(eg. if you eat pig's ears because you like pig's ears, that's cool. If you eat pig's ears because you got the whole pig and don't want to throw parts away, that's cool. If you eat pig's ears because you are trying to be a good "nose to tail"'er , that's fucking stupid.)
Anyhoo, I had a few realizations about what is that bothers me so much about "sustainability". First the obvious ones that I've known for a while :
"sustainability" is so expensive that it's only accessible to 10% of the population. When the vast majority of the population can't afford those products, they are inherently unsustainable, as in they do not support human life and they do not signficantly reduce the amount of factory farming , clear cutting , etc. A lifestyle which is only accessible to the rich cannot transform the earth.
The majority of "sustainable" products are unproven and may in fact not be sustainable, it's just a marketing word that doesn't correspond to any fact of actual low long-term impact on the earth. The fact is that the central valley of california and the fields of iowa have sustained "unsustainable" factory farming for the past 100 years or so, and despite predictions of imminent collapse, they are still feeding hundreds of millions of people for very low prices. On the other hand we get new coconut charcoal and bamboo or hemp or whatever which we don't really know how it will affect the earth in mass production on the long term.
Buying a bunch of new products because they are "sustainable" is of course highly ironic. The most destructive thing that modern society does is buy new junk every time there's a new trend, and this appears to be just another new trend, people throw out their unfashionable "unsustainable" stuff to buy new approved stuff, and will throw that out for the next trend. (also ironically, "minimalism" generally tends to involve buying new stuff).
High-paid low-yield gentleman farmers are inherently unsustainable. You cannot support a 7+ billion person planet with a good quality of life if the cost of a piece of lumber or a piece of fruit is so high and takes so much labor. Our quality of life (per capita) is entirely based on the fact that those things are so cheap and easy, so that we can spend more time producing TV shows and iPods. Now the more extreme hippie-ish end of the sustainability movement might espouse a true back-to-the-land lifestyle change where in fact people do spend more time laboring and don't get TV shows and iPods, but that is a small fringe, the main thrust wants the spoils of civilization.
Now a little equivocation. Buying "sustainable" junk is obviously a form of charity. When you spend much more on a "sustainable" version of a product, you are essentially donating the difference. Where does that donation go? Some (I suspect small) portion of it actually goes to benefiting the earth. Most of the rest goes to profit of the product maker. On that level, it is a very bad form of charity; your charity dollars would have a much greater direct benefit on the earth if you just bought normal products and donated the difference to direct action.
But it is a bit more complicated than that. For the most part I'm not delighted by exercising political expression through purchasing (it's far too easy to manipulate and take advantage of, and in the end the only thing that They care about is that you keep buying things like a good little consumer, so you really aren't winning) - however I can't deny that it does sometimes work. When industry sees that lots of consumers are willing to waste their dollars on "green" products, they do sometimes change their practices for the better, and the net result can be a greater impact than the amount of charity dollars suggest. That is, there is a sort of leverage if businesses think that the "political buyers" will continue spending lots of money far into the future, the businesses will make a change based on lots of *future* dollars. Thus something like only a few tens of millions of dollars in charity spending can actually create a hundred-million dollar product line transformation.
As an aside, I should note that there are lots of small scale "sustainable" endeavors that are basically irrelevant because they are inherently small scale and cannot ever have a significant effect on the planet. For example the reclaimed lumber movement, it's okay, I have no major objection to it (though it's not entirely clear that it's the best value for your charity lumber eco dollars), but it's just irrelevant to any large scale analysis because it can't significantly reduce commercial lumber use. The only sustainable businesses that matter are the ones that have the possibility to go large scale.
Anyhoo, the thing that occurred to me last night was that the large scale sustainable industry is basically built on the back of unsustainable industry.
What I mean is, the large-scale mass produced "sustainable" industry (eg. bamboo flooring, "sustainable" chocolate, etc) is largely about making products in the 3rd world and exporting them to the 1st world. First of all this is sort of inherently unsustainable and hypocritical because it relies on a massive income gap for affordability, essentially you have to have people in subsistence living conditions to subsidize this product, and a good liberal who is spending their charity dollars to direct the world towards a better future should not include that in their better future. But more directly, the workers in those sustainable factories could not live a decent life on their low wages without unsustainable industry. The only way they can be paid so low is because they can get cheap factory farm corn to eat, and cheap sneakers and clothes and everything they need to live. If they had to buy the expensive sustainable junk, they would have to have huge wages, which would make the product even more expensive, which would make it impossible.