A Question of Sustainability

posted Jun 03, 2004

Technological sustainability is one of the pressing issues of our time. Should we continue to use our natural resources with wild abandon, or should we try to be more careful with them so we don't lose them?

Since the answer to that question is basically a foregone conclusion when stated that way, how should we be more careful? What's the optimal strategy?

The two basic extremes are:

My own thoughts on the subject are probably extreme enough in their own ways to guarantee that nearly everybody will find something to object to, but I think if you think about them they start to make more sense then most of what constitutes "debate" on this topic today.

First, there is much truth on both sides. Running out of resources is an issue, the more so because there are some resources for which a suitable replacement may never truly exist. (Petrochemicals come to mind as the big one here. Helium, oddly enough, is another, and it's even more fundamental then petrochemicals because it's actually an element and therefore can't be replenished with anything less then large-scale fusion (which may never happen) or cheap and easy space travel (ditto).)

On the other hand, the "Big Resource Crisis" that wacko environmentalists secretly (or not-so-secretly) hope will "teach us a lesson" is never going to happen because there are effectively no resources that have a big step function in them. There will never be a day where we wake up and the top news story of the day will be "There Is No More Oil". Instead, as the argument says, the price of resources will indeed increase over time, and we will seek out alternatives, possibly including simply going without (with all the attendant misery and death that statement euphemistically obscures).

How to harmonize these two points of view? The easiest way to think of it is with an overarching metaphor. (Yes, I've often spoken out against using metaphors, but this is the good kind: I use it to communicate an idea, not to reason with.)

Basically, we are in a race. In lane one, we have ever-increasing technological efficiency, and as we learn more we can more effectively place the upper bounds on how far that technology can go. The bad news is that a lot of science fiction is looking impossible: No teleportation, no faster-then-light travel, no magic propulsion. The good news is that the upper limits of nanotechnology are most likely higher then any 1960's science fiction author would have dared write about. I'd summarize it as "the ultimate limitation of technology's ability to manipulate matter will be limited solely by the minimum chemical energy required to do the manipulations". If our technology reaches its endgame, constructing petrochemicals will mostly be a matter of sticking in the right chemicals on one end, and applying the proper energy. (Of course, it's more likely that you will just go straight to the final product like plastic.)

In the other lane, we have ever-depleting supplies of resources that are currently unreplaceable, and without which we can not power the society we need to reach this technology level. If we run out of resources first, we lose.

Literally, the fate of the planet is at stake. Some people like to say that an entire other technological civilization like ours could have existed in the distant past, perhaps millions of years ago, and we'd never know, because what technological artifact can survive millions of years? This is not true, because while no artifact may have survived with its presence, we'd notice the technological absence of something else: Natural resources.

Resources are not evenly distributed everywhere, or they'd be nearly useless; the resources we need are mined out of rich veins of ore. When civilization was young, people would pick up ore off the local mountains. Those easily-mined veins are now largely long gone, and especially in the case of mineral veins, they are not coming back for many tens or hundreds of millions of years. Oil may form relatively quickly, but these minerals most likely can not form in quantity again before the Earth becomes uninhabitable due to the Sun becoming an inappropriate star for life; new mountain ranges take a long time to form.

It is not necessarily entirely impossible for a technological civilization to form even if humanity eats all of these resources. But humanity is Planet Earth's one crack at a fast moving technological civilization such as we are experiencing, one that stands a decent chance of reaching technological maturity before a meteor hits. This is it, these next fifty to a hundred years; either we hit sustainable technology (and ideally get off this rock too), or neither we, nor our grandchildren, nor our grandchildren a million times removed (approx. 200,000,000 years from now, if any) will have this chance again.

