What is Sustainability? Even the Experts Struggle with its Complexity

Many folks toss about the term, “sustainable” quite cavalierly these days. Like “green products” and “green consumption,” it often implies that a practice or product can continue as part of the industrial-consumer economy for a very long time. Yet the global corporate economy as presently constituted is hardly sustainable itself.

Well, quite often the product or practice touted as “sustainable” is not, since it is intimately entangled with the global corporate economy of endless growth, which all the evidence demonstrates is clearly not sustainable for more than a couple of decades or so. Is that as far ahead as we dare look?

Even some forms of “renewable” energy are not all that sustainable when we consider their relationship to the global extractive economy. Take so-called “renewable natural gas,” for example. The only natural form of natural gas comes out of the ground and is not renewable.

An Important Exercise in Seeking Sustainability

Last week, I attended an important conference on “Sustainability: Transdisciplinary Theory, Practice, and Action,” (STTPA) in Toronto, Canada, at the Mississauga campus of the University of Toronto (UTM). It is a beautiful campus set in a wooded environment outside the central city. Some of the newer buildings conform to the LEEDS standards for energy efficiency. A real concern for sustainability seems to pervade the campus culture.

UTM CampusThe Mississauga campus even has a master’s degree program in Sustainability Management, led by Professor Shashi Kant, who also organized this first sustainability conference, slated to repeat every two years. The conference demonstrated both the importance of developing sustainable lifeways and economic systems in the very near future and the difficulty in clarifying what really is sustainable and what is not.

In my post last week, while I was at the conference, I pointed to the problem of “renewable natural gas” not being sustainable, as well as not really being “natural.” How can waste from over-consumption be sustainable when the global system of extraction-production-consumption-waste on a finite planet overpopulated by overconsuming humans be sustainable? After all, the global economy driven by capital accumulation generated by over-production and over-consumption has already overshot the Earth System’s capacity to sustain it.

The End of Endless Growth

An exceptionally articulate presentation by Brett Caraway, “Interrogating Amazon’s Sustainability Innovation,” explained the ultimate unsustainability of Jeff Bezos’ model of corporate growth expressed in the unprecedented growth of Amazon. The Amazon growth story is the epitome of endless corporate economic expansion that will surely end sooner than almost anyone imagines. The presentations at the conference will be published online as Proceedings of the STTPA.

These were not the only important issues for human survival into the Anthropocene explored during this international conference of diverse professionals, academics, businesspersons and government officials.

Of course, anyone concerned with the destruction of ecosystems, the destabilization of the climate, and the increasing risks to human survival we face must consider what we can do to carve out a sustainable future. That was the goal of the conference. Much work remains to be done. As we move into the unpredictable forms of instability shaping up in the very near future, we must recognize that our own behavior and beliefs are fraught with contradictions and predicaments. Success will depend on the human ability to break out of conventional thinking and get very creative in our attempts to shape our own future.

Why Recycle? Sometimes the Necessary is Insufficient

I have been recycling for a long time. At first it was just aluminum cans and glass bottles, especially when there was a deposit to collect. Then plastic grew to dominate the world of packaging. Of course, the process has gotten more sophisticated in the last couple of decades. Remember the 5¢ redemption on glass bottles, ‘mid-twentieth century’? Why, I even remember the milkman collecting the empty glass milk bottles when he delivered our milk when I was a little boy in the late nineteen-forties. But that was re-use, not recycling. I suspect those glass milk bottles, when cracked, chipped, or broken, were just thrown in the trash. But their useful lives had been extended beyond twenty-first century imagination. I sometimes remember little details about my post-WWII childhood better than what I came into this room for a moment ago. But that perspective also gives a sense of what is possible and what is necessary outside the twenty-first century framing of “prosperity.” Today’s consumerism is driven by the high-tech petroleum-based industrial culture of perpetual economic growth and one-use post-consumer waste.

AParallelWorld.com (APW) is a new Website dedicated to helping consumers live a “parallel lifestyle” by buying only ecologically sustainable products and services. Living a parallel strategy can be done now, even though the economic culture would have you think otherwise. While not always obvious, many consumer decisions involve making a ‘mainstream’ or a ‘parallel’ buying choice. Buying organic lettuce, for example, involves avoiding the heavily fossil-fuel based industrial agriculture. Less petroleum inputs such as insecticides, herbicides, synthetic fertilizers, and fuel for giant industrial harvesting machines and long-distance trucking, etc., all contribute to lower carbon emissions. But then the proliferation of plastic packaging of produce, whether organic or not, ups the carbon cost of eating.

