Sustainable Means Bunkty to Me

What? Don’t know what bunkty means? Now you know how I feel about the word “sustainable.” My paper towels separate into smaller segments than they once did. It’s sustainable! These potato chips arrive in a box that says SUSTAINABLE in big letters on the side. I’m eating green!  When I’m in a hotel, I hang the towel back up rather than throw it on the floor (would I ever do this anyway?) and the placard says I’m being sustainable. Can it be that easy? I claim that not one among our host of 7 billion really knows what our world would look like if we lived in a truly sustainable fashion.  Let’s try to come to terms with what it might mean.

I think most would agree that the rapid depletion we currently witness in natural resources and services, climate stability, water availability, soil quality, and fisheries—to name a few—suggests that we do not live sustainably at present. We can not expect to keep up our current practices with 7 billion people in this world without some major changes.

Sustainability, in Numbers

I have made the case in the past that growth—either in physical measures like population, energy use, etc., or in economic terms—cannot continue indefinitely in our finite world. This post rounds out the trilogy.

If we think about the fact that growth must one day end, we realize that an ultimate steady state would tend to reduce income inequalities. Given growth, we have little trouble rationalizing inequality, since those at the bottom have growth opportunity ahead of them. As long as the plight of the poor improves with time, the well-heeled among us can feel justified in living large. But without a growth argument, it would become morally awkward to perpetuate the inequality of two people contributing comparable time and energy to humanity’s steady-state upkeep.

Our dream is that the poor of the world can improve their standard of living toward first-world norms. The U.S. uses about 25% of the world’s annual energy resource (which I will use as a proxy for standard of living) while harboring about 5% of the population. Thus the average U.S. citizen uses energy at five times the rate of the average global citizen. For everyone to get where we are today in the U.S. would require a five-fold increase in the total energy expenditure of the planet. Make that 7-fold allowing the population to swell to 10 billion. And even that requires a freeze in growth at the top end (the U.S.). Since that’s not about to happen—at least not voluntarily—we should call it a ten-fold increase for everyone to get what they want.

If we are not sustainable today, how could we possibly achieve sustainability under the burden of a ten-fold increase in scale?

You may object that Americans don’t eat five times more food than the average Earthling today. True enough, but we eat a meat-rich diet that consumes much more land, grain, and energy than would a simpler diet by something close to that same factor. You might also object that Americans use energy at an obscene rate, and that this should not be the goal for the rest of the world. I won’t argue. This post is aimed at those who see nothing wrong with such an approach.

Yeah, But… and Other Clever Dodges

Might we not improve our efficiency in tandem with development so that standards of living could improve at a constant energy/impact? This is the subtext behind many of today’s sustainability drives. We just need to do things better and smarter and we’ll be fine.

I refer you to the post on the necessary end to economic growth, in which I demonstrate that efficiency improvements might gain us only a factor of two (taking about 70 years to do this at historical rates of efficiency improvement of 1% per year). And we have to watch the pernicious Jevons’ paradox, whereby efficiency improvements in the past have tended to lead to a greater expenditure of energy than before the “improvements.” But I’m feeling generous, so I’ll knock our prescribed ten-fold increase down to a factor of five to allow for efficiency improvements and other oversights.

So in the absence of anyone being able to define how we turn today’s unsustainable practices into sustainable ones at five times the present scale, you’ll forgive me if I remain skeptical. If we could demonstrate the ability to seize control of the current scale and live sustainably today, I might grant that we have some hope of managing a similar trick at five times that scale. Instead, we intend to race headlong into a bigger tomorrow without proving ourselves capable of handling today’s world.

A child who wants a pony might first be asked to demonstrate that he or she can feed and take care of a gerbil, then graduate to a kitten, a puppy, a goat, and finally a pony. Currently, we’re not taking care of our gerbil, so we have not demonstrated that we deserve a pony. Perhaps we also don’t deserve to be brandishing the term “sustainable” for chicken-scratch contributions.

Sure, hanging the towel back up on a multi-day hotel visit is definitely a step in the right direction, and I’m all for it. But if we don’t focus on the big picture, these little acts are mere distractions.

“Yeah, but don’t they add up?” Can a bunch of 1% solutions produce a 100% change (or the 500% change we seek)? Maybe in the same way that if you strapped enough gerbils together, you might get something you can ride like a pony. I think I just invented a new sport.

