Philosophy Student Questions Sustainability


Chris Jayne '13

Chris Jayne '13

Are we living beyond or within our means? Do our current activity patterns, the business-as-usual scenario, yield a sustainable society? Or are we already operating in an unsustainable manner? And if you do think we have a problem, how do we solve it? How do we effect a sustainable society?

Chris Jayne: The debate over these questions lines up along two major camps. First are the technological optimists. They variously claim that we are not living unsustainably or that our present mindset is up to the task of knocking down any problems that come our way.

There are several reasons not to worry, they say. The environmental alarmists speak of limits to finite resources, but many resources are effectively infinite if we can only access them. And technology is the key to that access. Artificial photosynthesis, new and inexpensive photovoltaic solar panels, nuclear power, and desalination of water are all technologies that unlock effectively infinite sources of energy and water. So technology has eliminated scarcities and allowed us to sustain growth in the past and will continue to do so in the future.

Another thing about technology: it is progressing incredibly fast and, furthermore, the rate of change of technology is itself changing. Our technological advancement is accelerating.

Finally, the internet with its democratization of the power to change the world has incredible potential to help us solve any challenges of unsustainability that confront us. We will have some three billion new internet users by 2020. That means three billion new minds connected to the global conversation and sharing ideas. This represents an unprecedented injection of human capital into the global economy. So sure, we may appear to have many intractable problems, but we are also getting better at solving humanity’s problems much faster than ever before. We should have more faith in our intelligence as a species than the doomsayers would have us do.

On the other side is a set of scholars who think that we are living unsustainably right now and that a broader, more fundamental change than the vision offered by the technological optimists is required to become sustainable. They reply to the optimists that techno-science solutions reduce unsustainability but do not create true sustainability. True sustainability requires a paradigm shift away from unfettered growth as the summum bonum of our economy and as our favored measure of the good life. The growth paradigm has led our society to behave like a teenager with a credit card, and if we don’t stop this binge the planet will.

These scholars speak of our current state of unsustainability not as a philosophical point but as an empirical claim. We are living in a finite world that has physical limits and abides by laws like entropy and conservation of mass, laws that render current economic practices absurd. Our way of relating to that world must reflect this reality. At the moment we are like Wile E. Coyote, running off the cliff in pursuit of the Road Runner and then starting to plummet earthward upon realizing that he is not obeying the law of gravity. Current average consumption levels require one and a half earths to be sustained, and if everyone tried to consume as much as the Americans, we would need five to six planets, the Global Footprint Network calculates. So we have already reached and are now exceeding earth’s carrying capacity and thus are living beyond our means. Maintaining our current trajectory means borrowing from the future.

The unsustainability of our current system is causing it to break down. This breakdown becomes apparent when one looks at our society as the integrated system that it is: the Occupy protests, rising inequality, money’s influence on politics, the debt crisis, rising gas and food prices, the sharp uptick in natural disasters in recent decades—all are symptoms of this painful process.

We are ignoring laws of nature; no amount of efficiency gains, technological innovation, and human ingenuity can get around that fact. And to think otherwise, as the cornucopians and optimists do, is delusional and naïve. We will need all the innovation and technology we can muster to get out of this one alive. But that alone is not enough. We also need a transformation in our fundamental way of relating to the world, a departure from the extractive, consumptive, and growth-addicted economy and way of life that sanctions the historical devaluation of nature and got us into this state of unsustainability in the first place. These scholars see it as their mission to nudge our adolescent civilization toward a new and wiser society and an ethos that represents a more mature relationship between humans and nature.

Who’s right? The twenty-first century will tell. Both sides make compelling arguments. My intuition is that both are right. We have historically been able to solve seemingly intractable problems time and time again. You underestimate human ingenuity at your peril. Yet the greens are correct too. The Copernican and Darwinian revolutions show us that one way to frame the story of civilization is as an extended lesson that we are not the center of the universe and the masters of nature. We have special qualities over and above the rest of life, but we are still animals and are still subject to the same ecological limits that govern snails. Our arrogance may be our undoing.