Plastic Proliferation

Plastic Proliferation

To be honest, I hate plastic “clam shell” produce containers. Last week, I went to Whole Foods to get some butter lettuce for a salad my wife was to make for the APW holiday reception. Despite its well-deserved “whole paycheck” reputation, I marvel at the diversity of fresh and varied food products from around the world available there. It is the only place in the middle of the Southwest desert where you can pick up some “not previously frozen” fresh Alaskan halibut – just a day out of the sea – if you happen to have that increasingly rare upper middle class income. Many prepared salad ingredients are displayed along an entire isle. “Mixed baby greens,” pre-washed spinach leaves, Romaine hearts, etc., are all neatly packed in plastic containers. Ah, the conveniences afforded the remnants of the upper middle class!

Finally, the recycling of plastic in “progressive” Santa Fe has reached beyond the limits of No. 1 and No. 2 plastic bottles. Now, most numbered plastics can be recycled. Yet, as we are able to recycle more, the proliferation of plastic, plastic-paper combined, and unidentifiable fused materials combinations used in ever more complex packaging systems just accelerates. Ultimately, something is wrong with the whole industrial cycle that creates such a growing need for additional recycling.

Images of wholesome fresh organic food are belied by the carbon cost of the food-presentation fetish of marketing strategies that require more recycling. Increasingly necessary, recycling is yet another carbon emitting industrial process. The proliferation of complex packaging systems matches the expanded technologies for the production of diverse plastic packages themselves. I have noticed more and more plastic packages that have no recycling code at all. Who is exempt and why? Sometimes the recycle triangle with number is so feint and obscurely placed as to suggest an intent that it not be seen. Is the ethic of recycling contributing to the expansion of the growing abundance of “post-consumer” waste by reducing the pressure on overloaded landfills? Perhaps, but something deeper is at play.

In the cultural context of prolific consumption and waste, recycling is the proverbial finger in the dike, hardly holding back the flood of anthropogenic ecological disaster. We could recycle everything and it would not stop global warming before it reached the point of no return from climate catastrophe and social chaos. Paradoxically, recycling is another fossil-fuel dependent industry. Don’t get me wrong. Recycling is absolutely necessary, but it is also absolutely not sufficient. If the parallel strategy really takes hold and works, there should be far less need for recycling.

There is a big difference between “re-use” and “recycle.” Those glass milk bottles in the nineteen-forties were re-used many times before they were probably discarded instead of recycled. Their surface showed the wear of repeated insertion and removal from those old heavy-metal wire baskets during their long life of re-use. Their utility was not wasted on today’s obsession with “single-use.”

It is sort of like the carbon tax we have failed to implement. The cost of producing so much “post-consumer waste” must be accounted for at the point of extraction for manufacture. Otherwise, we are just kidding ourselves. The extraction and burning of fossil-fuels should be taxed at the point of extraction. So should the production of plastic packaging. The revenue generated by a direct tax on carbon energy production – think Exxon-Mobil – should be used to convert energy production to the simplest forms of renewable technologies now available. And part of the increased price should be rebated to those who cannot afford to shop at Whole Foods.

In the same vein, the production of plastic packaging should be taxed at the point where it is prepared for introduction into the commercial environment – the factory. What is most important about consumer waste is that it can only be reduced by constraining its production. If all, or even half, of the butter lettuce is contained in plastic clam-shells, we have lost. In such circumstances, the consumer has little or no choice, and the energy and materials wasted hurry us along to climate catastrophe. The most important thing about recycling is the necessity of reducing its necessity.

Making Money and Losing It

Ever wonder why you just can’t “get ahead”? Well, it’s all part of the larger scheme of things. Oh, I know, some folks do get ahead in one way or another and to one extent or another. But only the very few – the less than one percent – really make money and keep it or even accumulate enough wealth to leave a sizable inheritance to their children. The number of Americans literally living from hand to mouth has grown astoundingly high, especially since the ascendancy of the new financial elites with the deregulation of financial markets. To understand it all we have to step outside of our ordinary ways of thinking about money, value, and our lives.

In a moral economy, things would be different. But that’s not where we live. Our economic system has devolved from open competition of individual entrepreneurs in wide open environments, to a closed system of centralized economic growth in denial of limits. The perpetual-growth economy is controlled by giant investment banks and hedge funds and runs on debt-based money. That means money is created by debt itself.

On first thought that doesn’t make much sense; money is supposed to represent value, not debt. But that is not how it has been set up ever since the private central banks were given control, indeed ownership, of the creation of money. Instead, money is a product of the strange relationship between the nation and its private bankers. The Federal Reserve System was established as the “lender of last resort.” in 1913. This was meant in part to respond to fiscal crises such as the financial panic of 1907. The other part was a quiet takeover of the money system by the big private investment banks.

