Thursday, November 10, 2011

A few thoughts on sustainability

While some people continue to deny or belittle ecological issues, others have realised that the Earth we live on is reaching its carrying capacities for this culture we've created for ourselves, which is one of degradation, extraction, greed, rape, injustice, and violence towards people and place. Many people have consequently started talking about "sustainability," and I have written about this concept many times. So many of us have started reacting to the growing crises we see around us--great efforts have curbed pollution, set in place laws that industry must comply with, and created international laws of all kinds (customary, soft, conventions). But at the same time, we have based many of our actions on the assumption that we can still continue to extract from this Earth, produce, manufacture, technologise. Indeed, very few have openly fought out against large-scale centralisation of governance structures and economies. (Although, thank goodness that the Occupy movement has threads of these messages running through it.) We all come across that Brundtland Commission definition of "sustainable development." This definition has monopolised the world's thinking on sustainability. Indeed, sustainability has come to mean "sustainable development."

But wait, wait, wait. It seems that we have lost track of the question we are trying to answer. What is sustainability? How does this question, and its framing, dictate outcomes? (When you have a hammer in your hand, everything looks like a nail.) What is the world we envision for ourselves, and how do we value the world we live in now? More generally, what is the value of the world to us? Does the world in itself have intrinsic value, or is that value only a human value that we prescribe to it? (Of course there are aesthetic values we place on everything. Aesthetics are what makes a mountain beautiful, even though it may have very little commercial value otherwise.) The reason I am asking these questions is because I want to hear your thoughts.

Jason, who always provides me with inspiration, told me how thinking about sustainability quickly leads him down a path of existentialism. But maybe that is the path of inquiry we all need to take. What is the point of living in this culture, which we are made to believe is continually trying to emancipate us from the bonds that hold us back in the past and allow us to do things more "efficiently," "without effort," "abundantly," if we don't have time to think for ourselves?

I went to a talk today given by Dr. George Crabtree, a pretty famous materials scientist from Argonne National Labs in Illinois, and a member of the National Academy of Sciences. In the beginning, he mentioned how geopolitics, along with climate, affect the supposed costs conventional sources of energy, like crude oil. He then transitioned to talking about the movement away from these conventional sources by talking about the potential sustainability of the usual suspects of sustainable energy production--hydrogen, solar energy, batteries, biofuels, nuclear. But I wondered, Where are you going to get the materials needed to make your batteries and magnets and solar panels? Where will you get the lithium, lanthanum, neodymium, and other rare earth elements? Well, the largest deposits of lithium lie in Bolivia (but also in Afghanistan, now!), with an indigenous President who threatens vested interests by instituting land reform (read/listen here and here), and says "Either capitalism dies, or Planet Earth dies." At the same time, the largest deposits of rare earth metals lie in China (here's something for the techies). What will a country like the US do to get access to large reserves of lithium or rare earths? Well, maybe they go to war or assassinate those whose views are markedly different than their own.

Please do not get me wrong and call me a neo-Luddite. It seems to me, though, that if we cannot take a step back and hit the pause button for a second, that any conceptualisations we have of sustainability will be made to look like a nail because of the hammer we have in our hands. 

No comments:

Post a Comment