April 20, 2015
Sustainability: A Fable For Our Time
By Michael D. Shaw
We must journey back to March, 1987, and the United Nations document entitled Our Common Future: Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development, to discover what is probably the only universally agreed upon—if nebulous and contradictory—definition of “sustainable development,” the precursor of “sustainability,” viz.
Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. It contains within it two key concepts:
- the concept of ‘needs’, in particular the essential needs of the world’s poor, to which overriding priority should be given; and
- the idea of limitations imposed by the state of technology and social organization on the environment’s ability to meet present and future needs.
Notably, this document is much more about reducing the gap in standard of living between rich and poor countries than the environment, although it is difficult to separate the two. The report also stipulates that increased energy production will be needed to improve the plight of the poor. Nonetheless, it does pay due deference to all manner of Green issues, including population control and climate.
As with many UN documents, there is an ominous world government, nay totalitarian foreshadowing in such statements as “Ecological interactions do not respect the boundaries of individual ownership and political jurisdiction.”
28 years later, how does this sustainability play out in real life? A perusal of several corporate and academic websites on the matter of sustainability reveals a depressing, almost eerie similarity in mission, not to mention the paint-by-numbers details. The following precepts are virtually always present:
1. Waste and recycling policies, with few specifics on what happens with all the recycled material.
2. Energy management, replete with questionable strategies that may reduce demand, but affect safety and comfort.
3. So-called “sustainable dining,” which favors small local growers, despite the obvious energy and land use saving advantages of larger-scale producers.
4. Water conservation policies, which are often are nothing more than installing low flow devices—a facile solution at best.
Given the apocalyptic nature of the Green movement, it was inevitable that a “sustainability is not sustainable” faction would emerge. Its acolytes range from reformers like Jianguo (Jack) Liu of Michigan State University’s Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability; to doom profiteers epitomized by Guy McPherson, Professor Emeritus of Natural Resources and Ecology & Evolutionary Biology at the University of Arizona.
Liu’s holistic approach to addressing complex human-environmental challenges integrates multiple disciplines, uniting ecology and social sciences. He enjoys linking seemingly unrelated issues, such as divorce and environmental sustainability.
McPherson believes that industrial society will collapse as oil becomes scarcer and more expensive, but that’s all good since it’s the only way to stop catastrophic climate change, continued pollution, and human overpopulation.
In 2012, during a speech at Muskegon (MI) Community College, he ruled out technology as a means of saving the world, since it would promote “climate chaos.” Channeling a repurposed version of Josef Mengele, he noted that medical technology is bad for the future of humanity as it allows unchecked population growth. No word if he personally would forgo medical treatment.
McPherson boasts that he lives an off-the-grid sustainable lifestyle, but is strangely silent on his round-the-world book tours. His nonsensical pseudoscience—as updated frequently on his blog—has been deconstructed by many writers, including Scott Johnson and Michael Tobis.
Indeed, the science behind the deep ecology/“doomer” fringe of the hard Green movement is so relentlessly awful as to beggar belief. For example, those who hold that our planet is running out of oxygen will cite the work of Mae-Wan Ho and the ludicrously overrated Ervin Laszlo.
In a 2009 paper, Ho informs us that it is difficult to measure changes in oxygen because there is so much of it in the atmosphere compared with carbon dioxide; and that global carbon dioxide records go back more than 50 years, but oxygen measurement in combination with carbon dioxide goes back barely two decades. I guess she never heard of paramagnetic oxygen analyzers, dating back to the 1940s, which show no interference from carbon dioxide; or non-dispersive infrared analyzers for carbon dioxide, which show no interference from oxygen, and are even older.
But for sheer idiocy, no one tops Laszlo, who stated in his 2001 book Macroshift: Navigating the Transformation to a Sustainable World that the once familiar 21% oxygen content of the atmosphere has been affected, such that it “[d]ips to 19% over impacted areas, and it is down to 12 to 17% over the major cities.”
Never mind that a simple measurement at sea level anywhere in the world would yield 20.9%, or that 19.5% is essentially the universal safety standard for oxygen deficiency. All Laszlo had to do was consult any industrial hygiene reference book to discover these symptoms of oxygen deficiency:
19% Some adverse physiological effects occur, but they may not be noticeable.
15–19% Impaired thinking and attention. Increased pulse and breathing rate. Reduced coordination. Decreased ability to work strenuously. Reduced physical and intellectual performance without awareness.
12–15% Poor judgment. Faulty coordination. Abnormal fatigue upon exertion. Emotional upset.
Airline passengers are temporarily exposed to oxygen concentrations that can dip to 16%, and this is surely noticeable, even as they remain sedentary, or take a nap. Rest assured that you would notice 12–17% ambient oxygen in your everyday environment! Yet, Laszlo’s numbers, created out of whole cloth, and making no stoichiometric sense whatsoever, have been cited repeatedly.
Junk science must be sustainable.