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This is the definition I got from my entrepreneurship booklet:

"sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs"

followed by

"the key to the concept of sustainable development is the idea that we must take future generations into account when we make decisions and how we use the resources around us"

If this is an anti-concept, should we attempt to redefine it in order to combat environmentalism, or maybe even re-define the concept "environment"?

asked Oct 09 '10 at 01:08

Michael's gravatar image


edited Oct 09 '10 at 02:20

jasoncrawford's gravatar image

jasoncrawford ♦

In general, there are legitimate uses of the term "sustainable". For instance: "I've been working 80-hour weeks; that's not sustainable--I'm going to need a break soon."

I think even in a context like farming or forestry, "sustainable" might be a legitimate concept. I'm not sure--I'm not an expert in those areas.

However, environmentalists often claim or insinuate that all sorts of productive activity is "unsustainable". I don't think this is an anti-concept--I think the claims are just false in most if not all cases.

answered Oct 09 '10 at 02:17

jasoncrawford's gravatar image

jasoncrawford ♦

I agree with Jason. The concept of "sustainable" per se is fine. The problem is that, applied to the process of production, it is redundant. Production, the adjustment of nature to human ends, is a process of improving man's environment. It's a process of making the world more and more hospitable to human ends. There is nothing in that process that could conceivably be unsustainable. Production is sustainable production.

When environmentalists talk about sustainable production, what they are doing in my view is to deny that human beings produce. Their whole view of human survival is that we rape and defile nature, the way a vulture defiles a carcass. We take this wonderful, pristine value and tear it to pieces. Although they really don't have a concept of wealth, they in effect treat wealth as uncreated, and the pursuit of wealth by human beings as a zero sum game. This is why "sustainable" production for them really means non-production or less production--a lower standard of living.

Environmentalists are not supporters of sustainable production--they are enemies of production. But they can't state that openly. That's the source of the idea of sustainable development.

answered Oct 09 '10 at 08:46

Publius's gravatar image

Publius ♦


Excellent points. I would add that every form of altruism tries (most of the time) to pass itself off as a form of self-interest. The Communists promised bountiful wealth in future generations; even Christianity promises an infinite reward in the afterlife for your present sacrifice. The greens are no different--they claim that disasters are coming, that our present system of industry is "unsustainable", and that we must repent our sins and forswear our foolish ways for our own good.

(Oct 09 '10 at 15:01) jasoncrawford ♦ jasoncrawford's gravatar image

As defined in the question, the essential of "sustainable development" is concern for future generations, and their development.

The question one must ask here is: why should we sacrifice our present quality of life for the sake of people we don't know, nor have any personal interest in? This is not the same thing as investing in your own quality of life by creating a better world for people you love or will love. Helping people you love makes your life better. That's why you do it.

Holding "sustainability" as a value is to make your own life worse, for the sake of people you will never associate with.

On top of this, how can we even predict what kinds of production future generations will engage in? Technology keeps improving. Solar power is considered a "sustainable" source of energy. But why should we stick only to solar power today, when fossil fuels are currently much cheaper, and when we will ultimately replace fossil fuels with something better?

The sustainability of any particular form of production is of dubious value. Each form of production ultimately becomes obsolete. We shouldn't choose how to produce based on the possibility of doing it forever, because we won't want to do it forever. We'll want to do something better in the future.

Sticking with "sustainable" technologies saddles future generations with ancient technology! It's really not the best thing for future generations.

Instead of doing what is sustainable, we should do what is most productive in the context of our current technology and knowledge.

To emphasize sustainable development is to plan for a world where technology never improves. That is not our world. But perhaps it is the world that advocates of sustainable development want.

answered Oct 09 '10 at 14:49

John%20Paquette's gravatar image

John Paquette ♦

edited Oct 09 '10 at 18:15

Good points, John, but you make it sound as if there's no reason to care about future generations. Giving something up now for the sake of future generations is not necessarily a sacrifice--especially if you have or plan to have children, but even if you don't.

(Oct 09 '10 at 15:05) jasoncrawford ♦ jasoncrawford's gravatar image

Good point. I've edited it to clear that up.

