TCS Daily

Sustainability with Style

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - August 28, 2002 12:00 AM

Just like the congregants at the Johannesburg summit, I'm all for sustainability and also for bioregionalism, the notion that we should draw most of our sustenance from the region in which we live.

Of course, what I want to sustain is a dynamic, growing, technologically advancing society that grows richer over time, allowing even the poorest members to live better than kings of centuries past.

And the region that I want to depend on is the Solar System, at least until it becomes the Milky Way.

One other thing that I have in common with most of those pontificating in Jo'burg is that I believe that human civilization is doomed if people don't follow my advice. The difference between us is that I'm right, and they're wrong.

Sustainability is a wonderful thing. But in the eyes of too many of the world's Greens, sustainability is a synonym for thinking small. For example, some are promoting Earthship homes that recycle sewage into drinking water:

"Water is preserved to ensure the supply is used most efficiently. Graywater recycling funnels water from baths, showers and sinks into the garden, where action by plant roots breaks it down. This plant-filtered water is then used to flush the toilet and becomes blackwater, which is recycled using a composting or solar toilet to create natural -- and highly nutritious -- fertilizer. The type of toilet is determined by the local climate. An outdoor planter then filters the remaining blackwater.

" 'We're currently experimenting with a distillation system that would turn recycled blackwater into drinking water,' says Jonah Reynolds, son of Michael Reynolds and an Earthship builder based in Taos. 'When completed it could mean that 20 percent of water used in the Earthship could be returned to the cistern.'"

(Note: These Reynoldses are, as far as I know, no relation.)

I'm inclined to agree with enviro-blogger Rebecca Blood, who writes: "That's terrific! But I doubt if you'll ever get mainstream Britain or America to drink that water."

Efficiency is a good thing, of course, but if we've learned anything from the past several decades of work at making things more environmentally friendly, it's that you usually get efficiency from applications of more and better technology, not from the abandonment of technology. What's more, it's pretty clear -- as Rebecca Blood points out - that there are limits to how far people are willing to go in the name of environmental friendliness, no matter how much scary rhetoric they're exposed to.

That means that changes that will actually make a difference will have to give people lives as comfortable and full of potential as those they currently enjoy. (To be fair, I think the Earthship designers are trying to do just that, though I'm skeptical of their prospects for large-scale success.)

Some environmentalists get it. Terence McKenna once called nanotechnology "the most radical of the green visions." Nanotechnology has some -- usually exaggerated -- environmental risks, but it also promises low-weight, high strength materials (what kind of mileage can a car made of materials 50 times as strong, and thus 50 times as light, as steel get?), efficient solar power, compact, low-energy computing, and much, much more. But many other environmentalists don't get it. Nanotechnology is now being criticized by people who call themselves environmentalists, but who would, if listened to, doom us to poverty, death and eventual environmental destruction.

Think that's too strong? Then consider: Environmentalists are right, in a way, when they refer to resources as finite. At current technology levels, resource endowments will eventually run out. But that's the problem. If we follow the advice of enviro-Luddites, we may cut our consumption of resources significantly, but since the supply is still finite, that only puts off the inevitable day when they will run out. And when they run out, people will do what people always do in a crisis: survive any way they can, even if it means strip-mining, wholesale tree-cutting and tree-burning, and stripping the ocean of anything that swims and can be eaten.

On the other hand, if technology continues to develop, resources are no longer finite. Nanotechnology turns dirt and sunlight into all-purpose construction materials. Space development turns asteroids into substitutes for mines (a 100-meter nickel-iron asteroid contains literally centuries' worth of metal at current rates of consumption), and lunar soil into potential fusion fuel. Biotechnology turns garbage into fuel and drugs.

Which world would you rather live in? One in which technology stagnates, and people make do with less to delay the inevitable day when everything goes black? Or one in which we can turn the Earth into a garden because we've moved all the polluting stuff into space? Back in the 1970s, science writer Jerry Pournelle called the latter future "survival with style," and it's the future I'd rather live in. If the Johannesburg flock have any sense, it's the one they'll pick, too.

Consider this a test.



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