Thanks to Luke for creating a pony made of gerbils strapped together!

Blowing Through Our Inheritance

All of this would bother me less if we were at least living within our budget presently. But we are tearing through one-time resources like mineral deposits, aquifers, and the big one: fossil fuels. The easy stuff is grabbed first, and it gets harder and harder as time passes.

In fossil fuels, we found the Earth’s solar battery—charged over millions of years—and we promptly hooked up Las Vegas to help us burn through the resource in mere centuries. In fact, our social and political structures have typically worked to maximize the rate of growth, which has the effect of blowing through resources as fast as may be managed—albeit with an eye toward practical efficiencies of the day. I have always found it compelling to look at a graph of fossil fuel use over a very long time span. This puts it in perspective as a towering blip in the human experience. It’s only schematic, but in case you’re interested, I put the peak at 2050, with a width at the half-max point of 235 years (Gaussian σ = 100 years).

On a long view, the fossil fuel age is brief, and we cannot be certain about the nature of our existence after this era.

We know that the era before fossil fuels used firewood, animals, and human (often slave) labor as sources of energy. Some supplemental energy came from wind, water, and animal fats as well. In most cases, this arrangement was by definition sustainable in the true sense: living off of the yearly energy income provided by the sun. Even then, deforestation and hunting some animals to extinction (or to scarcity) still happened. Looking at the symmetry inherent in the graph, it begs the question of whether this same existence lies in store for us on the right-hand side. Our accumulated scientific knowledge has the potential to break that symmetry, but only if coupled with collective wisdom. The future is not yet written, and may not care what we imagine could happen.

Meanwhile, we sit roughly at the position of the star in the figure. We’re living large and feeling pretty heady about our cleverness and the promise of the future. Up, up, up! That’s the world we’ve known. Surely it will always be so, now that we finally got smart.

I love the metaphor—expressed in the documentary, The Corporation—that early attempts at flight always failed because the flying contraptions were not built on the aerodynamic principles of sustained flight. Nonetheless, the pilot wannabe would launch off the cliff and momentarily feel the wind in their hair, and indeed be airborne for some time—feeling magnificent. But then came the inevitable crash. Likewise, a civilization that is not built on a foundation of sustainable practices is doomed to over-reach and fail. Yet today we feel the wind in our hair, and it feels pretty good. It makes us think we can do anything, and that we’re too clever for words. But we have the same brains we had a few thousand years ago. What’s changed is a windfall of surplus energy.

So the big question is: can we transition to a truly sustainable lifestyle for the long haul at an energy level akin to what we enjoy today—or even several times higher? No one knows the answer, and thus a true understanding of “sustainable” remains elusive. The following graph schematically shows what a level-off at the energy scale of peak fossil fuels (this century) would look like.

Can we pull off an unprecedented leap to a high level of renewable energy resources?

The “go green” function is a logistic curve with an inflection at 1965: very similar to the best-fit logistic for the U.S. energy historical data.

This figure merely illustrates that we have to find a full-scale replacement for fossil fuels in a relatively short period, and sustain it indefinitely. Today, only 15% of our energy comes from non-fossil origins—almost all of it hydroelectric and nuclear. Only hydroelectric is renewable (ignoring the detail that dams silt up), but all the main prizes have been taken, so that this sector generally cannot be expanded by even a factor of two. Uranium limits nuclear fission to short-term (< 100 years), unless proliferation-prone breeder programs are adopted, or fusion pans out in time to make a difference. Of course solar and wind could become more prominent. But all these are primarily useful for electricity, and tend to be expensive or difficult options. The freebee days will end, and we’ll have to work harder to satisfy our energy demand year by year.  Future Do the Math posts will dissect the possibilities in greater detail.

We have no historical precedent to tell us whether we can pull off the sustainable right-hand-side of the graph. Will we pull together a technological solution, or disappoint ourselves with a return to muscle power and firewood? It seems a preposterous question, and many readers are now steaming with indignation—much like we might expect a kid to throw a tantrum when told that they can’t have a pony.  Are such readers perturbed because they have a crystal-ball vision of the unwritten future and how things will play out? I’ll pretend I’m from Missouri (borders on true), and demand: “show me!”

