The Moving Target of Sustainability

In Environment, Technology by Thomas Sheahen0 Comments

Lately there has been great public interest in the topic of “sustainable growth.” The increased attention is due to the Pope’s new encyclical about the environment. However, there is an important aspect of the entire discussion that has been overlooked by people who favor one approach or another.

The word “sustainable” represents a moving target.

In the days of Thomas Malthus (c. 1800) the expectation was that population would grow geometrically while food supply only grew arithmetically; hence starvation was inevitable. That made perfectly good sense in the context of Malthus’ time. The situation was not “sustainable.”

Over the centuries there have been many occasions where something was clearly identified as unsustainable, and everyone could recognize the bleak future … given the context of the times. But the invention of the auto, the airplane, the computer and so on completely changed the ball game and rendered the worry obsolete. Norman Borlaug’s green revolution made Paul Ehrlich’s book “The Population Bomb” obsolete before the ink was dry at the printer.

Today the supply of energy appears unsustainable because the fossil fuels in the ground are finite. But that worry is predicated on no further progress in fission, fusion, efficiency of solar collection, etc. In reality, all fuels are transition fuels, used for a while until something better comes along. (Think whale oil circa 1870). If the developing countries use fossil fuels for a century or two, thereby lifting themselves out of poverty, that will not subtract from the prosperity of the entire world. There will be a better energy source in the future. The adverse perception of 2015 is incorrect because the actual future does not coincide with the foreseeable future as foreseen today.

In every age, the Malthusian argument is to stop right now before things get any worse.

The notion that man’s ingenuity will find new solutions will strike many as too glib, because the pathway out of trouble is not fully explained. But history shows that advancing technology does bring forth solutions in surprising ways which, in retrospect, were unpredictable.

Editors Note: As can be seen from the featured image, automobile technology has already come a long way. Can you imagine what advances will have occurred in 50 years? This is a neat set of charts to give you an idea. Obviously, like with everything, you should take it with a grain of salt. 

Share this Post

Dr. Thomas P. Sheahen is a professor of theology and science at Holy Apostles College and Seminary. He holds a Ph.D. in Physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and is Director of the Institute for Theological Encounter with Science and Technology (ITEST).

Leave a Comment