11/25/2011

11-25-11 - Sustainability

I've always had a sour feeling about the "sustainability" movement, but I haven't been quite sure why exactly. As a knee-jerk reaction, I feel uneasy about any of the cultish movements where people get overly devoted to a narrow worldview, and tend to get into a dogma where adherence to the movement is more important than logically pursuing the original goals. So for example there are lots of current movements which I basically agree with, like "nose to tail" and "locavorism" and "minimalism" and so on, I think the basic ideas are great, but the movements themselves tend to be weird and actually kind of ruin the idea that I like so much by making it dogmatic.

(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.

12 comments:

nereus said...

I tried to disagree.

But I failed. I agree. I already agreed.

Other implications abound.

Ian McMeans said...

I think this sums it up nicely:
http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/20/opinion/20budiansky.html

The most moral thing you can probably do is to live as cheaply as possible (even if that means buying from walmart), and donating your money to whatever you think is the most beneficial cause.

Viktor said...

I have a really big difficulty understanding how can sustainable products and technology be produced when the primary motive for production is profit.

To produce fully sustainable stuff the tech behind the production must be advanced enough. Advancing technology requires a lot of R&D which is very expensive and does not guarantee success.

Finally the effects of these sustainable products are of questionable value. Why should I, as an investor, spend money when reduction of waste, better health of people which I don't know and less pollution will most likely not yield more money for me? I guess it comes down to being a "good" person but it obviously doesn't work that way. Even if you are good and spend a lot on sustainable products, chances are you will be destroyed by competition which takes the easier way and produces cheaper products. That competition and strife to achieve things in the easiest possible way is the enemy of sustainability and swift development of new and better production technology. This is how business works and I don't see it changing by itself.

ryg said...

"The most moral thing you can probably do is to live as cheaply as possible (even if that means buying from walmart), and donating your money to whatever you think is the most beneficial cause."
Note that a lot of charities spend somewhere between 50% and 95% on salaries and overhead. Cynical me says that's not surprising because charities are all about the donators (=their customers) feeling good about themselves, and basically none of them ever see what happens to the money, so they're heavily incentivized towards being visible. Which leads to a lot of money being wasted on ridiculous PR stunts: fly a D-list celebrity+camera team to Africa to hand out 100 loafs of bread to poor children=good and great photo op; spending the same money on getting a stable local food supply chain going=bad because it'll never make it to glossy magazine covers.

Aaron said...

basically none of them ever see what happens
This is one of the most surprising things to me about the modern age. High quality video footage can be produced cheaply. Low quality video footage is ubiquitous via cell phone video. Yet, there is no in-your-face coverage of conditions around the world (or the country, or state, or county, or city, or neighborhood). There is still no coverage (in the general sense of the world) of anything except packaged television, which just keeps getting worse.

I'd like to see something that is like a crowd-sourced 'state of the world'. You submit your own media of the way things are (shoot some video of your drive to work and upload it. Multiply by thousands of people around the world, bin it up and make it searchable. You wanna know what a drive to work is like, generally speaking, in Witchita? Then use a reddit-style upvote/downvote thing with moderation and produce channels that bubble the higher-quality a content / interesting stories to the top.

cbloom said...

"Note that a lot of charities spend somewhere between 50% and 95% on salaries and overhead."

Well, isn't the point to spend it on salaries? That's like saying private industry spends 95% of its revenue on materials and salaries! OMG!

I believe that huge overheads in charities are mostly a myth created by the anti-charity right wing. (just like the myth of massive corruption in unions).

For example, charitynavigator claims 70% of charities have less than 25% overhead :

http://www.charitynavigator.org/index.cfm?bay=content.view&cpid=48

and as many have pointed out, overhead is not a great way to judge charities. (it's a lot like judging kids with standardized tests, it doesn't actually measure effectiveness)

"Which leads to a lot of money being wasted on ridiculous PR stunts: fly a D-list celebrity+camera team to Africa to hand out 100 loafs of bread to poor children=good and great photo op"

I can't imagine that this is actually a significant amount of money. Sure it stands out as very visibly wasteful, but raising awareness is a valid part of a charity's activities. I think it's sort of like the CEO's flying private jets thing; it's very easy to pinpoint and attack as wasteful, but in fact it's not a bad thing to be doing at all.

igs said...

I agree 100% that 'movements' like this are completely irrational and mostly just equal ways for yuppies to feel good about themselves and companies to profit off of that feeling.

Still, modern civilization does use a lot of resources that aren't sustainable in the long term. For example, Iowa cornfields are as productive as they are in large part because of cheap oil and mined fertilizers, both of which are unsustainable over a medium-to-long horizon. Heck, you can make a compelling argument that we've already run out of 'cheap' oil, for example.

I'm curious how you think the planet will eventually transition to supporting N billion people in a purely sustainable way in some medium-to-long term future.

cbloom said...

igs, obviously that's a hard question and I don't know the answer; it is good that we are at least starting to think about it now, even if I don't think the current approaches are doing much good.

A few points -

#1 I think betting against science and big industry is almost always a bad bet. eg. maybe traditional petroleum-derived fertilizer will be replaced with genetically engineered nitrogen-fixing bacteria? I think there are plenty of reasons to not like the experiments that Monsanto/ADM/etc. are playing with our earth, but thinking that they will stop being able to manipulate the earth to their liking is not one of those reasons.

Along that line, places like Iowa are basically fucked, right. I mean they are nowhere near their natural state any more. I'd rather see those areas continue to be industrial agriculture playgrounds, and have as many un-damaged areas of the earth preserved. The "sustainability" movement is oddly doing the opposite; it is contributing to clear cutting in the 3rd world, to plant switchgrass for biofuel or bamboo or coconut plantations to supply coconut syrup or whatever nonsense "sustainable" product of the moment.