But I’m not done yanking chains yet. Leveling off near today’s global rate of energy use spells an eventual decline in the U.S. standard of living by a large factor. Remember our premise at the beginning: if the goal is to pull up the world population to American standards of living, we need something more like a factor of five increase in scale. And that’s after taking a factor of two haircut to account for efficiency improvements achieved in tandem. What does this look like?

Western lifestyle for all may require a vastly larger renewable footprint still.

I fittingly pick a “blue sky” color to represent this state of affairs, again using a logistic function, this time having an inflection in 2110. If anyone thought the green portion looked hard, the blue piece is a doozy. It makes the remarkable fossil fuel age look like some insignificant anomaly. Many people react by saying “exactly so,” believing that fossil fuels are merely the kick-start for something bigger, something grander. Better than a pony, even. We’ll be free of the infantile shackles of the Earth and expand into the limitless void. We’ve seen it in numerous TV shows and movies—what more evidence do we need? I’ll have to address this issue in a future post. For now, let’s focus on the here and now, and the serious challenges this century hurls at us as we are weened from the lifeblood that started us on our industrial tear.

My skepticism that we can make it to the 5× sustainable future has led me to anticipate that Americans will have to reduce their energy, material, and dietary consumption.  I have reacted by modifying my own behavior, and in so doing have proven to myself that the challenge is one that can be met at a personal level while maintaining a less-than-primitive lifestyle.  Choices in diet, indoor temperature, transportation, hot water use, household appliances, etc. have reduced my home impact by a factor of four or more, and this gives me great hope.  But I am cheating by riding on top of an energy-rich society.  It is not as clear that an entire civilization can ratchet down by a similar factor and maintain today’s basic functionality.

Why Now is Special

Energy is not the only dimension to this problem. From a purely energetic point of view, we have enough solar input to allow sustained energy use at high rates (though not sustained growth). That’s the good news. But we would still strain the throughput of materials harvested from the planet. Pollution will continue to pile up; arable land will be lost to erosion, desertification, salinity increase, and exhaustion of ancient aquifers; fisheries will collapse; important metals will become ever harder to find and extract; we will learn too late that species driven to extinction by climate change and other human impositions are actually vital to our well-being. No one knows for sure what the ultimate carrying capacity of the Earth is: many estimates indicate that we have already exceeded it.  And it is distressing that we do not have a plan for living within our means at today’s level of industrial activity, let alone a 5× expansion.

The basic point is that we are entering uncharted territory. This toothless statement has been true at every point in history. But I believe that this century is the one in which we must confront the thorniest issue ever presented to the human race. This moment is special because we have dramatically built up our population, technology, science, medicine, and democratic institutions as a direct result of vast amounts of surplus energy stemming from a one-time resource. The fossil fuel experience has made us dangerously confident about our cleverness and dominance over nature. What makes this century special, then, is that we will have to cope with a diminishing supply rate of the resource that has been of paramount importance to our high-tech existence.

Some will point out that folks 200 years ago could never have predicted the marvels of today, and that we should adopt a similar humility about the future. Fair point. We should also not assume that we won’t be protecting our food supplies by clubbing each other over the head with half-gnawed bones 200 years from now. Who, at the height of the fossil fuel age could have predicted such a reversal of fate?! Did you see that coming? I’m all about exercising humility in our prognostications of the future, but this cuts both ways.  Currently, we see an asymmetry in the glorious vs. disastrous prediction score. I’m merely providing counterbalance by pointing out that our recent, rapid ascent provides a compelling reason as to why this asymmetric “limitless” outlook might be expected at this moment in history (look at the star on the fossil fuel graph).

We talk with confidence about the pony we will one day own (eventually equipped with warp drive upgrade), but our gerbil is meanwhile gasping under our neglect. And the rush we have experienced on our fossil fuel binge has made us a bit loopy. Only by looking at the sober possibility that we risk reverting to a low-tech existence after the fossil fuels are spent can we make honest plans for our future. Those honest plans may well involve a substantial ratcheting-down of the lifestyle to which we have become accustomed. And that same honesty suggests refraining from using the term “sustainable” until we better understand what it actually means. I’m more attracted to the words: possible, practical, preservation, and price—oh—and pony.

