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“Sustainable.” People seem awfully fond of that word, using it more and more to the point where the XKCD guy figured out when the English language becomes only the word “sustainable” over and over and over again.
The problem with sustainability is that it assumes that, well, things can be sustained. That there exists a possible steady-state future where the environment isn’t harmed by mankind. We assume that, left to it’s own devices, the environment stays the same. The environment will change, and it will change in spite of our attempts to sustain it.
Species Will Go Extinct
Let’s face it, the pandas are doomed. If we stopped the habitat destruction; if we conjured new bamboo forests for them, they’d still die out. A species which is so singularly apathetic about reproduction isn’t going to win the natural selection Olympics. If you buy evolution at all then you know that species have been going extinct long before Homo Sap came on the scene. If we conserve nature as if it wasn’t touched by man, we’re consigning those species to die. Even cute and fuzzy species like the panda bear.
On the flipside, the theory of evolution predicts that new species will evolve. Conserving the environment as it exists now means we’ll have to root out those new species as well as preserve the old ones. This will only get harder as time goes by.
Long story short, pandas are unsustainable.
Litter is Only Temporary
Yes, even the bad kinds of litter. Look, it ain’t pretty going along the highway and looking at discarded plastic bottles. I’m embarrassed by it, the way you’re embarrassed if your dog piddles on someone else’s floor. And they tell us that plastic doesn’t decay. That might even be true right now. In the future?
Again, if you take the theory of evolution seriously then you should be keeping an eye on all those long chain hydrocarbons. Those things hold a lot of energy. Sooner or later something’s going to take advantage of that. There’s a great deal of difference between splitting sugars apart to regenerate ATP and chewing through PVC, but the existence of that much available energy creates options much like a fool and his money creates economic opportunity.
By creating huge piles of polyethylene, mankind has wedged another niche into the survival game. Sooner or later we’ll find a bacteria strain taking advantage of all that underutilized energy. And plastics will decay like anything else.
Glass too? Not glass. Silicon dioxide is about as burnt as anything can possibly be. There’s very little energy to extract. On the other hand, what’s the difference between a glass bottle and a rock? Aesthetically, a glass bottle looks uglier when it’s tossed in the ocean. But it’s still made of sand; eventually, the ocean will wear it back into sand.
Landfills Are Not Permanent. Neither Is Nuclear Waste
Landfills are, however, disgusting. Stuff that’s tossed into them doesn’t decay quickly. But more things than biodegradables get tossed into landfills. Think about any old and busted piece of electronics that ended up in the trash. All those aluminum cans that missed the recycling bin. All the stuff we toss out is also all the raw materials we need to build civilization. What’s the difference between a landfill and a mine? The price of aluminum.
And nuclear waste? Radiation can be nasty stuff. But every bit of radiation comes from an atom decaying into another element*. As it marches down that decay chain it eventually reaches a stable endpoint. That can take a real long time. However, every bit of radioactivity comes from an atom decaying; if it takes ’em a real long time to decay they’re going to emit less radioactivity on a minute-by-minute basis. The more dangerous the isotope, the more quickly it goes away.
And there are uses for nuclear waste. I mean aside from generating superheroes. I’ll save you the reading, and link to a talk by Kirk Sorensen about the useful things you can find in nuclear waste. Bottom line, if you filled Yucca mountain with fresh, piping hot nuclear waste, in about three hundred years you could open a plutonium mine.
The Broader Problems with Environmentalism
The problem with words like ‘sustainability’ isn’t really that people haven’t thought them through. It’s that they don’t feel it necessary to think them through. Hey, maybe I’m wrong about these things. Maybe plastics will never decay, maybe the pandas are on the cusp of staging a comeback tour. Maybe a plutonium mine is a really, really bad idea. The problem I have with this is that these questions aren’t even being asked.
If you’re going to set the environment as your highest good, if you’re going to sacrifices the freedom of your fellow man in order to ban plastic straws and whatever else in pursuit of that ideal, then you should at a bare minimum understand what that ideal is and what it implies.
*You can also have atoms decay into a different configuration of the same element, but that hardly matters to the larger discussion.Published in