On Sustainability

The phrase “objection sustained” comes from the law court – a judge agrees with a lawyer’s objection to procedure. His “sustaining” guarantees that the trial follows established rules. Today, in an enormous literature, what is to be “sustained” is not legal procedure, but the supposed “rules” that keep this planet viable down the ages.

Almost all universities have “sustainability” courses. We have Earth Days. We observe ecological, environmental, earth-warming, ocean-saving, anti-fossil fuel, and sundry species-preserving movements. All endeavor to “sustain” the Earth. Theologians and philosophers write books about it. Biologists and animal lovers find that it justifies their existence. Economists cannot decide whether it helps or hinders the purpose of wealth production for everyone. Most “modern” governments pour money into this noble effort to prevent the Earth from going under.

More perceptive thinkers, however, suspect that “sustainability” is probably the most “useful” ideology ever invented. It brings everything, especially messy human beings who are the real problem, under direct state jurisdiction. It makes Marxism look like child’s play when it comes to absolute control of man and society.

Geir Asheim, at the World Bank in 1994, defined sustainability thus: “A requirement of our generation to manage the resource base such that the average quality of life that we ensure ourselves can potentially be shared by all future generations. . . .Development is sustainable if it involves a non-decreasing quality of life.”

That is quite a definition. The key concept, besides “requirement,” is that “our generation” is to manage future generations. For what end? That “future generations” will “potentially” be able to live as the average “we” lives today.

Let us suppose that the generation of 1800 or 1200 “responsibly” acted on the same philosophical premises. We would still be happily enjoying life as they did in 1800 or 1200 (AD or BC).

The next question is this: Just how do we know how many “future generations” will need managing – ten, a hundred, a thousand, and infinite number? Which generation are we saving for? Or are we saving for all subsequent eons? Of course, “sustainable” means that, from now on, we all start out with the same resource base. Resources are not to be used lest they be used up.

"The Great Day of His Wrath" by John Martin, c. 1852 (Tate Britain)
“The Great Day of His Wrath” by John Martin, c. 1852 (Tate Britain)

This thinking assumes that the present limited intellectual and technical base is thrust on future generations. Contemporary men evidently think that they know enough to decide what future generations will want, need, or be able to do. They must be content with what we have now. What if the only way that we can guarantee the well-being of future generations is for us not to impose our limited ideas of sustainability on them?

When I look at this “sustainability” issue, I detect an “apocalyptic” or gnostic root to it. Augustine would have been amused over a generation that thought it could engineer the future of mankind on this basis.

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” implies strict population control, usually set at about two or three billion (current global population is around 7.3 billion, so many of us will simply have to disappear for sustainability’s sake). Sin and evil imply misusing the earth, not our wills. What we personally do makes little difference. Since children are rationed or even produced artificially as needed, whatever we do sexually is irrelevant. It has no real consequences in this life, the only one that exists.

Some talk of saving the race by fleeing to other planets. This leaves existing billions stuck here. The planet will disappear as the Sun cools. So the final “meaning” of the human race was that it “sustained” itself as long as possible. What is missing from this whole scenario is the notion of man’s “dominion.”

The earth and its resources, including its chief resource, the human mind, are given for the purposes for which each individual was created. Enough resources, including human mind and enterprise, are given for man to accomplish his purpose. When this purpose is accomplished, no more “resources” are needed. In this sense, the revealed doctrine that this world will end is the one that frees us from the dismal “sustaining” cycle that, presumably, goes on and on.

No doubt, while here, we should ”sustain” the world as a “garden” the best we can. But, as in the “beginning,” our key problems will not arise from the abundant Garden itself. They originate in our wills. The Garden does not exist for its own sake but for what goes on in it. This confusion is what is wrong with “sustainability.”

James V. Schall, S.J.

James V. Schall, S.J.

James V. Schall, S.J., who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, is one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. Among his recent books are The Mind That Is Catholic, The Modern Age, Political Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic Reading, Reasonable Pleasures, Docilitas: On Teaching and Being Taught, and Catholicism and Intelligence.

  • veritasetgratia

    The other comparison with Marxism is the notion of everyone now laying aside personal aspirations for the good of a supposed future time – which never comes of course. Sustainability is about saving the earth. So in the cause of saving the earth, a new totalitarianism must be set up to force people to comply, by shaming them into not having children, by making it economically unfeasable to marry to make family, by delegitimising marriage, by degrading individuals. The contrast is stark for Christians.
    The only hope is Jesus – the Way the Truth and the Life.”And if my people will gather together in My presence and come before Me, I will heal the earth” – the promise has been there from Old Testament times. It is an eternal promise. We have nothing to fear.