Views: 13805

41 thoughts on “Sustainable Means Bunkty to Me

  1. I have followed your blog since its cubical inception and am so enjoying and benefiting from your practical, level-headed descriptions of our predicament and our possible futures. I’ve been playing in the Riot4Austerity “competition” and it’s good because it quantifies what a 90% reduction in the American standard of living would look like. Here are the rules of the game, copied from Yahoo groups page:

    [redacted rules re-post to keep things short. Try going to:]

  2. A great analysis, as always.

    However I’m wondering about your population assumptions. In particular, increased standard of living correlates with lower birth rates (even to below replacement levels). Couple that with the fact that as resources becomes harder to acquire, populations will by necessity shrink.

    My point being that assuming a 10 billion steady-state population isn’t necessarily fair. In the “sustainable” future, we may only have 1 billion or fewer people on Earth. Granted, even a 10-fold reduction in the energy estimate still leaves a substantial challenge in terms of generating that energy without fossil fuels, but it’s more manageable.

    Maybe someone should do the math on that one: given reasonable assumptions about available renewable energy (hydro, solar, wind), what is the approximate world population that can be maintained at US-2011 standard of living?

    • Along the lines of your comment, I would like to add that I feel we will end up going to a lower pop count, from where we are, due to a massive die off when we can no longer get food moved around the country with ease. Phoenix and Las Vegas will become much less populated as people move closer to fresh water sources and arable land. I see the steady state ending up somewhere around second world living conditions, leaning closer to a tech heavy third world.

      If we look at how the world lived before World War 2 and then before the US Civil War and where we are today. You will see a possibility of where we might end up post fossil fuels. Will sailing ships return, for commerce and trans-ocean travel? Electric cars will be around and we could power their batteries via solar/wind but the ability to drive endlessly will be limited to the ability to recharge on the road. Same as driving a car was in the beginning.

      • “Electric cars will be around and we could power their batteries via solar/wind but the ability to drive endlessly will be limited to the ability to recharge on the road.”

        And also limited by the capacity to maintain those roads, given that there is likely to be vastly reduced traffic and greatly increased costs on national infrastructure.

  3. I have found most of the “green” or “sustainable” things that companies are putting out now are just a way for them to save money and sometimes scam unsuspecting people.

    They want you to re-use your towel so they can save on washing and maid expenses, the new “green” bottles are a way to save some money on plastic and shipping. Don’t you love the irony of using “green” bottles for bottled water?

    I too believe that the only sustainable way for us to continue is to decrease our energy usage, similar to when you try to make a household budget. It is much easier to try to stick to a budget to decrease expenses than to get a better job to make more money. If only someone could convince our national government of that fact.

    And of course the biggest difference would be to stop/slow the population growth. Unfortunately that is very difficult as the only two ways to do so are increasing education and standard of living (many parts of Europe, North America) or by strict government control (China).

    • “They want you to re-use your towel so they can save on washing and maid expenses…”

      Well, sure. But _why_ does not-washing save them money? Because it takes energy to run the washer and the dryer; it takes energy to provide the clean water; it takes energy to manufacture the detergent.

      Yes, they save money, but it’s by not spending it on energy-intensive processes.

  4. You mentioned 100 years of Uranium based fission, but that neglects the much more abundant Thorium reserves. Thorium based fission also reduces the proliferation opportunity footprint. As I recall, the waste situation is more amenable to reprocessing without products that can be diverted to weapons programs as well.

    • Thorium FTW!

      Seriously, it seems like it could be the non-proliferating breeder reactor that would allow a clean and relatively safe future. The potential downsides seem much more manageable than any current conventional or alternative source. It deserves significant R&D funding to see if it can be practical and safe. See for information and boosterism. (I’m not connected to them, only an impressed observer.)

  5. I’m very much enjoying this series but I think you dismiss nuclear power much too easily. The integral fast reactor is designed to be proliferation-resistant, and the only fissile material in liquid thorium reactors (LFTRs) is U233, which so far hasn’t been successfully used for a bomb. (The U.S. tried it once, but it fizzled.) Either would be efficient enough to last us for millenia, if they supplied all our energy at current usage rates. I’ve even seen arguments that they would make it economical to extract nuclear fuel from seawater, in which case they’d last for millions of years.