#2 it's quite possible that a true "sustainable" future involves a lower standard of living for most of the western world. (this is sort of a consequence of globalization anyway). But I still doubt that that lower standard of living involves locally grown food. It's just not viable.

Expartend said...

"High-paid low-yield gentleman farmers are inherently unsustainable."

I disagree. A more sustainable, but lower yield farmer could still easily feed many people, without resorting to destructive practices.

The thinking that we require many low paid and slave laborers to have a decent lifestyle is really just an effect of wealth inequality, wasteful production, and pressured spending on wasteful things. I'd venture to say we could easily raise living standards for more of the world in aggregate if we bought the right things for a fair price.

Trendy buying, while not actually reducing your footprint, is really just a larger problem of wasteful production and spending.

I'm actually surprised you came to this conclusion, when some time ago you mentioned that spending money on government is a plus for the economy and qol rather than cuts, due to paying salaries for more employees, which would directly filter back into the economy. The goal of sustainable and fair products is to produce a similar effect -- better quality of life for more people. The spending just has to be way more smart than it is currently.

It also seemed like a bit of circular reasoning to say that sustainable products are supporting unsustainable industry, because poor people making stuff would need to buy unsustainable. How would buying unsustainable products actually help in that regard? Those people would still be paid crap, and would still need to buy unsustainable crap.

To the other poster: buying from walmart is essentially wasting money on paying off shareholders and upper level management, and is simply a poor way to stop unethical practices (since you're actually reinforcing lower wages and giving such businesses more power). Charities are great, but are really there due to the economic and material inequality in society, and are actually another example of wasted production that we wouldn't need if we simply spent our money in fair ways.

Expartend said...

"I think betting against science and big industry is almost always a bad bet. eg. maybe traditional petroleum-derived fertilizer will be replaced with genetically engineered nitrogen-fixing bacteria?"

Basically, we can spend money on trying to reduce footprint and inequality now by buying alternative, or wait until big businesses can no longer sell unsustainable products and finally find alternative means for us. I'd choose the former.

I'm not betting against tech by any measure, but betting that following our current path of buying unsustainable and inequitable products simply because big industry can fool many of us is a bit self defeating, which was also the vibe I got from the post.

Also, my hate for Monsanto is due to my love for tech and science. Their patents are harmful to the future of science and living. They also research into the worst possible scenarios to increase profit. Instead of coming up with plants that resist pests, they create plants that resist pesticide. That's neither efficient or healthy.

cbloom said...

"I disagree. A more sustainable, but lower yield farmer could still easily feed many people, without resorting to destructive practices."

Perhaps he can feed "many" , but many fewer, at a much higher cost. If apples cost $4 a pound instead of 0.50 a pound, for most people that's a huge hit to their quality of life. Basically you push most of the world back into barely being able to afford to eat.

Thinking that "simple living" is okay or that expensive products are okay or "consuming less" is okay are all twisted indulgences of the rich.

"The thinking that we require many low paid and slave laborers to have a decent lifestyle is really just an effect of wealth inequality,..."

I'm sure we could have a "decent" lifestyle, but the current very high and easy standard of living would decline.

"The goal of sustainable and fair products is to produce a similar effect -- better quality of life for more people."

It sounds like you're suggesting that wealth redistribution is part of the goal, and that a simpler less-consumerist way of life may be the only sustainable future. That's fine with me, but that's not the way most of the sustainable industry presents it.

"It also seemed like a bit of circular reasoning to say that sustainable products are supporting unsustainable industry,"

That's not what I said. I said that sustainable products are supported BY unsustainable industry. Which makes them really just an exploitative illusion.

Expartend said...

"Perhaps he can feed "many" , but many fewer, at a much higher cost. If apples cost $4 a pound instead of 0.50 a pound, for most people that's a huge hit to their quality of life. Basically you push most of the world back into barely being able to afford to eat."

A lot of unsustainable practices don't actually increase food production by the several fold that we're lead to believe. Factory farming will tend to grab onto small monetary gains at a larger cost to long term ecological and economic viability -- even if it means production will be decreased in the longer run.

The reason I combine wealth redistribution with the goals is because usually the goals of those who do care (not as part of a fad) about these things tend to combine them, and since we were on the subject of charity and the cost of our products. The products that do tend to cost the most are usually the more sustainable and fair trade ones (but not moreso than other luxury goods already on the market), but comparing their prices to entrenched and mature industry using more heavily subsidized components isn't really fair either.

The true cost of a product are really things like the materials, research, and amount labor that goes into it. If wealth does increase for the lowest earners, then it really becomes an issue of whether we have the resources to dedicate to more sustainable living -- which I believe we do.

I do agree that much of our industry will have to stay the same for some time. Trying to go for 100% sustainable living isn't really reasonable. It's a transformative process and tech gains will have to take a part of regardless due to over population

"That's not what I said. I said that sustainable products are supported BY unsustainable industry. Which makes them really just an exploitative illusion."

It's a matter of reduction and will be a balancing act. Calling it an illusion would mean that buying sustainable is actually producing net unsustainable materials more. I don't believe that to be the case, since that unsustainable industry at other layers of the chain would still be there regardless. Same for people buying trendy junk, it'd still happen. Same for slash and burn (the destructive kind, there's an ecologically sustainable version), which sustainable farming is actually suppose to mitigate, not increase. Are things like minimalism really increasing consumption of goods over any considerable amount of time? Their positive effects can be overstated, but I don't think it's worth deriding certain movements over, rather than certain people.

old rants