  • Michael Dowd

    “Sustainability” is another modernist absurdity. It depends on absolute assessment of resource availability, absolute predictability of resource utilization, and absolute control of everything. It’s called totalitarianism. We’ve tried it. It doesn’t work. “Sustainability” has one important consideration: how will God’s patience be sustained with all that’s going on in the world and the Church today. What do you think?

    • simplynotred


  • Joyfully

    Secular scrupulosity.

  • kevcal51

    Actually, the whole “green” movement is much more akin to Marxism than one might think. The end objective of the movement is a massive transfer of wealth to the third world. The excuse for the transfer is that the third world countries will need these massive amounts of wealth in order to develop without using carbon based energy, which has been the engine of the developed world.

    It is also probably true that the believers in green religion believe that we have reached the end of history, so to speak, and they are arrogant enough in their belief that they know what is good for all upcoming generations. Fortunately, history will pretty much put them down as a footnote hundreds of years from now.

    • simplynotred

      This is actually more draconian than complete Marxism, but sustainability is the tool necessary to absolutely institutionalized POPULATION CONTROL WORLD WIDE.

  • Paul Soper

    Sustainability has a range of meanings, not all of which are benign. But in the large manufacturing company for which I worked over 30 years, “sustainability” meant “stewardship” – minimizing waste and maximizing the efficient use of raw materials and energy. This was also the sense it had in the business schools we worked with. Sustainability / stewardship includes trying to insure that resources we take for granted, and that we know future generations will require – like clean air and water – will continue to be available in the future, just as Geir Asheim said. (A comparison of China with the US or EU is instructive here.) Sustainability is inherently opposed to our “culture of waste”. This is an area where appropriate distinctions are important, lest the good be condemned with the bad.

  • Former Skeptic

    Until I read “The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History” by Elizabeth Kolbert, I pooh poohed most of the environmental issues discussed. The book travels widely among those who are studying various facets of the issues, and each adduces support of the vast changes we have wrought on our planet. Unlike many similar book and articles, the findings are supported by irrefutable evidence, but without the usual “the sky is falling” tone.

    • RufusChoate

      Irrefutable? Too funny. You were never a Skeptic and the Journalist who wrote your irrefutable “science book” used a less extreme or nonsensical tactic to appear sane and sophisticated.

  • toddyo1935

    Beautifully stated! It runs in contrast to the incessant lies about climate change and exhaustion of resources. These are designed to advance the “progressive” view of sustainability.
    Here is a nation born on the “endowment by our Creator” for every man and woman. It yielded the broadest basis of prosperity and freedom ever known. Yet today, we are accused of causing more climate change than an erupting volcano. Lands and rivers must be controlled by a world government because the average man or nation has no concept of stewardship.
    Totalitarians deny the capacity to create solutions to problems. We are always motivated by the need and apply our God-given gifts and talents to the challenge. The USA has provided the framework where the opportunity to create has been her hallmark.

    • simplynotred

      Just a NOTE: Quit using their PHRASE: CLIMATE CHANGE, you will always lose the argument, use instead “GLOBAL WARMING,” and then Disagree.

  • Jill Dembroff

    What is sardonically amusing is that a single meteor hitting the earth, or a big volcano erupting, or an insane atomic bomb tosser can upend all this sustainability stuff in the blink of an eye. No matter what happens, veritasetgratia has it right. Bet it all on Jesus!

  • George Sim Johnston

    Those who fret about “sustaining” the environment for future generations aren’t at all bothered by the level of government IOU’s that we are passing on to our children.

    “Climate change” is a redundancy. The climate is always changing. There were no carbon footprints when the Ice Age ended twelve thousand years ago.

  • Michael Paterson-Seymour

    I have always rather liked the argument of the redoubtable Sir Boyle Roche, Bart. in the old Irish House of Commons – “What, Mr. Speaker!” said he, “and so we are to beggar ourselves for fear of vexing posterity! Now, I would ask the honourable gentleman, and still more honourable House, why we should put ourselves out of our way to do anything for posterity; for what has posterity done for us?”