    I’ve got a bunch of links on these technologies in my climatecolab entry, under the “advanced nuclear power” section:

    (ClimateColab is an MIT contest to crowdsource global warming solutions. There’s a link to one of your blog posts somewhere in this entry, too.)

    Either technology would produce far less nuclear waste, which would be back to the radioactivity of the original ore in about 300 years. In terms of safety, they’re much better than the current generation of reactors.

    This doesn’t change your arguments about exponential growth, but a steady state near our current level seems doable. It doesn’t have to take an enormous amount of time to transition, either. France converted their electricity production to 80% nuclear in twenty years, using larger, more complex reactor designs. The IFR and LFTR run at atmospheric pressure, allowing us to make much smaller power plants that can be built in factories.

  6. You talk about the ‘average American’ regarding energy use, but could focusing on a modal representation be more appropriate (or at least less intimidating)? The lifestyle of the richest would be wildly more obscene than that of the majority considering the trappings only available to this group: private jets, yachts, golf courses, disposable clothing, multiple obscene cars, multiple obscene houses, holidays and so on.

    Wealth seems to be a good indicator of energy usage and if we believe the speculation like’s Michael Moore’s ‘the richest 400 own more than 50% of America’s wealth’ there is easily room at the very top for compression, leaving the rest largely untouched. If we could theoretically rid ourselves of the (oh so topical) 1% who own 42% of the wealth according to more conservative but reliable sources [1], then that would suggest a US average roughly 3 times the rest of the world. That seems easily obtainable. That would ease pressure on the energy use but would still leave minerals, the real bottleneck. However, I can easily envisage by the end of the century lunar mines or some such to solve that problem but I digress.

    Just to qualify, I am aware the direct representation of energy as financial wealth is crude indeed, but I do think the idea of the top 1% being an energy sink that distorts the average is one worth pursuing.


    • Your statistic from Michael Moore is not that the top 400 people in the country own half of the country’s wealth. Rather, the top 400 people in the country own approximately the same percentage of the nations wealth (two and a half percent) as the bottom half of the country owns. This is, in fact, a true statistic.

      Michael Moore: “Just 400 Americans — 400 — have more wealth than half of all Americans combined.”
      Politifact Rating: True.

    • If top 1% of the people stop being owners of 42% of the wealth, this wealth will not disappear, but it will probably be split between the remaining 99% of the people. Redistributing this wealth will not change total energy use – it will still be used.

      • It would certainly change what the money was used for.

        My main point would actually be that the claiming the average person in America gets by on 5x offers a distorted view. If we decide that energy use has to be halved, the task looks impossible. However, should there be a mode value of 3x, then it shows that people can live comfortable lives (and are doing) on much less. Instead of how do we get everyone to be less destructive, the picture becomes how do we inhibit the destructive 1%.

    • I would need to look at the data before following this too far. It’s not clear that energy usage tracks wealth very closely at the high end. It may be more like food consumption. A CEO may make an insane 500 times more than the worker under him/her, but he/she does not have a 1000-room house to air condition or heat. I could believe that there will be a positive correlation all the way to the top, but it might be a very low slope. If I had to guess, the median or modal household energy use may be just 20% lower than the mean, in which case it would be a small effect (factor of 4 instead of factor of 5). I’m being lazy: anyone have data on this?

      • Even if it was 20% lower, then that still would give me more hope of a solution. I have no idea of where to even look for such data. One warning, I have almost zero maths background, but I’m quite certain that you have understood my question.

        I know of the distortion we see in the uk regarding averages of income, and intuitively, I could see the same problem with energy use. The average UK citizen earns about £26k. The median income is however £18k, and the bottom 25% earned £12k or less.

      • you are probably right. One shortcut is to compare GDP per capita and energy per capita in different countries. In Sweden figures fro green house gas emissions show that the richest 10% emitts three times as much green house gases as the poorest 10% (these figures also include imported goods. Flying on the things that rich people do a lot more.

  7. Just a quibble about the American meat-rich diet — it takes less manpower to feed people off of a combination of meat and vegetables than vegetables alone. It’s no coincidence that civilization flourished quickest and lasted the longest in areas that had good access to both plants and domestic animals, whereas civilizations without good access to animals found themselves to be far weaker.

