Take Back Sustainability

Antonio R. Chaves

Let’s get the politics out of academic study of sustainability.  I’m an instructor of environmental science and I know it can be done.  All we really need to do is remember that environmental questions are genuinely complex.  If we face that complexity squarely and look to empirical data in our efforts to find valid answers, we can put aside the ideological posturing and rancorous denunciation that characterizes way too much of the campus debate.

While there is rancor on both sides, this isn’t a case of equal measures of misbehavior on both sides. The campus left has played the more destructive role by hijacking it in order to impose contentious agendas that have little to do with long-term planning. The left has sought to capture “sustainability” because it is an inviting target.  Nearly everyone with or without children believes in some form of sustainability. But when the left co-opts the term, non-politicized study of sustainability gets marginalized, and conservatives respond by attacking the whole sustainability concept, not just the part that the campus left has misappropriated.   At that point, both sides abandon reason and go on the attack.

While hard leftists claim that conservatives want “dirtier air and dirtier water,” moderate environmentalists believe that conservatives are either ill-informed or in denial about global warming. Conversely, there is plenty of denial and misinformation on the left with regard to economic sustainability, and given the current sad state of the liberal arts it will probably get worse before it gets better. This polarization also makes it all the more difficult to rationally discuss sustainability issues that are very real.

As an instructor of environmental science I have seen thoughtful conservative students dismissing legitimate environmental concerns, mainly out of disgust with the messenger, whose uncompromising stance on environmental remediation often ignores property rights and unreasonable burdens to local economies. Likewise, I have seen their counterparts on the left parroting conspiracy theories publicized by PBS about the “killing” of electric cars, totally oblivious to current technological limits that make electric cars impractical for most Americans. Which raises the question: is economic sustainability compatible with environmental sustainability? If they are locked in a relentless zero-sum game competition, our future is nothing short of Malthusian. If not, what kind of economic practices would allow for the coexistence of a reasonable standard of living and a sustainable environment?

One of the most controversial solutions was proposed in an article by H. Daley (“Economics in a Full World,” Scientific American, September 2005, Vol. 293, Issue 3). The author envisions a “steady state” economy that takes into account the Earth’s carrying capacity to provide natural resources and process wastes. Some features that some of us may find particularly objectionable include punitive consumption taxes on resource depletion, severe restriction on trade with countries using “unsustainable” economic practices, and a more progressive tax structure to compensate the poor for the regressivity of the consumption taxes.

In an era of crushing national debt and intense global competition, most of us would rightfully see this as a recipe for disaster. On the other hand, this model does spell out the reality commonly ignored by environmental activists that many environmental policies result in economic costs that disproportionately affect people with lower incomes. This is instructive to the starry-eyed youth protesting in favor of so-called “green jobs” at the Power Shift rally a few years ago.

Like it or not, we already practice some aspects of full-world economics. Examples include fishing quotas and sulfur dioxide emissions trading. It is easier to find common ground with these policies because few deny the reality of fishery depletion and acid rain. These also serve as good starting points for the discussion of more contentious issues that cannot easily be addressed by the free market, such as reducing our dependence on fossil fuels that undermine our environment or our foreign policy.

My main interest is transportation energy because the technological and economic challenges are much greater than those involving power plants since vehicles can only use fuels that are easily transported. This issue also provides a prime example on how I try to provide a fact-driven foundation for a highly politicized topic.

There is no doubt that fossil fuels allowed humanity to avoid the bleak future predicted by Thomas Malthus. Even the “energy saint” who bicycles to work in America is largely dependent on this vast source of ready-made energy that fuels an economic system that provides unprecedented levels of choice and personal freedom. However, the fact that about half the world’s known oil reserves are in countries that practice some form of Shariah law should be of concern to anyone who wants to sustain liberal democracy both at home and abroad. This is also where I beg to differ from those who believe that laissez-fair capitalism always goes hand-in-hand with political freedom.

We cannot rely exclusively on the free market to reduce our dependence on petroleum because it is still the most cost-effective option. Current alternatives cannot compete with oil because it is energy-dense (unlike batteries), easy to transport (unlike natural gas and hydrogen), and ready-made (unlike hydrogen). As recent experience has shown, the only proven economic incentives for conserving petroleum are poverty and recession. Non-profit organizations may need to play a larger role in developing competitive alternatives (such as lighter batteries or fuel cells that run on directly on natural gas) but if the government is involved the least we can do is educate our children to do the math.

My students are well aware of the technological challenges of a hydrogen economy and electric cars because they witness them first-hand in my class through a combination of raw data from the Department of Energy and lab activities involving fuel cells and rechargeable batteries. For example, according to our calculations you need about 4,000 lbs of nickel-based batteries to drive an electric Ford Explorer 100 miles. Lithium batteries get by with about a quarter of this mass, but this is still a far cry from the 30-40 lbs of gasoline needed in a conventional Explorer. For some of my right-leaning students this data affirms their suspicions of “green” technology, but I am not in any way trying to discourage anyone from pursuing research into oil-free transportation. I just want my students to go beyond the knee-jerk platitudes about “big oil” by learning to investigate and come to terms with the true limits of our technology. Even if they are never directly involved in this line of research, the skills they learn in class may prepare them as voters and policy makers to distinguish authentic breakthroughs from the sea of boondoggles.

In the final analysis, only a hardened cynic does not care about what happens to the next generation, but the politicization of the term “sustainability” has converted this vital issue into a polarizing battle cry that appeals mainly to the lowest common denominator. Worst of all, it hurts the credibility of researchers and educators who are using this word in a legitimate context. Whether they be economic or natural, limited resources cannot be sustained when their consumption is not regulated or when only a small minority of believers use them conscientiously. This explains (but does not justify) the fanatical zeal of many environmental activists. Consensus is needed, but it must be achieved through substance, not style—or intellectual thuggery. Unfortunately, with education dominated by a diversity-obsessed intelligentsia that even questions the existence of an objective reality, the demagogues will often win the day.

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