Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Sustainability, Horse Manure, and Carbon Emissions

Seeing how today is Earth Day, it wouldn't be appropriate for me to pass this day without mentioning it. What I want to focus on is what many environmentalists call “sustainability,” and explain why it is quite an odd concept.

The word “sustainability” has been part of our zeitgeist for so long that many people from environmentalists to economists bandy about the word without ever seeming to clearly define it first.

So, we must first define “sustainability.” Especially when it comes to political rhetoric, words can oftentimes mean something that is different from what the words mean in everyday speech. Therefore, in order to get a proper definition of sustainability, I thought that it would be best to get the definition from Greenpeace itself.

However, when I went to Greenpeace's website, I learned that there is no fixed definition that everyone can agree with. For instance, this one writer thinks that sustainability means:

  • No longer being necessary to bulldoze forests, erode soils, drain aquifers, dam rivers, deplete non-renewable resources, and fill the atmosphere, land, rivers and oceans with our waste.
  • Valuing localized trade over globalization, without relying on fossil fuels to ship food and materials around the world.
  • Including social justice, because our current state of injustice breeds conflict, violence and additional destruction of nature.

And those were only three of his very long list of what he thought had to be achieved for his definition of sustainability to be satisfied.

The most succinct definition that I found is a quote from the World Commission on Environment and Development, which defines sustainability as:

Meeting the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

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That sounds like it would be difficult to argue against. However, there is a problem with that logic. The logic only makes sense if we know for certain that the things we do today will be the same things that future generations will be doing in the indefinite future.

A good example that shows that we cannot know for certain how the future will unfurl is the Great Horse Manure Crisis of 1894. In the nineteenth century, cities such as London and New York City were home to tens of thousands of hansom cabs. All those horses, of course, produced massive amounts of manure and urine, which attracted flies, which in turned caused further problems such as the spread of typhoid fever.

That year, The Times newspaper predicted:

“In fifty years, every street in London will be buried under nine feet of manure.”

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Obviously, that prediction never came to pass due to the invention of the automobile (not to mention Henry Ford's ability to mass produce them).

Had the governments of the world at the time heeded the environmentalists' dire predictions, and adopted sustainability as an important goal of environmental protection, such a program might have included the preservation of grazing land for all those horses into the indefinite future and the creation of jobs that involve manure removal. In other words, the government would have prepared for a future that was never going to come.

So we have to ask ourselves this important question. Are we today so much wiser than our ancestors that, unlike them, this time, we know for a fact that what we are doing today will still be done in the indefinite future? We have not yet even seen the full potential of Bitcoins and 3-D printing!

Today, the concerns of environmentalists is not drowning in horse manure, but rather from the melting polar ice caps due to the increase in the amount of man-made carbon gases.

But is the emission of carbon gases something to be that overly worried about? Case in point, the cost of producing solar energy is getting cheaper. Furthermore, industry experts also think that even with the recent fall in oil prices, increased oil consumption will not come at the expense of solar energy. Assuming that current trends continue, in about a decade or two, fossil fuels will no longer be needed for much of their current purposes.

Also, there is a team of young scientists here in Korea who are currently developing a new plasma technology that could potentially convert carbon dioxide and methane into hydrogen and carbon monoxide, which could then be sold at a hefty profit. Assuming that this technology pans out, and combine that with continuously declining costs of solar energy, it becomes conceivable that worrying about carbon emissions might become a thing of the past.

Of course, this is not to suggest that people ought to pollute like as though there will be no tomorrow. After all, breathing in clean air is much more pleasant than breathing in air that has been saturated with coal ash.

However, the rush to cut oil consumption or coal consumption, finite sources of energy, in order to ensure that the needs of the present generation are met without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs, might be an unwarranted act of fear.

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