    To farm a field that can feed 10,000 people requires a lot more work and energy than a combination of fields and grazing animals (especially animals like chickens and pigs, which will tend to eat things we would either discard or overlook).

    • Don’t know about less manpower, but veggies + graze fed + refuse fed animals take less land than pure veggie diet. However, this would probably still mean eating a lot less meat overall, compared to the current US diet full of staples-fed livestock.

  8. The Developed World is not interested in sustainable living — at least not yet. However, when the point in time is reached where the objective is survival rather than wealth, there are many things that can mitigate the decline in fossil fuels. Cooperative action is not to be underestimated in its effects, particularly when death is at the door (eg, building the atomic bomb in less than 4 years). But people have to accept the end of economic growth before anything good can happen. As Oscar Wilde said, “If you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh, otherwise they’ll kill you.”

  9. Yes, of course we can sustain a steady-state energy output without CO2 pollution at today’s and even higher total global energy output levels. This site, with which I am not affiliated, has short primer:

  10. Spot-on Tom! If my photoshop skills were up to snuff I’d make that gerbil pic for sure.

    I’ve been pretty influenced by Alex Steffen’s concept of The Swap, the false idea that we’ll be able to continue our standard of living just by swapping out some infrastructures (solar/wind for coal/oil, etc). I like this quote of his as it starts to shifts things towards a moral perspective:

    “But the idea we that can swap the parts and keep the form is a necessary fiction: otherwise, business as usual would be seen (correctly) as a series of crimes against the future. Building a new freeway now, with what we know, is crossing the line from stupid to evil, but as long as we believe electric cars will somehow transform the whole system, we can pretend it’s sensible and realistic.”

    I used to protest when people say that the whole “green thing” is a fad. Now I absolutely agree (short article I wrote about it here: ).

    • Interesting. The analogy I alluded to from The Corporation about sustainable flight goes on to ask whether we can alter our airplane in flight into a helicopter. To stay “airborne,” our economy requires growth (here analogous to the forward motion of an airplane). We need a helicopter that can hover in one place (steady state). Can we swap the parts in flight? Appealing idea, but hard to pull off.

      I think most people who talk of swap ideas are genuine believers, so not deliberately dishonest. But to the extent that they convince the rest of the world that a transition/swap is a piece of cake, they risk doing more harm than good.

  11. I agree the word ‘sustainable’ has been misused, but it has meaning – ‘capacity to endure’/’long-term maintenance of well being’. To me, it means we (life) can stay in the universe as long as possible. Since universe keeps changing (e.g. Sun will die one day), we have to continue to evolve, progress to diversify ourselves. Of course since right now we are not ready to live in outer space (e.g. requires more ingenuity than we have right now, terraforming Mars through ecopoiesis may takes centuries), so we need to manage the Earth first. Slow-renewable resources should not be wasted on wars.

    Build a global shared vision (e.g. go out of the Earth). This builds the commitment for real change. Use the ongoing global crisis as a turning point to advance humanity from quantity growth to quality development, the essence of progress. Use ‘rich pay poor for not to give birth’ policy to self-regulate the population, consumption, rich-poor gap, and make the provision of education within society/government capacity. With sufficient education (quantity and quality), average quality of human will be greatly improved and the gap of human quality will be under control (allow social mobility, making democracy functional).

    Share vision, get committed, improve ourselves.

    • You are right that “sustainable” is a perfectly cromulent word. Moreover, I fully support a deliberate transition to a truly sustainable existence—and I think there are possible paths to get there, though perhaps improbable. My main beef is the rampant misuse of the term: if we can’t converge on the elements and scale of a sustainable existence, then we should not be applying the word to proposed “solutions.” I’m fine using the word in discussing the big-picture of what such a world might look like.

      • I work “in sustainability” — that is, my company does energy efficient HVAC design for commercial buildings. Net Zero Energy buildings, Net Zero Carbon buildings, LEED Platinum, Living Building Challenge, etc. It seems like the buzzwords used by those pushing the envelope (us, for one) have been moving over the years as the status quo starts to catch up and corrupt the term.

        Environmentally Friendly > Sustainable > Green > Deep/Bright/Dark/whatever Green > Net Zero “X” > Regenerative > Biomimetic > Biophilic > Living > Resilient > Shockproof > What’s next?

