Sustainable Nonsense

Large-scale central planning, even of the most ruthless sort, has always been the left's preferred mode of operation.  Within the Obama administration, this planning has focused on achieving what the left calls "sustainability."  Like so many core values of the left, sustainability can be made to mean whatever one wishes it to mean.  But apart from its meaning, one thing that is always involved in sustainable policymaking is a dominant role for government.  

When applied to energy, for example, sustainability has almost nothing to do with the ability of certain fuels to meet the nation's needs over an extended period of time.  With the advent of hydraulic fracking, it is obvious to all, including experts at the U.S. Energy Information Administration, that America possesses enough reserves of natural gas to meet our energy needs for at least a century.  Our reserves of coal are even greater.  Yet neither of these fuels is deemed "truly clean" enough to be a sustainable fuel by environmental groups such as the Sierra Club, nor by Energy Secretary Stephen Chu, judging from his words and actions.

In line with the environmental lobby, the Obama administration has the odd notion that sustainability can be brought about by restricting consumption alone.  Driving a full-size Cadillac with a 4.6L V-8 engine, 208" frame, and a cargo capacity of almost 19 cubic feet leaves one with a respectable fuel efficiency of 15 mpg city, 23 mpg highway.  That must seem practically criminal, however, to the planet-saving fuel misers in the Obama EPA.  A compact hybrid with a reported fuel economy of 51 mpg city, 48 highway may seem to some a better, more sustainable option.  But why not a bicycle with no fuel consumption at all?  Why not walk and avoid those harmful manufacturing practices necessary to produce a bicycle?  Why not walk barefooted and avoid shoes?  There is no limit to how far the left will go in stripping us of our liberties and reducing us to Gandhian poverty.

The ultimate frontier, or "solution," is to legislate the removal of human beings from part or all of the earth's surface.  More than a few environmentalist leaders, including our current national science and technology advisor John Holdren, have advocated the reduction of human population to what they consider a "sustainable" level.  What the left intends in this regard varies from one policymaker to another (from current global population of nearly 7 billion to somewhere between two billion and a few hundred million, or even none), but in nearly every case the concept of a "sustainable" population involves reductions that cannot be achieved by voluntary means.

As the great political writer George Orwell understood, the devaluation of human life is always accompanied and enabled by the corruption of language.  As Orwell put it in "Politics and the English Language," "the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes."  Moreover, the relationship of language and politics is reciprocal: just as a corrupt politics leads to the degradation of language, a degraded language undermines political thought.  So it is with those who believe that things would be more "sustainable" if half the world's people could be persuaded not to reproduce.

Nowhere is the corruption of language more apparent than within the environmental movement.  A movement that is intent on controlling every aspect of life disguises its thirst for power with words that appear to be scientific and reasonable.  But when the language of the environmental left is examined, it turns out to be a fraud.

Central to the left's fraudulent lexicon is that word "sustainability."  Orwell would have spotted this one right away as another of those pretentious and meaningless words that political extremists find so useful. Instead of "sustainable," he would have asked, why not a plain, old-fashioned word like "lasting" or "dependable"?  Why not, indeed?  Because those simpler words could not be used to disguise one's intent.

If by "sustainable" one means a natural resource that is lasting and dependable, fossil fuels certainly fit the bill.  Coal, oil, and natural gas have powered the industrial economies of the West for over two centuries, bringing about vast improvements in living standards.  But this, of course, is not what the left means by "sustainable."

What the word conjures up for the left is a source of power that can be deployed indefinitely and that produces zero emissions, not even CO2.  As it is currently used, "sustainability" applies only to solar, wind, and geothermal sources of energy.  Yet, in reality, none of these sources are sustainable -- they are not even viable.  Solar and wind power, which environmentalists most often cite as sustainable, have never been suitable for meeting America's larger energy needs because of their high price, their inherent unreliability, and the geographical footprint required to install vast solar and wind farms.  Ironically, the least sustainable sources of power are those championed by the environmental movement.

"Sustainability," like all pretentious verbiage, is not simply used to suggest a meaning that is not there -- it is also used to hide meanings that would be obvious if not obscured by an impenetrable abstraction.  The reality that "sustainable" is meant to mask is simply this: that the earth possesses enough conventional energy resources to supply even an expanding global economy for decades if not centuries to come; that those resources may, over time, become more difficult to exploit, whether for geologic, political, or economic reasons; and that, in time, other sources of energy, some of them now unknown, will supplant fossil fuels, and that those sources will in turn be supplanted by yet other forms.

What the word "sustainable" is meant to hide is, in essence, that fossil fuels will be with us for a long time and that eventually new sources of energy, unlikely to be solar or wind in their current forms, will supply our needs.  A rational energy policy would junk the notion of sustainability altogether and proceed instead from the reality that our civilization requires cheap and reliable sources of energy to fuel its ever-expanding needs -- and that, while fossil fuels can meet most of those requirements for the next century, conventional energy sources may well be supplanted in time by undreamt-of alternatives.

Those alternatives, however, are the stuff of science fiction. What matters now is that our government not gum up the supply of fossil fuels.  If it does so, Americans will pay a high price not just in higher fuel and electricity bills but in quality and length of life.  Every aspect of advanced civilization depends on the availability of cheap and reliable energy, and any long-term disruption or price increase translates into lower productivity and living standards.

This advance in living standards did not result from what the left supposes to be sustainable energy.  It came about with mechanization and infrastructure powered by old-fashioned fossil fuels. The fact that these fuels have so dramatically improved our quality of life suggests that we should think carefully before abandoning them.

Jeffrey Folks is the author of many books and articles on American culture.