Making Money by Indebting a Nation
Some argue that the creation of the Fed as an independent agency was in fact a takeover of the function of a national central bank by the private bankers of the time. That view has significant historical validity. Though chartered by the U.S. Congress, the Federal Reserve System consists of twelve tax-exempt regional Federal Reserve Banks organized and operated as private corporations. Most importantly, the Fed was given control over the creation and lending of money.

Absurd as it sounds – and ever so costly –the national currency is not created by the Treasury. The Treasury only acts as a printing shop for the Fed. In effect, the Fed is a private banking cartel that lends to the government and to member banks the money it creates by generating public debt. So, to conduct its operations, the government has to “borrow” money from the Fed, which sells Federal Notes and Bonds to represent that debt. The U.S. Treasury can only offset that debt by collection of income taxes and other revenue. A lot of technicalities in this process obscure the basic fact that the right of the nation to produce its own money was high jacked by the biggest banks – “members” of the Fed – back in 1913. That has cost us all dearly ever since.

The Federal Reserve issues Federal Reserve Notes and Bonds. These draw interest for the buyer and charge the government, in whose name the Fed issues these debt instruments. So, the money the government ‘spends’ is owed to those institutions which ‘buy’ from the Fed the bonds and notes that signify the debt. One might say that the Fed is a “free rider” middleman. This process indebts the government – that is, the people – for all the currency, whether paper or electronic, that the Fed issues as part of its monetary policy.

Perpetuating Public and Personal Debt for Fun and Profit
The government becomes indebted in its turn to the ‘creditor’ institution or nation that bought the bond, for its face value plus any interest that accrues over time. The Fed is owned by its member private Big Banks, which have a sweet deal we’d all love to get a piece of but never will. The Fed issues credit to the Big Banks, say a billion dollars, and the Big Banks in turn loan out many multiples of the billions it ‘borrows’ from the Fed. Since the crash of 2008, the deal has been especially sweet, since the Fed charges a near zero interest rate. The Big Banks get to charge market rates for multiples of the funds borrowed for next to nothing. Huge profits beget huge bonuses for bank executives, not to reward some kind of executive performance, but for their just ‘being there.’

We should all be so lucky. But we are not. The average person, small business, or even not-so-well connected corporation has to borrow from the institutions run by the financial elite – the Big Banks – in order to initiate a major project of whatever kind. That borrowing had to be paid back with interest, so that whatever is done with the money has to “earn” more money than was borrowed in order to pay back the loan. That is often not easy. Just paying a mortgage seems to take forever. Even at a “reasonable” interest rate for a thirty year mortgage, most folks “pay back” more than double what we originally borrowed.

But in any case, what most people don’t understand is that the result of all this is that more money is always owed than is “out there.” If every loan requires repayment plus interest, where does the interest come from? Well, from “profit” or from wages, if the borrower is lucky. But that profit or wage comes from money already in circulation; that money in circulation was also created as debt. So, the only way for all money owed to be paid back is for more debt to be created, releasing more dollars into the money supply, paying off prior debt.

Reaching the End Game
Sound like a Ponzy scheme? If it does, that means you are paying attention. It is essentially no different than a Ponzy scheme. The whole house of cards stands on a perpetual expansion of debt that enables previous debt to be paid and the system to continue. That is only one of the reasons why the debt based economics of endless growth cannot ultimately be sustained. Debt cannot be expanded indefinitely.

There is another reason the debt-based growth economy cannot continue indefinitely. As with any exponential scheme of expansion, the limits of its environment eventually constrain it from continuing. That is where we are today with reference to “capitalism as we know it” and the material limits of the planet earth.

If you know anything about population growth, you recognize that a seemingly small percentage rate of growth after a few generations results in a very large number of people. From our current world population of around seven billion, growing at a moderate rate, we will soon have a population that by anyone’s measure cannot be sustained on one planet. One additional fact is important. A relatively small proportion of world population participates in the industrial growth economy but everyone else – of course – wants to. That is why more and more people everywhere find it increasingly difficult to “get ahead.” The game is almost over; it has reached its limits. Current world financial instabilities are symptoms. Economies with social purpose must replace mindless growth for the purpose of concentrating wealth in fewer and fewer hands.

Another way is possible and necessary. Money is inherently a public good. It is an inherent right of the nation itself to maintain sovereignty over its monetary system. The central banking system should be nationalized and subjected to public policy rather than be driven by private profit for financial elites in opposition to the public interest. Then, money could be based on credit, properly invested in the public interest, and thereby eliminate most of the false public debt it has caused by having been privatized.