        On one hand I’m weary of the shifting semantic topology of these words used to describe what we’re trying to do; on the other, I understand that the value we attach to words impacts our mental models, and there is a critical relationship between what we CALL what we do and the physical REALITY of what we’re doing (I mean this is central to what this site is all about, right?). There’s the words we use and their literal meaning, there’s the mental models those words build, and then there’s the reality of what is going on.

        A history/dissection of the language/vocabulary of sustainability might be an interest topic to explore deeper… anyone know of someone who has done some rigorous linguistic thought on this?

  12. Great post.The Earh is in fact capable of ‘sustaining’ the human race for a long as we care to exist. But, there is a catch. A much smaller population, not useing the primtive, brute-force fossil-fuel technologies we are infatuated with, could probably exist indefinetly. We still might do damage along that path, but nothing compared to what we are doing now. What we cannot do, is support, 7,8 or 10 billion + at anything like a decent quality of life. Any attempt to try to give the world an ‘amerikan’ (or even amerikan-lite) standard of liveing with the population numbers we are projecting, simply wont be possible no matter what technological rabbits we might think were going to pull out of our hats.

    The area I live in is a poster-child for unsustainable, for example. Over 100,000 people live in an area that has water, yes, even agricuture, but the water is used as a toilet, and dump for oil and gas from ‘pleasure’ boats. There is some agricultral, but its mostly used to make wine, and most of the fruit is sold elsewhere. Same as the modest wood mills. They export most of its products to the US. In any event, the spruce pine bettle is devouring the forests whole. My own ‘community(actually more like one giant strip-mall) couldnt support 1/10th of the population it now has, and probably a lot less than that.All I have to do to see what a place that has no future looks(ie not remotely sustainable) like is step outside.

  13. I’m convinced that we in the US could maintain a comparable living standard with half the energy use. In fact I know this to be true because Europeans already enjoy at least comparable living standards with half the per capita energy use. The difficulty reaching this efficiency increase is mostly political, not technical. Sadly, the US is politically so dysfunctional that even relatively easy steps in the right direction are elusive.

    To the question of consumption inequality, I recommend this article where George Monbiot points out some of the ways in which the rich waste resources:

    “But the raft that’s really caught my eye is made by Wally Yachts in Monaco. The WallyPower 118 (which gives total wallies a sensation of power) consumes 3400 l/hr when travelling at 60 knots(7). That’s nearly one litre per second. That’s nearly one litre per second. (…) As the owner of one of these yachts I’ll do more damage to the biosphere in ten minutes than most Africans inflict in a lifetime. Now we’re burning, baby. Someone I know who hangs out with the very rich tells me that in the banker belt of the lower Thames valley there are people who heat their outdoor swimming pools to bath temperature, all round the year. … The fuel costs them £3000 a month. One hundred thousand people living like these bankers would knacker our life support systems faster than 10 billion people living like the African peasantry…”

    • Grain of salt about US/Europe energy comparisons: most Europeans live in nicer climates than most Americans, requiring less indoor climate control. Canada uses as much or more as the US, per capita. If you look within Europe, I think you’ll find the cold Nordic countries using quite a lot, comparable to the US, while Spain and Italy use less. Part of that is relative wealth and not having A/C, but a lot of it will be lack of need for heating or cooling.

      Not to say there aren’t genuine lifestyle efficiencies, better urban transportation layout and eating less meat and such, but there’s a big geographic advantage. Europe’s mostly further north, while being warmed by currents, and is on the west coast of their continent. US tends south by comparison, and the habitable range of our west coast is cut short by the Rockies, with much of our population on the less pleasantly humid east coast which manages to have colder winters too.

      • “most Europeans live in nicer climates than most Americans, requiring less indoor climate control.”

        The geographic excuse is largely a myth. The US is really not, as a whole, climatically disadvantaged compared to Europe. Large parts of the country have very mild climates. I am currently, in early October, enjoying perfect 20 C temperatures day and night. And yet I hear my neighbors running their AC (or is it the heating? not sure).

        When you compare per capita energy use by US state, you find that climate is not an important predictor. New York has the lowest rank and Texas one of the highest. When you compare European countries, there seems to be a climate factor although Denmark is closer in energy use to Italy than Sweden and Sweden is closer to France than Finland. Interestingly, Sweden and Finland moved in tandem until about 1993, but now Sweden is 25% more efficient than Finland and 34% more efficient than the US. Geography couldn’t explain that.

