Why there’s no sustainability without progress

rethink sustainability

Why there’s no sustainability without progress

Jonathon Mulholland - UK Writer

Jonathon Mulholland

UK Writer

"'[S]ustain’ is an interestingly ambiguous word. It can mean providing someone with what they need. But it can also mean preventing things from changing—which can be almost the opposite meaning, for the suppression of change is seldom what human beings need." 

David Deutsch

The effects of our Wasteful, Idle, Lopsided, Dirty (WILD) economy are all around us; from microplastics and air pollution to biodiversity losses and climate change. Fortunately, most of us agree that, if we’re to solve these problems, we must transition to an economy that is Circular, Lean, Inclusive and Clean (CLIC™). Where we may differ is on what our society should look like once that transition is complete.

Many of us believe that we must scale back or even end the pursuit of economic growth that is both the cause of our problems and cannot be maintained indefinitely. Others believe that economic growth is what enables us to solve problems and foster a prosperous, enduring society.

This divide reflects the two meanings of “sustain” outlined in the quotation that opened this piece, taken from the groundbreaking book The Beginning of Infinity by physicist David Deutsch.1 Should we indefinitely sustain—in the sense of suppressing change—the solutions that will initially constitute the CLIC™ economy to prevent new problems from arising in the future? Or is change the only thing that can sustain us indefinitely, in the sense of providing us with what we need?

…any society that suppresses change…is, sooner or later, doomed to fail

One of Deutsch’s central insights is that, since our knowledge will never be complete and problems arise from gaps in what we know, unforeseen and unforeseeable problems are inevitable. The only way to solve problems, then, is by creating new knowledge. Crucially, this means that any society that suppresses change—what Deutsch calls a static society—is, sooner or later, doomed to fail.

Take, for example, the static society that existed for centuries on Easter Island until, sometime before the first Europeans arrived in 1772, it suddenly collapsed. As Deutsch explains, the Easter Islanders sustained a relatively unchanging way of life that included, for instance, the use of wood from the island’s initially extensive forests for shelter and constructing fishing boats and nets.

Eventually, the Easter Islanders decimated the most useful species of tree, which also had many secondary effects, such as soil erosion. Being a static society, the Easter Islanders were culturally unequipped to create the knowledge that would have solved their problems. Instead, they sustained the same solutions they’d practised for centuries, including the creation of even more maoi, the famous Easter Island statues. As they diverted more of their efforts into creating ancestral monuments instead of innovating their way out of their problems, they required more roads over which to transport them. Roads made of trees.

The primary cause, then, of the collapse of the Easter Islanders’ society was not a lack of material resources or environmental degradation. It was their culture—one that acted to suppress change, thereby preventing them from creating the knowledge they needed to solve their problems before they became catastrophes.

Instead of suppressing change, dynamic societies embrace it through cultural memes that facilitate knowledge creation, such as the scientific method, open discourse, market competition and responsible investment

Deutsch contrasts static societies with dynamic societies like ours. Instead of suppressing change, dynamic societies embrace it through cultural memes that facilitate knowledge creation, such as the scientific method, open discourse, market competition and responsible investment. This enables dynamic societies to solve their problems before they become catastrophes, thereby achieving sustainability in the more valuable sense of providing people with what they need, indefinitely.

This includes the solutions that constitute what we now call the WILD (Wasteful, Idle, Lopsided and Dirty) economy. Although many of them have created significant problems in the present, they were also necessary solutions to problems of the past. Among many such problems was that of providing for a growing population (itself a problem caused by previous solutions) without monopolising human labour. Solutions included the burning of fossil fuels to produce electricity and the invention of plastic that enabled the mass production of innovative, affordable products. Plastic was also a solution to the problem of soaring demand for many natural products, such as tortoiseshell and elephant ivory, that was driving these animals to extinction.

