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Then London today should be an utter wasteland, no more hospitable than a nuclear fallout zone. But it ain’t so.

There is no way one can measure whether today’s activities of humans are “sustainable” in any meaningful way. Indeed, it is not even clear that we should try to do so. The major reason for this is that the world of the future is highly unlikely to look like the world of today. Do we even want the world of the future to look like the world of today?

For example, in order for our economic activity to be “sustainable” according to common notions of sustainability, it would mean that future (larger) populations should be able to drive cars and warm their homes the same way that we do them today. Imagine a flying car is invented between now and then. It’s not such a stupid idea. In a world where those become popular, would our lifestyle be deemed “unsustainable” if future generations are deprived of the joys of modern automobiles?

But consider the following: there are some efforts out there to actually measure whether our lives are sustainable. You think of things like your “carbon calculator” as an illustration. Do these make any sense? Consider if an analogous calculator were constructed in the mid-19th century for London. We had no idea (little idea) at the time that CO2 might be problematic, but Londoners were very aware of the problem created by soot and SOX and NOX emissions. If we measured those things in 1850 we would have seen that London was perhaps the most unsustainable place on earth.

While London may have been the dirtiest place on earth in 1850, a moment’s reflection should have you puzzled. If SOX and NOX emissions in 1850s were signals of “unsustainability”, i.e. that the needs of future Londoners were being compromised by the resource use and economic lifestyles of 1850s Londoners, then how do you explain the fact that today London is more populous, far richer and far cleaner than it was at the time, and among the most habitable places on the planet Earth?

I suppose that someone will try to argue, “well, London just exported all their unsustainable activity to someone else.” To keep the post short, I’ll only remind you that:

(1) Yep – London lost much of industrial might … to the United States.

(2) Ignoring (1), then you still must recognize that the sustainability measures are seriously flawed.

3 Responses to “If You Take Sustainability Measurements Seriously”

  1. Speedmaster says:

    When you hear someone repeatedly use the word “sustainability,” I think you can safely flip the bozo-bit to ON for them. 😉

  2. Speedmaster says:

    I’d like to see you post on the “slow food” movement sometime.

  3. RIT_Rich says:

    There’s a cabal of professional “sustainability” experts at the school next door to yours 😉 I’ve worked with many of them very closely, even joined in (because it was necessary to do so). But it is very puzzling how oblivious they are to your very simple example, even though a lot of the professionals in the fields they study keep telling them examples similar to yours. They just ignore them, intentionally. Some of them really do have other agendas (and many others are just joining the crowd because thats where the money is)

    (of course it doesn’t help that at least one expressed that economics is just a bunch of “mumbo jumbo”)

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