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. (1928-2019), who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, was one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. Among his many 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, Catholicism and Intelligence, and, most recently, On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018.

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