What Does “Sustainability” Really Mean?

The Pontifical Academy for Science’s summary of their recent conference on sustainability, itself anticipating our Holy Father’s (supposed) environmental encyclical, is suffused with scientific inaccuracies, some small, others large. But these are forgivable, considering the hearts of its authors are in the right place; and perhaps the theology of the document is sound.

The PAS said, “Unsustainable consumption coupled with a record human population and the uses of inappropriate technologies are causally linked with the destruction of the world’s sustainability and resilience.” What is “sustainability”?

If a resource is limited, in the sense of it being finite and non-renewable, then any use of it whatsoever diminishes its stock and makes that part of it unavailable to others. Thus any use of a truly non-renewable resource is by definition unsustainable. With one proviso, if used at any rate greater than zero, it must eventually be depleted.

Now non-renewable means that which cannot be renewed. All resources on this planet are finite, because the earth is finite, and so everything is unsustainable given sufficient time. “For the sword outwears its sheath…” But some resources are finitely renewable in the sense that the resource can be used repeatedly, like aluminum in cans. And other resources are plainly non-renewable, such as coal and crude oil. Once they are used up, they are gone forevermore.

The Effect Of People
Enter the proviso. Any use of a non-renewable is unsustainable if the number of expected future people exceeds the per-person consumption rate. Suppose on average each person uses one gallon of oil per day. There are around seven billion people alive today. Assuming a steady population, over the next year these people will use around three trillion gallons of oil. If we estimate the stock of oil at one thousand trillion gallons, and if these (mostly fictional) numbers were to hold steady, then we’d have about three centuries of oil left.

The calculation is complicated. To decide if a non-renewable resource is unsustainable depends on how much of it there is, the changing rate of its use, and the number of people expected in the future. It also hinges on whether the non-renewable will remain non-renewable, that a substitute for the non-renewable will not be discovered, and that the effect caused by use of the non-renewable will always be desired. We must know all these things, else the point at which we run out of the non-renewable will be unknown. If we do not know all these things, it is wrong to claim use of a resource is “unsustainable.” Let’s take each item in turn.

There are tremendous uncertainties in estimates of non-renewable stockpiles. How much crude oil is left? There are many widely varying answers, but no consensus. How much uranium? How much coal? How many rare earth minerals? How much of some other substance which is not now seen as important but which, after some technological change or cultural innovation, will become crucial? All great questions, and all with wide plus-or-minus bounds.

The rate at which a thing is used depends on the number of people using it, which itself depends on culture and politics and the state of technology. We can form reasonable but imperfect guesses of consumption for the here-and-now, but forecasting use is fraught with danger. Even supposing a fixed population, no serious student of history can be comfortable projecting shifts in culture, and only the foolish are sure of what lies ahead technologically. Technology can change so that the resource used is needed more or needed less to produce the same effects, or technology can lead to the discovery of substitutes for the resource’s effects. Or the effects themselves—and this falls under culture—can be seen as less or more desirable.

We enjoy lighting in our abodes but no longer employ whale oil for this effect. This non-renewable resource would have been depleted given the population rise since 1900 and the increased demand for the effect. But—much of the increase in the demand was caused by the improving technology and the substitution of electricity. Nobody in 1900 came remotely close to predicting these changes. Who can say with any certainty what effects people a century hence will demand or how the effects demanded will be produced?

Are People Good Or Bad?
And you, be ye fruitful, and multiply; bring forth abundantly in the earth, and multiply therein. Evidently, God likes people; he likes having them about, and desires more of them. Contrariwise, environmentalists are suspicious of people; they don’t like having them about; some have even called people a “cancer.” God called creation Good. Environmentalists agree, but they idealize a state of Pure Nature, a place apart from Man, a state to which Nature can return if Man is removed. But Man in God’s scheme is inseparable from Nature.

God’s scheme has the merit of being scientifically correct. The PAS speaks of “human interference with the Earth System.” But Man’s presence is integral with every other species, and with the planet itself. And the same is true of other life, both with respect to Man and to Nature. Man developed in concert with other species and with the earth as a whole. Each part of Nature therefore necessarily touches each other. After Man’s arrival, he was forever unified with the whole of Nature. It is thus false to say, “That over there is Nature, and this Man.”

It is also false to say, “That over there is Nature, and these are aardvarks.” Or radishes. Nature must affect all life, and all life must affect all of Nature. The effects each species have will be different, of course, and vary in size and range. Life creates what Nature is. The PAS is wrong. While Man exists, it is impossible to “minimize” Man’s (or aardvarks’) “interference” with Nature. If any man (or aardvark) exists, there is no non-interference, there are only differing effects.