Most people don't understand the wildly interconnected nature of our current society. The sustainability proponents who side towards "Sustainability At All Costs" are no different. The problem is, if you cut the energy usage of the United States in half and held it there indefinitely, and let's just spot the US the necessary basic adjustments instead of the economic collapse it would cause if you forced it on the US right this instant, you do far, far more then just shut down life "by half". You don't merely get to drive half as many miles, use half as many lights, etc. Technological advancement slows to a crawl. Fusion research dies entirely, for instance, although that's an extreme. Another is the space program; probably no more rocket launches.

You lose refining capabilities, tools, electronics, all kinds of things. And the problem is further compounded by the fact that we need those things to advance further. Unfortunately, it's no longer possible to really sketch this due to the aforementioned wildly interconnected nature of society, so try this in historical terms: Suppose environmentalists had stopped steam power. (With good reason; read about the environmental disasters that were the coal mining towns in old America or less-old Russia.) The implications go well beyond the obvious things; you'll find that if electronics are ever discovered, it's going to be a long time after they were in our timeline. Communication is encumbered by lack of transport. Resources aren't developed, that don't lead to prosperity, that don't lead to leisure time to advance science. Resources aren't developed, so people can learn how to use them as engineers and not just science. (Science doesn't automatically turn itself into engineering, you know.) The very network effects powering our society conspire in reverse to hold that society back.

Ultimately, if you force-hold a society to that level, it will run out of the resources it needs and it will eventually die. It will probably take many thousands of years, but that society critically depends on certain non-renewable resources, like iron, and it will eventually run out of the ability to mine those resources.

(This society will be forced to give up long before reaching the resources we are routinely mining today. Some later society could develop (perhaps non-human!) which conceivable could reach those resources... except that without easy access to iron and metal, you can't create the tools you need to get to the deeper resources! Let alone even knowing they are there... Modern mining and drilling critically depends on computers, for instance. Look up how a modern oil drilling operation works; it's much, much more then just "drilling a hole in the ground", it's a tour de force of high tech.)

Today's society is unbelievably more complicated, but ultimately, we are in exactly the same position as our hypothetical historical society. We can move forward or we can fall back, but it is absolutely, utterly impossible to stand still indefinitely. As compared to our steam-free society, we've only accomplished two significant things:

  1. We've moved closer to a sustainable technology base, and
  2. We've radically increased our consumption of non-renewable resources. I can't imagine that our modern society has the same "thousands of years" prognosis I gave our steam-free society.

Well, that's all nicely theoretical and stuff, but what does all that rambling buy me? It buys me the ability to frame the sustainability debate into a concrete optimization problem:

Sustainability: The solution to "the sustainability problem" is to optimize our "technological advancement" to "unrenewable resource" ratio.

You can't stop either runner, but you can slant the odds in our favor. In other words, we end up discarding both extremes:

This, ultimately, is my position on sustainability. We need efficiency, so I tend to believe in true, science-based environmentalism enough so that I could fairly call myself an environmentalist if that word wasn't largely co-opted by a religious movement with little basis in reality. And yet, it is absolutely vital that we continue technological advancement, so we must not hobble that, or we automatically lose, probably within my lifetime.

There is room for much debate in a complex system as to how to maximize this ratio, and in summary it looks rather like a "middle of the road" position, which I find hopeful.

(One major potential criticism is that I am taking it for granted that we don't want to live like animals for millions of years, until Nature sees fit to exterminate with an asteroid. Well, if that biased sentence didn't adequately express my opinion, I'll follow it up with "The noble savage wasn't." Life before technology was brutish, nasty, and short, and it still is on far too much of the modern Earth. I don't idealize living like an animal and if you're reading this on a computer, rather then living off the grid in a log cabin you built yourself with an axe you forged yourself, neither should you.)

The final practical answer is that we must avoid extremists on both sides of the issue at all costs. Of the two, the rabid Sustainability advocates are actually the more dangerous, because despite their best intentions, their position has the guaranteed worst-case scenario built into it, long term. If forced, I'd have to side with the wild capitalists. But we don't have to choose between the two, just make sure neither comes into total power.

There you have it: A principled centrist position on sustainability.


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