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Is ‘sustainable’ attainable?

David Zilberman, professor, agriculture and resource economics | February 22, 2013

Our new program, the Master of Development Practice, emphasizes ‘sustainability’ — but what exactly is it?

Last week, we hosted a panel of 5 faculty experts to address this question. It was agreed that sustainability means that all humans are able to maintain a decent standard of living, akin to say, Costa Rica (neither Switzerland nor Bangladesh), without destroying the environment

However, physical science tells us that at the current state of affairs, this is highly unlikely. We rely too much on fossil fuels, climate change is a real threat and there are simply too many people. The challenge of sustainability is to introduce policies that will dramatically avert climate change and slow (or even reverse) population growth.

The social scientists agreed that climate change is a big threat, and suggested that current political reality and distribution of powers were the main obstacles for change. There are policies that can address climate change, e.g. the carbon tax, investment in alternative technologies, various regulations designed to reduce pollution without hurting the poor, but the political system would not sustain these. Any climate-change policies have gainers and losers, different groups may lose from adjustment while in the meantime, we remain stuck in the status quo. Developing countries want to grow and are investing in coal plants; in the developed world, we have some notable successes such as the AB32 but they are exception, not the rule.

For a business, sustainability is not a global concept, rather a day-to-day challenge of how to stay afloat. For them, the key to sustainability is profitability. However, the business world is starting to recognize that it would not do them a lot of good to be profitable in a world that is falling apart. Furthermore, they recognize that some consumers may pay extra for products produced in a more sustainable manner, thus being ‘sustainable’ makes good business sense. With the right policy environment, the business world can be used as a tool to introduce more sustainable policies but of course many businesses may oppose such policies as they may negatively affect their bottom line.

From a life-science perspective, the notion of sustainability is complex because evolution is a driving force and there is also inter-dependency among species; humans eat fish, and fish depends on kelp, etc. So pollution that affects water quality may harm humans indirectly through the food web. It is clear that uncontrolled applications of technology can be devastating to ecosystems and eventually to humans as well.

Thus enlightened regulations on harvesting of resources are essential. But figuring such policies and enforcing them, are major challenge, both because we operate under uncertainty and again, due to the political environment. Yet there have been some examples where things have improved for the better. While many fisheries have been depleted, there are many success stories; so it can be done.

The overall perspectives of all sciences were quite pessimistic. But when I look at it, things are not that bad. Average quality of life is better than ever, life expectancy has increased throughout the world and there has been no world war for a long time and for many people, sustainability simply means making sure that their pension funds last as they reach their 80th birthday. Even in many parts of the developing world, obesity is an issue more than hunger.

Thus I think the pessimism of scientists can be a base for optimism. Awareness of risk can convince society to take steps to create change. If there is one thing we know, humans have the capacity to adapt. We may not be able to mitigate or reverse climate change, but once we realize that something needs to be done, we come to the table with innovations that will allow adjusting easier. Of course, the sooner we adjust, the more we can prevent – but the role of the University is to raise awareness and I believe that we are doing our job and in this sense, pessimism is essential. Of course, too much pessimism may be counter-productive.

We have to rely on science and expand knowledge and this may require taking some risk. We may need to make changes to how we produce our food, the way we live, get our energy, etc. and this may be inconvenient to many and may entail risk. For example, living in denser cities and giving up urban sprawl, may not be convenient but it may reduce GHG emissions and environmental footprint… the price we need to pay for a more sustainable future. But I am afraid that drastic changes will require the risks be more apparent so people will be ready to make the necessary sacrifices. If there is one lesson of political economic research, crisis leads to change. I hope in the case of climate change, awareness of crisis will be enough to escape from the major threats.

While we are aware of climate change and start thinking about solutions, I’m more afraid of the population problem. While in some parts of the world, the population picture gets brighter, in other parts (i.e. sub-Saharan Africa), we are observing population explosion. More importantly, there are conflicts of values and beliefs that has prevented meaningful dialogue that could lead to effective policy. We should continue and enhance our research and efforts to address climate change, but we must also develop the intellectual foundation and a basic consensus to address the population problem. A key element of sustainability is sustaining the number of people and as long as we don’t know how to think about it, we have a long way to go.


Comments to “Is ‘sustainable’ attainable?

  1. We are all happy that past population doomsayers were mostly wrong. That doesn’t mean that the issue of rapid population growth can be ignored.

    The Sahel, which David mentions, is one of the poorest parts of our world, with some 18 million people suffering from hunger (2012). If the region is not currently able to meet the basic health and education needs of its current population, what is reasonable to expect for 2050 – when the number of people is set to roughly triple? Add to that climate projection of temps 7 to 10 degrees higher than today’s average, with ensuing crop failure. There is a mega-crisis unfolding.

    Poorer countries will have the most difficulty adapting to climate change. You may object to the term “explosion”, but please accept that — without urgent, large scale interventions and policy changes — poor, high-fertility countries face a crisis.

  2. I don’t want to hear another word about the “population explosion” without acknowledgment of how wrong past doomsayers have been on this issue and how much progress humankind has made toward dealing with this “problem.”

    Has Professor Zilberman read The Rational Optimist by Matt Ridley? Chapter 6 (“Escaping Malthus’s Trap”) is a mere 20 pages, and it demolishes the pessimistic projections that continue to darken our outlook on this planet’s future.

    Nothing that we do, in any kind of endeavour, is “sustainable” if we extrapolate current practices far enough ahead. Luckily for our survival, practices evolve, and the tons of horse manure that were once thought to ensure our burial in fecal matter have not materialized.

    • Great comment, Thomas. I agree with what you say, and in general I am optimistic about human abilities to adapt and survive (see Zilberman, Zhao, and Heiman 2012). But while overall we have been able to overcome the Malthusian trap, there are regions in the world, like the Sahel in Africa, where severe population problems exist. We are challenged to address this.

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