All through the Progressive narrative you will here the constant mantra of having to live sustainably. I’ve never seen a clear definition of what this actually means and I’ve been looking since the 1970’s. Back then there was this big push for “ecology” and back to nature cultishiness with huge attention paid to “alternative energy” Here’s a couple of posts where I dealt with the emergence of the green cult in the 1970’s.
“Sustainability” is a popular buzzword in the public discussion of energy and environment policies generally and in the defense of subsidies for “renewable” energy in particular. But the definition of that term is highly elusive, as illustrated by the Environmental Protection Agency’s discussion:
Sustainability is based on a simple principle: Everything that we need for our survival and well-being depends, either directly or indirectly, on our natural environment. To pursue sustainability is to create and maintain the conditions under which humans and nature can exist in productive harmony to support present and future generations.
Apart from being incorrect substantively – it is human ingenuity that is the “ultimate resource” – this obviously is infantile blather, convincing proof that the EPA has no idea what “sustainability” means as an analytic concept. (Precisely what is “productive harmony?”) We have also an international definition from the United Nations, often cited in the literature:
Humanity has the ability to make development sustainable to ensure that it meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.
This definition also is useless, as “needs,” whether present or future, are undefined. The evaluation of the unavoidable trade-offs among such needs – should we have more food or better water quality? – is ignored, again whether in the present or future or across time periods and generations.
But such incoherence has not impeded the drive to subsidize such “renewable” energy forms as wind and solar power. “Renewability” has no uniform definition, but the (assumed) finite physical quantity of such conventional energy sources as petroleum is the essential characteristic differentiating the two in most discussions. In a word, conventional energy sources physically are depletable; in contrast, each sunrise and each geographic temperature differential yields new supplies of sunlight and wind flows.
Sadly, the energy content of sunlight and wind is limited, regardless of whether new supplies emerge continually. They contain only so much convertible energy, which is not always available in any event. Moreover, the other resources upon which the conversion of such renewable energy into electricity depends – materials, land, etc. – are finite.
More fundamentally, the basic “sustainability” concept seems to be that without government action, market forces will use up or exhaust a finite resource. Accordingly, subsidies and other support for renewable power generation are justified as tools with which to slow such depletion and to hasten the development of technologies that would provide alternatives for future generations.
That argument is simply wrong: The profit motive provides incentives for the market to consider the long-run effects of current decisions. Specifically, the market rate of interest is a price that links the interests of generations present and future. If a resource is being depleted, then its expected future price will rise. If that rate of price increase (say, 8 percent) is greater than the market interest rate (say, 5 percent), then owners of the resource have incentives to reduce production today; by doing so they can sell the resource in the future and in effect earn a rate of return higher than the market rate of interest.
That shift of production from the present into the future would raise prices today and reduce prices in the future. (The same analysis holds if, say, massive new discoveries yield a reduction in the prices expected in the future; there would result an incentive to produce more today.) The “equilibrium” expected price path is an increase at the market rate of interest. In reality the prices of most exhaustible natural resources have declined over the long term (after adjusting for inflation), in large part because of technological advances – there’s that ultimate resource again – in discovery, production and use. Because of the market rate of interest, market forces will never allow the depletion of a given resource.
There’s a certain romance to looking back in time. A certain belief that things were simpler in the times of the horse and buggy, say. The fact is that most of us do not understand just how much energy it takes to maintain the modern lifestyle and just how much is involved. The difference between a culture without electricity and one that has it is like throwing a switch. We, who live in an electric world really have no concept of what a low tech life is really like. So we romanticize about what it was like.
More to the point many set what was as better and more “appropriate” than the technologies that are used in our daily lives.
Much of the romanticism is driven by the need of people in the elites to differentiate themselves. If resources are abundant and essentially unlimited, then the general populace doesn’t NEED the elites to manage things for them. So under the pressure of living in a productive and growing society the elites are always looking at things like Socialism as “Progressive” and trying to turn back the clock.