  14. This blog is quickly becoming one of my favorite reads on the internet. The only thing I wish for (not related to this particular post, but in general) is that you consider life cycle impacts and EROEI more often. I know it gets a little more complicated, but so many people seem to completely ignore it (I’ve seen so many adds along the lines of, so I think it should at least be acknowledged every time we talk about new solutions to our resource problems. And, hopefully, we can get some quick yet informative calculations in some particular instances!

    • You’ve read my mind. EROEI is indeed critically important, and I am formulating a post in which the concept takes center stage. I personally need to learn more about the techniques involved in a credible calculation. Charlie Hall is way ahead of me here.

  15. Tom, I think that you are mistaken that the end of growth necessarily implies a reduction in inequality. I don’t have any theory, just history as a guide. Ancient Sumeria and Old Kingdom Egypt were effectively zero-growth civilizations that lasted for (nearly) a millennium each. So they could be called quasi-sustainable.

    Old-kingdom Egypt and Sumer were not egalitarian and they were sustained partly because of this. With similar levels of inequality, we would require around 0.3 units on your energy scale – possibly less.

    What is likely to happen? The board game Monopoly is a simple simulation of a resource-constrained market economy. When played by the rules, the game starts with a period when almost everyone does well (as with fossil fuels), but it quickly ends with a high degree of inequality. Finding this ending abhorrent, many players, particularly children, vary the rules and make gifts, to make the game last longer or end less unequally.

    Inequality is indeed a moral choice and one that we must face. It would be nice to think that our civilization has the moral sense of a nine-year-old, but the historical evidence is against us.

  16. There is a recent 2011 book published on this subject – The Second Law of Economics: Energy, Entropy, and the Origins of Wealth by Reiner Kummel. It may be of interest to people on this site, though I found it fairly technical.

  17. Well, those were depressing graphs. Especially with your already throwing in an efficiency factor, to head off argument about “but what if we ate less meat and shifted to more efficient transport”.

    OTOH, I think you’re off about nuclear. Never mind thorium or breeders; AIUI, the uranium figures are based on proven reserves at the current price. Raise the price somewhat and supply goes up a lot, while not raising the price of power much because it’s a capital-intensive industry. I’ve seen calculations arguing there’s enough crustal uranium (with breeding) to count as a renewable power supply, i.e. lasting as long as the Sun.

    And as you showed earlier, there’s a lot of solar power available, in a sense. OTOH storage… comments were closed before I could comment on your comparison between 15% solar panels and photosynthesis. They’re doing different things, making electricity vs. making carbohydrates. A stricter comparison would be how efficient are we at using solar panels to generate carbohydrates from water and atmospheric CO2. A more practical comparison would be how efficient we are at making any useful chemical fuel, including hydrogen, hydrocarbons, or maybe ammonia. I note that if you’re as much as 50% efficient in turning electricity and diffuse CO2 into fuel, that’s 15%/2 = 7.5% or a figure comparable to top end growth-phase numbers for algae or sugarcane for turning sunlight and air into fuel. At some point, it might be cheaper to shovel random biomass into biomass-to-liquid or methanogenesis reactors.

  18. You may find the article “Medieval smokestacks: fossil fuels in pre-industrial times” at Low Tech Magazine to be interesting reading.( )

    It deals with the role that peat and coal played in the Holland corner of north-east Europe during pre-Industrial Revolution times. Of interest how this region burned though its reserves of peat only to turn much of the arable land into lakes. And that “…in an average year in the seventeenth century, the Dutch consumed 25,120,800 GJ of turf. With an average population of 1.5 million this amounts to 16.75 GJ per capita per year.”
    And …”Pre-industrial use of coal and peat occured succesively in those parts of Europe that dominated industrial production from the 1100s to the start of the Industrial Revolution. The Flemish, the Dutch and the English, consecutively, became the most prosperous regions in Europe at the very moments when they used the largest amounts of fossil fuels. In other words, all economic success stories of the past millennium are based on an ample supply of fossil fuels – accompanied by serious ecological damage.”

Comments are closed.