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Back in May, I noticed an article on CRISIS magazine’s website that I knew I wouldn’t have the proper time to devote to reading. It was titled, What Does “Sustainability” Really Mean?, so I added it to my menu bar for later perusal. It was worth the wait.
“Sustainability” is one of those watchwords which has found common usage across the political spectrum. On the left, it typically raises concerns about the environmental impact of humans using limited natural resources like water and fossil fuels. On the right, there’s more worry over the sustainability of a government or economic system burdened by $18 trillion of debt. Having read William M. Briggs’s excellent article hasn’t changed my mind about the latter, but it has given me pause about the concept of sustainability generally. There’s just so much we simply don’t (and can’t) know.
What are the known unknowns? Well, for starters, how much of the finite resource is currently available? Then, what will be the demand for the currently desired effect in the future (somewhat population dependent — another unknown)? Finally, will there be a replacement technology developed or some other factor which changes the rate of usage? Here’s how Briggs puts it:
The calculation is complicated. To decide if a non-renewable resource is unsustainable depends on how much of it there is, the changing rate of its use, and the number of people expected in the future. It also hinges on whether the non-renewable will remain non-renewable, that a substitute for the non-renewable will not be discovered, and that the effect caused by use of the non-renewable will always be desired. We must know all these things, else the point at which we run out of the non-renewable will be unknown. If we do not know all these things, it is wrong to claim use of a resource is “unsustainable.”
Ah, problems with limited information and an inability to predict the future duly noted. But, how does this relate to the Catholic Church, you may ask?
People. The Church’s concern is with people and their relationship to the Divine — something any fair-minded observer of the environmental sustainability movement will admit is incompatible with its goal of “minimal impact” on Pure Nature. In the New Manicheanism of environmentalism, people are the problem of evil. All would be right with Nature if it weren’t for dirty, rotten, filthy, wasteful people. Ptui!
It’s somewhat shocking then to learn that the Pontifical Academy for Science (PAS) has used the term “sustainable population” unironically. By doing so, it accepts the false premise that people and nature are separate with opposing interests, and it calls into question the PAS’s dedication to the idea of just Who Is the Author of Life. Whose side are they on anyway?!
This is where Malthus is usually invoked. But Briggs is helpful in explaining how we get Malthus wrong:
It is not that more people are encroaching upon more food sources, it is that more food leads to more people. Plentiful, cheap, and nutritious food caused, or rather allowed, the increase. Think: if there is not enough food, there cannot be an increase in population! It follows there cannot be “too many” people.
Briggs further explains there cannot be too many people in either the scientific or eschatological sense. He quotes Father Schall:
The root of the “sustainability mission,” I suspect, is the practical denial of eternal life. “Sustainability” is an alternative to lost transcendence. It is what happens when suddenly no future but the present one exists. The only “future” of mankind is an on-going planet orbiting down the ages. It always does the exact same, boring thing. This view is actually a form of despair. Our end is the preservation of the race down the ages, not personal eternal life.
“Sustainability” as it is commonly used by environmentalists is not just incompatible with the mission and ethic of the Church, it’s incompatible with the truth. Which is really a way of saying the same thing.
Pope Francis uses the word “sustainable” in its various forms over two dozen times in his environmental encyclical Laudato Si. This is a mistake. Sustainability is a false doctrine which should be rejected by the Church.
It will take me at least another six months to figure out if conservatives should also reject the idea of economic/fiscal sustainability. A little help?