The Sustainability Thought Experiment

This post is an idea that formed at the intersection of two unconnected thoughts. The first came from a dialogue with some animal rights vegans, which led me to realize that I will never be an animal rights activist. While  I think the baseline for all our interactions with other animals should be respect and appreciation, sustainability comes first for me. I happen to live in one of the most fertile places in the world where a local, nutritionally complete, plant-based diet is very possible. But where weather and soil conditions are less optimal, I’m willing to accept that small scale, subsistence local animal agriculture could make more sense — from a sustainability perspective — than importing from other continents the variety and quantity of plant foods necessary to make up a balanced diet. (See more on the local vs. vegan debate at Treehugger.)  

The other seed for this post was an article about spam sushi (“Global is the New Local“) and its offhanded remark that  “the organic/local food movement is exacerbating African food shortages.” I’m not sure if the author was quoting an actual study or just conjecturing, but either way, it made me think: what if one of the costs of sustainability were our ability to help needy people around the world? We would have less surplus food to go around, to start with. But also, given the tendency of populations to grow when more food is available, can we align helping famine-stricken lands that cannot support their own people with our ultimate goal of a sustainable, smaller global population? Is human compassion unsustainable?

We know what the price of unsustainability is, and it makes plenty of sense to put sustainability first, full stop.  But just what are the costs of sustainability? Are we prepared to pay them? If our world governments were in consensus and had the power to impose global laws on all of us in order to achieve sustainability fast, these things (among many others) would probably be on the chopping block:

  • Economic growth based on capitalism. A sustainable world would involve significantly less manufacturing, less consumerism, and fewer jobs in fewer sectors. Work in manufacturing, sales, marketing, or publicity? Your job probably wouldn’t make the cut.
  • Human reproductive rights. We’ve shown that we can’t voluntarily maintain a stable and sustainable global population size. Even if it were to stabilize, I doubt anyone can claim that 7 billion people is a sustainable population size. Estimates suggest that an optimal human population would be 2 billion or under.  First to go: your right to have more than one child.
  • Cheap, plentiful food. Our current agricultural system, with it pesticides, monocropping, and massive scale developed because it was efficient, productive, and cheap (if you discounted its long term and less visible costs.). Recent UK studies have found organic farms to be about half as productive, hectare for hectare, than conventional farms. Could we feed the world on sustainably grown, organic food? I don’t know. Maybe?
  • Individual rights to resources. A sustainable world would probably mean fairly stringent restrictions on the amount of water, gasoline, and electricity we use. The amount of rubbish we generate, maybe the amount of stuff we buy or even how much we eat. It would no longer be about how much you could afford, but how much the planet could.
  • Decimation of global trade. The price of our cheap chocolate, coffee, tea, palm oil, and bananas is monocropping and habitat destruction in the third world. To say nothing of the fuel it consumes getting here. Putting sustainability first might mean that most farmers go back to traditional crops and subsistence farming. Maybe some fair trade, sustainably farmed products, but not in the quantities we’ve gotten used to, not at the prices we’ve been paying.

Is a sustainable world worth giving up chocolate for? Of course it is. (Expect much whining and dismay, though.) But more seriously, sustainability would almost certainly come into conflict with other values we treasure —  individual freedom, free market economies, human rights, and democracy — all in the name of a greater good we won’t be around to see. All of these are things we’ve valued for far longer than we’ve even thought about sustainability. No other animal on Earth is likely to have given sustainability much thought. Either there’s food, or there isn’t, and either there are predators, or there aren’t. Maybe some species have worried about overreaching their immediate resources, but humans are the only ones in danger of overreaching the planet. But as we’ve seen, the rational realization that our existence on the planet is not sustainable fails to curb our wiring as biological creatures to expand and procreate.

It’s kind of sad that enforced, global sustainability (the only type likely to make a real difference) could only happen in a fascist world. Don’t worry too much about this; it doesn’t look like we’re taking the path of drastic, timely, global action.  But maybe our failure to grasp sustainability isn’t because we’re [merely] too stupid, or selfish, or greedy. Maybe it’s because we’re just too human.


2 responses to this post.

  1. “It would no longer be about how much you could afford, but how much the planet could.” I think this pretty much sums up the whole issue, and not just w/sustainability. Ego (i’m gonna do what i want & you can’t tell me different) & Greed (don’t care if i have enough, i want more damn the consequences) are inherent in the problem. But your last comment encompasses these also ~”Maybe it’s because we’re too human.” And so there you have it. Is there a “cure” for being too human. In my part of the world we are also ravaged by those that seem to lack many human qualities most of us take for granted. Compassion, empathy benevolence. Not likely going to find a cure for these either. So what’s the answer?

    This discussion dovetail’s perfectly one of the issues i seem to have on a regualr basis w/my vegan friends on twitter. The whole “go vegan” mantra w/o a clue as how to initiate it much less the consequences. “Consequences?” ~yep, just like any change we’re likely to make, their will be consequences. If per chance we could wave a magic wand and instantly have everyone be vegan; do we have enough plant based nutrtition available? What about the economy, there are people who’s livelyhood is dependent on the meat industry. I have yet had anyone be able to give me a plan for transitioning from our current position to one where everyone (or even a majority) of people are vegan. A catchphrase “go vegan” is not an answer.

    Guessing i’m no better than the next guy, cause i don’t have an answer either. Anyone else?


    • Posted by ailanna on 09/28/2010 at 09:01

      Thanks for the comment, David! It’s so sucky that we’re fully intelligent enough to see where we’re headed, yet somehow unable to act in a unified, effective manner to mitigate disaster. Sigh. (And I see this in myself whenever I hop in the car to run a not particularly urgent errand I could walk in half an hour just because it’s too hot/wet/weathery.)

      As for the whole world going vegan thing…yep, I see some clashes with idealism there. I’m not sure having a wholly/mostly vegan world is realistic. I do think having a human population that eats primarily plant based diets with small amounts of animal protein is possible and desirable, since that’s pretty much what we started off as. As I said, I’m not an animal rights activist, and given the baseline of sustainability, I’m inclined to think the choice to completely avoid animal products or not is a personal and moral one.


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