How Many Of Us?
Population began its rapid rise with the increase in technological sophistication, primarily agricultural innovation. As the late philosopher David Stove labored in vain to show us, people always get Malthus wrong: It is not that more people are encroaching upon more food sources, it is that more food leads to more people. Plentiful, cheap, and nutritious food caused, or rather allowed, the increase. Think: if there is not enough food, there cannot be an increase in population! It follows there cannot be “too many” people. The PAS speaks of a “sustainable population,” yet the number of people must always be equal or less than the number that can be supported. And, as we’ll see below, it is increasingly less.

To within a power of ten, and including those currently alive, there have lived about 100 billion people. How many does God want? Nobody knows, but He said there’d be many as like the stars of heaven. When does God want these people to be born? Nobody knows, not even environmentalists. How many more people will be born? We might be able to guess—and we need to, if we’re going to claim non-sustainability of any resource.

The number of future people cannot be infinite for two reasons, one scientific, one eschatological. The earth is finite, and the solar system is winding down, as it were. But these astronomical observations pale next to the promise God made us. Time will end. In the very last chapter of Summa Contra Gentiles, St Thomas said, “the movement of the heavens will cease when the number of men is complete.” Jesus will come again to judge the living and the dead. Maranatha. When? But of that day and hour no one knoweth, not the angels of heaven, but the Father alone. I stress this “no one” includes environmentalists, scientists, and even theologians.

Our bounds for future population numbers are thus necessarily loose. If Jesus comes in the next moment, there will be no more children; but if he tarries, we know he won’t tarry indefinitely. The best we can say are things like this: if Our Lord tarries until 2100, and given various other fallible assumptions about human behavior, there will be about X many more people.

Cultural Hubris
Let’s try—we will not be entirely successful—to characterize these fallible assumptions. Who are not having babies? Strangely, it’s those who are most comfortable with and in the world. People delay marriage and baby-making so that they can establish themselves, make money, and acquire things. It’s the successful who say they can’t make babies because they cannot “afford” them. Large families are also somewhat shameful. Nobody wants to be told they’re breeding like rabbits.

Another paradox. Particularly in the so-called First World, small families use relatively more resources than large.  Speaking on average, eight-person families do not have four times as many houses, cars, televisions and so forth as a childless couple. The eight eat more than the two, but perhaps not four times as well. The eight cannot afford to live as sumptuously, because they have to stretch their income.

Unless one is dedicated to God or to some other noble cause, having fewer or no children allows more time to be spent in the pursuit of wealth. Environmentalists like to point out that if the entire world lived as Americans do, resources would be depleted at a higher rate. This is true, ceteris paribus. But the environmentalist solution is to encourage people to have fewer children, and the lack of children allows people to focus more on themselves and thus use more resources! This is not the first time liberal policies would create the very problem they seek to solve.

Incompatible Weltanschauung
There are also theological difficulties created by the methods environmentalists advocate to reduce population: contraception, abortion, and the encouragement of sexual acts not directed toward procreation. Environmentalist ideology is not pro-, but is anti-creation. Profligacy and gluttony are sins, as both Catholics and Environmentalists agree. Yet though we sometimes fail to husband our resources wisely—there is much waste and improper pursuit of material wealth—having a second car is surely less morally perilous than killing a child (“aborting” both the unborn and born) or preventing its birth. Environmentalists would have us save our planet but lose our souls.

To state any non-renewable resource is unsustainable requires knowing many things which are difficult or nearly impossible to estimate. We need to know the amount of the resource now present, details of the technologies which use the resource, the effects desired, the nature of a changing culture, politics, and science, and more. Except in the simplest circumstances, certainty cannot be claimed. Yet the PAS would have us believe the end is nigh. Why?

The difference between environmentalist sustainability ideology and Catholic theology is people. People are a nuisance or a necessity, apart from or a part of Nature, created for the sake of themselves or for the sake of God. These worldviews are incompatible. This much is certain: if people stopped having babies, Mankind itself would be unsustainable. Father James Schall is right:

The root of the “sustainability mission,” I suspect, is the practical denial of eternal life. “Sustainability” is an alternative to lost transcendence. It is what happens when suddenly no future but the present one exists. The only “future” of mankind is an on-going planet orbiting down the ages. It always does the exact same, boring thing. This view is actually a form of despair. Our end is the preservation of the race down the ages, not personal eternal life.

Environmentalist eschatology is not Catholic. When the earth is all there is, you rage at the dying of the light and seek perfection everywhere but where it exists.

Editor’s note: In the image above, Pope Francis poses with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon at a Vatican sustainability conference in May. (Photo credit: UN photo / Mark Garten)

William M. Briggs

By

William M. Briggs is a consultant and adjunct Professor of Statistics at Cornell University, with specialties in medicine and the philosophy of science. He blogs at wmbriggs.com.

MENU