The elites do not want the production society because the production and innovation that goes with a production society means that more wealth is being created and the sort of things that the elite treasure become either cheapened and more available or if those things are truly limited by circumstances like house on Martha’s Vineyard, the price goes up as the competition does. In any case the elite’s little world becomes more crowded.
So the goal of the elites is almost always to create a rationing society with little social mobility. By controlling everything the elites can ensure that they maintain the lifestyles that they have become accustomed to.
There are two types of societies, production societies and rationing societies. The production society is concerned with taking more territory, exploiting that territory to the best of its ability and then discovering new techniques for producing even more. The rationing society is concerned with consolidating control over all existing resources and rationing them out to the people.
The production society values innovation because it is the only means of sustaining its forward momentum. If the production society ceases to be innovative, it will collapse and default to a rationing society. The rationing society however is threatened by innovation because innovation threatens its control over production.
Socialist or capitalist monopolies lead to rationing societies where production is restrained and innovation is discouraged. The difference between the two is that a capitalist monopoly can be overcome. A socialist monopoly however is insurmountable because it carries with it the full weight of the authorities and the ideology that is inculcated into every man, woman and child in the country.
We have become a rationing society. Our industries and our people are literally starving in the midst of plenty. Farmers are kept from farming, factories are kept from producing and businessmen are kept from creating new companies and jobs. This is done in the name of a variety of moral arguments, ranging from caring for the less fortunate to saving the planet. But rhetoric is only the lubricant of power. The real goal of power is always power. Consolidating production allows for total control through the moral argument of rationing, whether through resource redistribution or cap and trade.
The politicians of a rationing society may blather on endlessly about increasing production, but it’s so much noise, whether it’s a Soviet Five Year Plan or an Obama State of the Union Address. When they talk about innovation and production, what they mean is the planned production and innovation that they have decided should happen on their schedule. And that never works.
You can ration production, but that’s just another word for poverty. You can’t ration innovation, which is why the aggressive attempts to put low mileage cars on the road have failed. As the Soviet Union discovered, you can have rationing or innovation, but you can’t have both at the same time. The total control exerted by a monolithic entity, whether governmental or commercial, does not mix well with innovation.
The rationing society is a poverty generator because not only does it discourage growth, its rationing mechanisms impoverish existing production with massive overhead. The process of rationing existing production requires a bureaucracy for planning, collecting and distributing that production that begins at a ratio of the production and then increases without regard to the limitations of that production.
Paradoxically the rationing infrastructure increases in direct proportion to the falloff of production as lower production requires even greater rationing. This is what we are seeing now in the United States, in a weak economy, there is greater justification for the expansion of rationing mechanisms. And the worse the economy becomes, the bigger government will become to “compensate” for the problems of the economy.
Of course the push is for more renewable energy including and especially more human powered machines. The problem is that a human being is just not a very dense energy source. For that matter none of the energy sources used before steam power and the early steam engines themselves were very dense energy sources. So trying to power society on human power, wind and solar will require total restructuring of society.
For a while, I taught a course in human-powered machinery for the Peace Corps. You know, bicycle powered generators, treadle powered pumps, that kind of thing. One of the very rough rules of thumb regarding human energy is that an adult human can put out about a hundred watts on an ongoing, constant all-day basis. If you were to hook up a bicycle to a generator you could generate a kilowatt-hour every day … if you were in good shape and you put in a ten-hour day. Sounds like work to me.
I got to thinking about this number, one kilowatt-hour’s worth of electricity for a long ten-hour day’s work, in the context of the discussion about energy costs. Some people think raising energy costs to discourage CO2 production is a good thing. I say that raising energy costs, whether to discourage CO2 or for any other reason, trades a certain present loss for a very doubtful future gain. As such, it is an extremely bad idea. Here’s why:
The existence of electricity is perhaps the one thing most emblematic of human development. With electricity, we get refrigeration to preserve medicines and foods, light to extend the day, electric heat, power to run machinery, the list goes on and on. Now, as I showed above, we can hire somebody to generate electricity for us, at the rate of a kilowatt-hour for each ten-hour day’s work. Where I live, this day’s worth of slave labor, this thousand watt-hours of energy, costs me the princely sum of about thirteen cents US. I can buy an electric slave-day of work for thirteen cents.