  • bernie

    Fr. S. never fails to ring the bell loudly and clearly. Remember Cdl Martino at the UN? He repeatedly talked about “sustainability” and in such a way that one might justifiably have wondered who he was representing. The terms of the population controllers and the Vatican’s Rep became so ambiguous and interchangeable that I often found myself befuddled. The Church, at least, ought to have a clear and unambiguous lexicon. What we may be facing with the Pope’s forthcoming Encyclical should have us all deeply concerned. Julian Simon, a good Orthodox Jew, had it right, and his words can be used to lead his Christian brothers. “The Ultimate Resource” (his great book’s title) is Man himself as he struggles with the material universe which is his inheritance. Along with Ultimate Resource, his posthumously published book, “Things Are Getting Better All The Time”, should deservedly be read by the Pope before he finalizes his teaching document. Fat chance

  • RainingAgain

    The very people who crow loudest about sustainability for the benefit of future generations have no difficulty burdening them with incomprehensible debt. Those who call themselves “green” are maniacally pursuing a reduction in our geologically dangerously low atmospheric carbon dioxide, a step which is guaranteed to be detrimental to the growth of all life, directly plant life and consequently animal life and may perhaps trigger a now somewhat overdue Ice Age. We may need every one of those billions of people we now have to ensure the survival of the species.

  • Elastico

    Key ingredients simmering in the kettle of sustainability are climate change, population control (abortion), and environmentalism, which give off the smell of early-stage totalitarianism.

  • Tom Springer

    Yes, but God made the world, in all it’s unfathomable complexity and heart-stopping beauty. Sure we can use it to sustain life, but we have no right to abuse it for untoward material gain. We do owe our children and grandchildren that much. Who are we to leave them an earth that’s been soiled and impoverished by thoughtless greed? Eventually, as the psalmist writes, the earth and universe will be wear out like an old cloak. Meanwhile, we should dress the vineyards and sycamores with the reverence due any gift that comes unsoiled from the father’s hand. I don’t buy all the sustainability balderdash, either. But I know that the time I’ve spent caring for trees, woods, rivers, gardens and good soil has kept me healthy and by some measure holy. When the Lord does call me home, I want to report that I’ve been a good and faithful steward to the few acres he’s entrusted to my care. What he does with it after I’m gone is his business. St. Francis of Assisi, pray for us.

    • JTLiuzza

      You may consider that, during personal judgment, the subject of how many flowers you planted may not come up.

  • Davis Wenbil

    “Sustainability” – a code word for killing babies and old people.

  • J. Boanerges


  • simplynotred

    Sustainablity: A term used FOR WHOSE BENEFIT?

  • Michael Dowd

    “Climate change” is the perfect vehicle for Pope Francis to become a major political player on the world stage by helping implement the totalitarian regime of World Government. He will be the Pope of Peace thru Mercy in charge worldwide Public Relations. All religions will be acceptable especially Atheistic Secular Humanism. The newly named ‘Universal Ecumenical Socialistic Catholic Church’ will be reconstructed to recognize the validity of all religions. A new morality will be introduced built on the new understanding of human sexuality, income equalization, population control and environmental impact, etc. etc. I suppose some would consider this farfetched . We shall see. While you are waiting please say lots of prayers.

    • JTLiuzza

      A dismal picture indeed. But I think perhaps a vision which many high ranking clerics would be on board.

      If the Catholic Church were not a Divine institution, in looking around one might be tempted to despair.

      At some point, though, maybe not in our lifetimes, this “God of surprises” Francis keeps telling us about is going to show up and thwart a few plans. Surprise!

  • bernie

    Washington Post ,4/29, reports:
    “Economy kept Millennial from having kids, study shows”.
    “Sustainability”, the mantra of the population controllers,
    becomes impossible with a “twenty-something” reproduction
    that leads to birth rates reported in the article: “Hispanics”
    (1.15), African-Americans (1.04), and “Whites” (0.86). All
    were less than forthrightly presented as “births/1000”
    (perhaps to avoid the better recognized collapsing tipping “rate”
    of 2.1 in America). In reality, this continuing collapse in births
    is more a corollary of the collapsing marital rate, and the
    contraceptive/abortive culture. If the Pope wants to continue his
    involvement in and discussion of “sustainability”, I think
    he ought to talk instead about family life, babies, generosity,
    freedom to grow economies, and using the ultimate resource of human
    ingenuity, in this marvelous natural world that God has given to us
    to use. The future belongs to the fertile, not to those who are
    afraid and who try to hide behind a condom or a pill.

  • Stanley Zylowski

    One of Fr. Schall’s regular themes is a philosophy of abundance. Between natural and human resources there is more than enough to “sustain” us. This is in contrast with popular definitions of “economics” which often steer towards “the use and distribution of limited resources”.

    There are a lot of good comments from readers on this post.