 

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But, of course, these solutions were necessarily unsustainable, in the sense that they could not be maintained indefinitely in the face of the problems that would inevitably arise from the gaps in our knowledge. We didn’t know that burning fossil fuels would cause climate change and that the durability of plastics would result in harmful pollution. We didn’t know how to produce energy at scale without burning fossil fuels, and we still don’t know how to make many of the products we need without using plastic and contaminating the environment.

Fortunately, though, our society is not static like that of the Easter Islanders, doomed to sustain these WILD solutions until the problems they’ve caused become irreversible catastrophes. Thanks to researchers, businesses and investors, our dynamic society can, and is, creating the knowledge we need to accomplish the solutions that will constitute the CLIC™ economy. These will include, among many others, new ways to produce, recycle and dispose of plastics to reduce their environmental impact and replacing fossil fuels with low-carbon alternatives. The latter will also reduce the environmental impact of glass and paper, which would be less damaging than plastic if only they emitted less carbon during production. A paper bag would need to be reused 43 times to have a smaller environmental impact than a plastic bag, while glass bottles emit 200 - 400% more carbon than plastic bottles.2

Thanks to researchers, businesses and investors, our dynamic society can and is creating the knowledge we need to accomplish the solutions that will constitute the CLIC™ economy

Of the many profound insights Deutsch lays out in his remarkable book, perhaps the most crucial (aside from the inevitability of problems) is that “everything that is not forbidden by laws of nature is achievable, given the right knowledge” (Deutsch, p. 56). Taken together, these insights mean that the only thing that is sustainable indefinitely—in both senses of the word—is progress, the hallmark of a dynamic society. So, although even a static CLIC™ economy cannot sustain us indefinitely, a dynamic CLIC™ economy—one that retains and, ideally, accelerates the creation of the knowledge we need to implement novel CLIC™ solutions quickly enough to prevent problems from becoming catastrophes—most certainly can. Indeed, if anything, to date our society has not been dynamic enough. If it had been, we would have solved the problems of the WILD economy long before they caused as much damage as they have.

…the only thing that is sustainable indefinitely—in both senses of the word—is progress, the hallmark of a dynamic society

There aren’t many silver linings to a global pandemic. But one that seems to have materialised around the cloud of coronavirus is the extra dynamism it has forced into our already dynamic society, which could accelerate the transition to a CLIC™ economy. Although climate change and global pandemics are very different problems, they share some of the same risk factors, including air pollution and human encroachment on natural habitats. Therefore, these disparate problems will share some of the same solutions.

 

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But while necessity might be the mother of invention, some necessities are more fertile than others. Where we have struggled to muster a sufficiently dynamic response to the “slow” problem of climate change, the “fast” problem of COVID-19 has had far more motivational power. Virtually overnight, we saw entire societies transition to new ways of living and working. This transition represented an acceleration of many existing trends and the solutions that enable them, such as remote working and a reduction in the use of transportation, creating a precipitous (though temporary) year-on-year drop in greenhouse gas emissions.3 As we continue to bring the pandemic under control, the “new normal” is likely to see us retain many of the solutions we’ve implemented. And with recovery packages focusing on ways to “build back better”, 2020 may yet prove to be a decisive moment in the transition to a CLIC™ economy.

…we must adapt today, we must continue to adapt in the future.

Whether we will maintain this new-found dynamism to power the progress we need towards the CLIC™ economy and beyond remains to be seen. Though we must adapt today, we must continue to adapt in the future. Doing so will require an effervescent community of businesses and researchers, sustained in turn by responsible investors. Instead of demonising progress, let’s embrace it as the only possible path to sustainability.

1Deutsch, D. (2014) The Beginning of Infinity, London, Allen Lane.
Shellenberger, M. (2020) Apoclypse Never, London, HarperCollins.
3 Le Quéré, C., Jackson, R.B., Jones, M.W. et al. (2020) ‘Temporary reduction in daily global CO2 emissions during the COVID-19 forced confinement’, Nature Climate Change, 10, 647–653. Available here.

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