That is why I live well. Instead of having slaves as the Romans had, I can buy a day’s worth of a slave’s constant labor for thirteen measly cents. That is what development consists of, the use of electricity and other forms of inexpensive energy in addition to and in lieu of human energy.
Now, here’s the next part of the puzzle. Out at the farther edges of society, where people live on a dollar a day or less, electricity is much more expensive than it is where I live. In the Solomon Islands, where I lived before returning to the US in 2009, electricity in the capital city cost fifty-two cents a kilowatt-hour, and more out in the outer islands.
Now, let us consider the human cost of the kind of “cap-and trade” or “carbon tax” or Kyoto Protocol agreements. All of these attempts to decrease CO2 have the same effect. They raise the cost of energy, whether in the form of electricity or liquid fuels. But the weight of that change doesn’t fall on folks like me. Oh, I feel it alright. But for someone making say $26.00 per hour, they can buy two hundred slave-days of work with an hour’s wages. (Twenty-six dollars an hour divided by thirteen cents per kWh.). Two hundred days of someone working hard for ten hours a day, that’s the energy of more than six months of someone’s constant work … and I can buy that with one hour’s wages.
At the other end of the scale, consider someone making a dollar a day, usually a ten-hour day. That’s about ten cents an hour, in a place where energy may well cost fifty-two cents per kilowatt-hour. Energy costs loom huge for them even now. I can buy six months of slave labor for one hour of my wage. They can buy a couple of hours of slave labor, not days or months but hours, of slave labor for each hour of their work.
And as a result, an increase in energy costs that is fairly small to me is huge to the poor. Any kind of tax on energy, indeed any policy that raises the cost of energy, is one of the most regressive taxes known to man. It crushes those at the lowest end of the scale, and the worst part is, there is no relief at the bottom. You know how with income tax, if you make below a certain limit, you pay no tax at all? If you are below the threshold, you are exempt from income tax.
But energy price increases such as carbon taxes don’t even have that relief. They hit harder the further you go down the economic ladder, all the way down to rock bottom, hitting the very poorest the hardest of all.
So when James Hansen gets all mealy-mouthed about his poor grandkids’ world in fifty years, boo-boo, it just makes me shake my head in amazement. His policies have already led to an increase in something I never heard of when I was a kid, “fuel poverty”. This is where the anti-human pseudo-green energy policies advocated by Hansen and others have driven the price of fuel so high that people who weren’t poor before, now cannot heat their homes in winter … it’s shockingly common in Britain, for example.
In other words, when James Hansen is coming on all weepy-eyed about what might possibly happen to his poor grandchildren fifty years from now, he is so focused on the future that he overlooks the ugly present-day results of his policies, among them the grandparents shivering in houses that they can no longer afford to heat …
Primitivism doesn’t work. Yet that’s what is being taught in the universities, by professors who by and large have never even camped without electricity or for that matter never planted a kitchen garden or ever dealt with building anything themselves. This is the “you didn’t build that” crowd that doesn’t see the huge logistical and productive infrastructure that allows them to live the lifestyle that they have.
Arthur Kling explains here why the term “sustainable capitalism” is redundant and why “environmental sustainability” is really “primitivism“:
Capitalism is inherently sustainable, relentlessly producing more human satisfaction using fewer resources. What environmentalists call “sustainability” ought to be called primitivism, producing less human satisfaction using more resources.
Katherine Kersten explains here why The Church of Sustainability isn’t just the new religion of college campuses, it’s become the new home of the entire liberal agenda:
Every decade or so, another academic “fashion du jour” sweeps America’s college campuses. In the 1990s, it was multiculturalism. That morphed into “diversity” — now such a mantra that students can spell it backward in their sleep. Today, excitement is surging for a new fad, “sustainability,” that’s taking higher education by storm.
