gets done.

David C writes:

I would've found these arguments more convincing if they were more narrow. The effects of population growth in general are very complicated, and there's a number of different ways to go with that argument. On solar power, I can't tell if he's arguing about peak oil or global warming. It might have helped if he'd chosen something simpler like overfishing, and stuck to it.

Floccina writes:

Sustainability by the movements definition would imply that you should never use the petroleum because it might run out some day.

Chris T writes:

The only truly sustainable path is for humanity to constantly expand its technical and resource base. No fixed range is ever 'sustainable' over a long period.

The term, as commonly used, is just a feel good, but otherwise meaningless word.

Worse, many ideas put forward in the name of sustainability (ie: 'zero growth') are literally suicidal if they were actually carried out.

Paul Eich writes:

I'm glad to see this hallowed term suffering through scrutiny. Any useful idea can become meaningless drivel when it achieves an impossible to critique commonly understood public meaning.

Stone Glasgow writes:

The "Green Movement" uses the same language as religious fundamentalists. Try reading any article about sustainability and organic food, replacing the word sustainable with "Jewish," and the word organic with "kosher."

It's an eye-opening experience for anyone who doesn't necessarily believe that organic food is any healthier than kosher food. Those recommending that the world change to be more "sustainable" are no different from people demanding that the world be more "Christian." Both are terms used to describe the arbitrary values of a specific group of people.

http://stoneglasgow.blogspot.com/2011/04/super-walmart-at-odds-with-fairfields.html

Victor writes:

There is an excellent article on spiked
http://www.spiked-online.com/index.php/site/article/9867/

Its best line:
The idea of sustainability is anti-exploration, anti-experimentation, anti-risk – all the qualities we need if we are going to make the kind of breakthroughs that earlier generations made with coal and uranium and other resources. In contrast to the past, today human society is accommodating to social limitations, and accepting the idea that they are natural, rather than trying to break through them. The Malthusian mindset is winning, and that is a tragedy for all of us.

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