(Oct 09 '10 at 18:17) John Paquette ♦ John%20Paquette's gravatar image

Some good points, but I think there is at least one concession here we should avoid. "Solar power is considered a 'sustainable' source of energy." We should not accept the idea that solar power is sustainable but fossil fuels, for instance, aren't. Neither is an infinite source of energy; the sun will die out, for instance. The environmentalist will say: sure, by the for all practical purposes, the sun is an unlimited source of energy. Yes, and for all practical purposes, so are fossil fuels.

(Oct 09 '10 at 19:56) Publius ♦ Publius's gravatar image

Both are finite sources of energy, so both are unlimited? Huh?

Sounds like double-talk to me.

(Oct 10 '10 at 10:25) John Paquette ♦ John%20Paquette's gravatar image

No, really. Could you explain yourself? The sun, objectively, will last a lot longer than fossil fuels will. This distinction cannot be blurred, and I think it is a big enough difference between the two to warrant calling the use of one "sustainable" and the other "not sustainable". It's all a matter of the time frame you choose to speak about.

My main point is not that all forms of energy use are equivalently sustainable, but that sustainability as such is not of value.

(Oct 10 '10 at 20:03) John Paquette ♦ John%20Paquette's gravatar image

I don't know what the question is. From our perspective, oil is for all practical purposes unlimited. It's only finite in the sense that all energy is finite. In that sense it's no less "sustainable" than the sun. To put it differently, you're right that it's all a matter of the time frame you choose to speak about, and in the context of ensuring access to reserves for now and, say, the next four generations, then solar power and fossil fuel energy are equally "sustainable."

(Oct 10 '10 at 20:52) Publius ♦ Publius's gravatar image

ok here is a question on this same matter: would it be moral or objective to produce greener, safer products that are also biodegradable ? For instance in my field of chemistry there is a movement towards more greener and sustainable chemicals. basically they are safer for the environment, less hazardous chemicals and have proven life-cycle benefits.

(Oct 11 '10 at 02:02) Michael Michael's gravatar image

for instance look at this:

“There is a hunger in the marketplace for reliable, consistent,compelling information on which to base greener,more sustainable choices,” says Neil C.Hawkins, Dow Chemical’s vice president of sustainability and environmental health and safety. “Chemical companies need a life-cycle view—greenhouse gases, water, energy, renewables, waste reduction, recyclability—that encompasses all parts of the supply chain,” he says.

(Oct 11 '10 at 02:06) Michael Michael's gravatar image

Michael, if you have a new question, I recommend you submit it as such, rather than having it tag along with your existing question. That way this forum will be a bit more focused.

(Oct 11 '10 at 09:07) John Paquette ♦ John%20Paquette's gravatar image

Publius, if, indeed, we focus our time-frame on, say, the next 30 years, oil is just as unlimited as sunlight. But "sustainable", in the current context, means for the next 100 or 200 years anyway. Now, the price of oil might go down due to improvements in extraction technology, but there's no question that given current extraction tech, the price will keep going up as we use up the "easy" oil. Sunlight, however, will not go up in price at all unless we somehow trash the atmosphere and cover the world with clouds or smoke. So, solar energy is certainly comparatively sustainable.

(Oct 11 '10 at 09:14) John Paquette ♦ John%20Paquette's gravatar image
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Very excellent answers above. One additional point. Sustainability is typically used by environmentalists to express a disdain for the concept of prices. That is, they use this term to reflect a desire for factors other than price and personal value to enter into a transaction. "Don't buy that gas, because even though it's an extremely cheap source of transportation and would provide you far more value than it costs, some day, I don't know when, it might run out."

This ignores the fact, that in a free economy, prices reflect both present and future value. Thus, if an economy is free, then the "cost" of sustainability is already built into the price, and thus one may use cost alone to base one's judgment of the utility of a commodity. If gas is about to run out, speculators will observe this fact, and buy gas and store it, with the hopes of selling it in the future to make a profit.

Sustainability in the environmentalist sense of the world is really a useless concept.

answered Oct 13 '10 at 22:48

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John Hoffman ♦

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Asked: Oct 09 '10 at 01:08

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Last updated: Oct 13 '10 at 22:48