Sustainability now permeates campuses from the classroom to the dorm, dining hall, faculty lounge, physical plant and alumni office. The word conjures up images of clean water, recycling, and DDT-free songbirds at the back-yard feeder. Responsible environmental stewardship — what’s not to like about that?
Sustainability, it turns out, is the new battle cry in an old war. It’s a wraparound concept that links the old, familiar liberal causes of environmental activism, animosity toward free markets, and a progressive take on “social justice.” But it repackages them and lends them urgency by maintaining that embrace of its ideological agenda is imperative to avoid a looming ecological and social catastrophe.
In other words, the campus sustainability movement’s mission is to transform our fundamental social, economic and political institutions, and to do so by manipulating, cajoling and browbeating a generation of college students into accepting the movement’s worldview and cultural norms.
The problem is that the fundamental reorganizing of society is going to be ruinous for millions upon millions of people. People who only want to live their lives the way they have and pursue their own prosperity are going to be forced by the new state to live a lifestyle that comes under the heading “nasty, brutish and short.” Getting people to accept that is going to be tough.
Meanwhile the elites seem to think that for themselves, they will still end up on top and their quality of life will not change. I’ve pointed out why that is not a gamble that I would be making before.
I’ve also pointed expecting to survive the ensuing chaos in your bunker in the middle of the city is not a good idea.
Like so much of the romanticism the sustainability legend came out of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s with the rest of a whole lot of just plain hokum. The was the result of liberals, after having achieved almost all of the possible goals that they had wanted. With the emerging welfare state and the receding Vietnam war, liberalism was more and more being left without a reason to exist. The liberals and Progressives needed a new battle to fight and with environmental romanticism they were going back to liberalism’s roots. The post below explains what happened next.
In the late 1960s, liberals appeared to have the better of the argument. Something approaching the realm of freedom seemed to have arrived. American workers, white and black, achieved hitherto unimagined levels of prosperity. In the nineteenth century, only utopian socialists had imagined that ordinary workers could achieve a degree of leisure; in the 1930s, radicals had insisted that prosperity was unattainable under American capitalism; yet these seemingly unreachable goals were achieved in the two decades after World War II.
Why, then, did American liberalism, starting in the early 1970s, undergo a historic metanoia, dismissing the idea of progress just as progress was being won? Multiple political and economic forces paved liberalism’s path away from its mid-century optimism and toward an aristocratic outlook reminiscent of the Tory Radicalism of nineteenth-century Britain; but one of the most powerful was the rise of the modern environmental movement and its recurrent hysterias.
If one were to pick a point at which liberalism’s extraordinary reversal began, it might be the celebration of the first Earth Day, in April 1970. Some 20 million Americans at 2,000 college campuses and 10,000 elementary and secondary schools took part in what was the largest nationwide demonstration ever held in the United States. The event brought together disparate conservationist, antinuclear, and back-to-the-land groups into what became the church of environmentalism, complete with warnings of hellfire and damnation. Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin, the founder of Earth Day, invoked “responsible scientists” to warn that “accelerating rates of air pollution could become so serious by the 1980s that many people may be forced on the worst days to wear breathing helmets to survive outdoors. It has also been predicted that in 20 years man will live in domed cities.”
Thanks in part to Earth Day’s minions, progress, as liberals had once understood the term, started to be reviled as reactionary. In its place, Nature was totemized as the basis of the authenticity that technology and affluence had bleached out of existence. It was only by rolling in the mud of primitive practices that modern man could remove the stain of sinful science and materialism. In the words of Joni Mitchell’s celebrated song “Woodstock”: “We are stardust / We are golden / And we got to get ourselves back to the garden.”
