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Christopher Barnatt

Sustainability: A Myth that Fuels Over Consumption?

According to the Global Footprint Network, 20th August 2013 was Earth Overshoot Day. In other words, it was the day in 2013 when humanity exceeded the annual ecological limits of the planet and started to consume and pollute more than the natural world can endure. Way back in 1972, scientists from the Limits to Growth project has warned that we would soon exceed the Earth’s ‘carrying capacity’, and by the mid-1980s they were proved right. Since that time, each year industrial civilization has increasingly been bankrupting future generations not just financially, but by stealing an unfair proportion of their resources.

I mention Earth Overshoot Day to signal my understanding of the very serious situation that we now face. Unless dramatic changes are made, within 20 years the global supply of oil, fresh water, food and many minerals will cease to meet demand. Yet even against the backdrop of this inevitably reality, I believe that we should cease our dangerous obsession with ‘sustainability’.

Life is a physically consumptive process. It is therefore impossible for any person or civilization to live sustainably, as by pursuing our continued existence we inevitably deny at least some resources to those to come. Granted, we can all chose to live and to conduct business ‘more sustainably’, and this has to be a laudable goal. But every time the dreaded ‘s’ word is thrown into a conversation, policy or strategy, it helps to propagate the myth that there is a means of continuing to live as we do now, but in a ‘sustainable’ fashion.

Let’s take a couple of practical examples. For a start there is the ludicrous proposition that we can achieve sustainability by ‘recycling’. Certainly putting things into reuse rather than landfill is a good idea. Even so, it is really not helpful to continue to propagate the current, popularist message that mass consumerism can continue unabated providing that everything we throw away is magically ‘recycled’.

No effective technology exists that can turn discarded products into pristine raw materials. All current recycling is at best ‘downcycling’, as high-quality metals and plastics are reclaimed in low-quality guises with a limited range of applications. We therefore need to educate ourselves to consume far fewer things -- and to repair rather than replace -- rather than giving the illusion that all we need to do is to ‘recycle’ more. Or as Robert Lilienfeld and William Rather argue in Use Less Stuff, the ‘recycling’ option has become like an aspirin that we collectively take to try and alleviate the hangover that results from our collective over-consumption, but which will never deal with the problem, and which if taken to excess will kill us.

Just as recycling does not provide a sustainable means of consuming physical resources, so there is no renewable energy source to which we can switch to meet the world’s rising energy demand. Just as it is impossible to live sustainably, so there is no such thing as ‘renewable energy’. All energy sources require an input of non-replenishable resources that are degraded by their use. Wind turbines, for example, require towers, generators and sails to be constructed, while photovoltaic solar cells or hydroelectric power stations equally do not materialize out of thin air. Once manufactured, wind turbines, solar cells and all other forms of alternative power generation infrastructure do not then last forever. The ‘net energy’ yield they provide in their lifetime is also relatively low.

Net energy is a measure of the energy obtained from a power source after the resources that went into its generation have been accounted for. Back in the 1930s, some sources of petroleum gushed so freely from the ground that their ‘energy return on investment’ or ‘EROI’ was 100:1. Unfortunately today, extracting conventional oil is a more intensive process, and typically results in an EROI of between 40:1 and 20:1. The EROI value for natural gas and for unconventional oil (such as that obtained from shale or tar sands) is then well below 10:1. EROI values for wind power typically max out at 18:1, though are usually far less, while photovoltaic solar has an EROI ratio below 10:1, as do wave power, biofuels and nuclear when full resource usage is accounted for.

What the above tells us is that the cost of energy will go on increasing, while energy supply will continue to decrease. There is simply no known energy source that can deliver anything like the EROI and hence cheap and abundant energy that we have become addicted to. This is also hardly a surprise. Today we burn roughly one million years of stored photosynthesis a year, and yet hope to ‘sustainably’ transition to a form of energy (like wind, solar, wave or nuclear) that has to deliver its output in real-time. There is only one option on the medium-term horizon, and that is for us all to start to use substantially less energy in the decades ahead. Becoming ‘sustainable’ is simply not the issue. Rather, the challenge we face is adjusting to a post globalization, post-economics-based-thinking state of the world in which using fewer resources and less energy will be our only option.

Becoming ‘sustainable’ by pursuing measures like ‘recycling’ and ‘renewable’ energy generation has become a trendy obsession. Perhaps the only thing that most politicians, economists and many business leaders crave even more is the pursuit of ‘constant economic growth’. In plain survival terms, the latter is as ludicrous a proposition as the former. It is therefore perhaps not a surprise that spin-doctors and marketeers have managed to conflate the two concepts into the prosperous notion of ‘sustainable economic growth’.

No natural system -- from an amoeba to a civilization -- has even managed to fight entropy and to sustain itself forever, let alone to grow indefinitely without hastening its inevitable demise. Indeed, in the biological world, constant growth is more normally a sign of obesity or cancer, rather than a healthy state of affairs. Rather than striving toward ‘sustainability’, we would therefore be more wise to start focusing on how we can least painfully deconstruct the consumer society and transition to a world in which we consume things less while valuing the things we can have far more. Even if we can tap the resources of the stars we can never build a world that is sustainable. Labelling our endeavours as such, and poisoning our minds with such a notion, is therefore a pursuit that we ought at the very least to seriously question.

Christopher Barnatt is an associate professor in Nottingham University Business School, and the author of nine books, including Seven Ways to Fix the World. He runs the website ExplainingTheFuture.com.