In his 1973 book The Death of Progress, Bernard James laid out an argument already popularized in such bestsellers as Charles Reich’s The Greening of America and William Irwin Thompson’s At the Edge of History. “Progress seems to have become a lethal idée fixe, irreversibly destroying the very planet it depends upon to survive,” wrote James. Like Reich, James criticized both the “George Babbitt” and “John Dewey” versions of “progress culture”—that is, visions of progress based on rising material attainment or on educational opportunities and upward mobility. “Progress ideology,” he insisted, “whether preached by New Deal Liberals, conservative Western industrialists or Soviet Zealots,” always led in the same direction: environmental apocalypse. Liberalism, which had once viewed men and women as capable of shaping their own destinies, now saw humanity in the grip of vast ecological forces that could be tamed only by extreme measures to reverse the damages that industrial capitalism had inflicted on Mother Earth. It had become progressive to reject progress.
Rejected as well was the science that led to progress. In 1970, the Franco-American environmentalist René Dubos described what was quickly becoming a liberal consensus: “Most would agree that science and technology are responsible for some of our worst nightmares and have made our societies so complex as to be almost unmanageable.” The same distrust of science was one reason that British author Francis Wheen can describe the 1970s as “the golden age of paranoia.” Where American consumers had once felt confidence in food and drug laws that protected them from dirt and germs, a series of food scares involving additives made many view science, not nature, as the real threat to public health. Similarly, the sensational impact of the feminist book Our Bodies, Ourselves—which depicted doctors as a danger to women’s well-being, while arguing, without qualifications, for natural childbirth—obscured the extraordinary safety gains that had made death during childbirth a rarity in developed nations.
Crankery, in short, became respectable. In 1972, Sir John Maddox, editor of the British journal Nature, noted that though it had once been usual to see maniacs wearing sandwich boards that proclaimed the imminent end of the Earth, they had been replaced by a growing number of frenzied activists and politicized scientists making precisely the same claim. In the years since then, liberalism has seen recurring waves of such end-of-days hysteria. These waves have shared not only a common pattern but often the same cast of characters. Strangely, the promised despoliations are most likely to be presented as imminent when Republicans are in the White House. In each case, liberals have argued that the threat of catastrophe can be averted only through drastic actions in which the ordinary political mechanisms of democracy are suspended and power is turned over to a body of experts and supermen.
Back in the early 1970s, it was overpopulation that was about to destroy the Earth. In his 1968 book The Population Bomb, Paul Ehrlich, who has been involved in all three waves, warned that “the battle to feed all of humanity is over” on our crowded planet. He predicted mass starvation and called for compulsory sterilization to curb population growth, even comparing unplanned births with cancer: “A cancer is an uncontrolled multiplication of cells; the population explosion is an uncontrolled multiplication of people.” An advocate of abortion on demand, Ehrlich wanted to ban photos of large, happy families from newspapers and magazines, and he called for new, heavy taxes on baby carriages and the like. He proposed a federal Department of Population and Environment that would regulate both procreation and the economy. But the population bomb, fear of which peaked during Richard Nixon’s presidency, never detonated. Population in much of the world actually declined in the 1970s, and the green revolution, based on biologically modified foods, produced a sharp increase in crop productivity.
If you listened to the noise of the 1970’s you would have thought that doom was right around the corner. The only thing that could save us, the libs said and are still saying 40 years later is everybody giving control to the libs because they know how to deal with creating the new world that would save us all. Never mind the fact that their new world somehow looked like the old Socialist utopias. Forward for to prevent ecological disaster(global warming) is the new revolutionary touchstone to create the new utopia. The fact that they were creating a nightmare seems to always escape the.
It looked for a while as if they were getting what they wanted. The battle is not over, but far too much of culture and the government has been inculcated and subverted into being unable to think outside the liberal box.
It’s been as much as admitted by the current Administration that one of it’s goals was to “manage the decline” and climate change was always a driver for some of the bad policies that the Administration has promulgated. Policies that have cost much of the country the jobs and livelyhoods.
Of course none of this is inevitable. In fact it appears that indeed the working people of the West will not sit idly by and let the elites impoverish and enslave them. Which is no real surprise really. The balance of the country that the elites call “flyover country” is not going to continue to let it self be run into the ground. That’s what the latest election has made clear. I’m guessing that there is a future after all.