My Definition of Sustainability

I was going to respond to this goofy post on sustainability, but it would just be wasted time for this audience.  I think most of you can spot the errors and non sequiturs.  The heart of the problem is that the folks discussing "sustainability" have far more faith in the goodwill of people who deal with them through force (ie the government) than the folks who deal with them only via mutual consent (e.g. private enterprises).

I have never understood this attitude -- sure, the private guy on the other side of my transaction may be ridiculously wealthy, but he got that way only by being able to provide a service people are willing to buy of their own free will at a price that actually covers his costs**.  No one ever volunteers to consume government services unless they are 1) forced to do so (as in public schools or a government supported monopoly) or 2) the service is heavily subsidized (meaning it doesn't not cover its costs).

Which led me to my definition of sustainability, which I think is particularly important in this time of absurdly skyrocketing government spending.  Sustainability in my world means being able to supply a product or service that people are willing to buy of their own free will for the price I specify or that we negotiate, without any sort of coercion.  And that this price charged covers not only my costs, but covers the capital costs of continuing to improve my offering in order to fend off potential competitors.  And that this price further yields me a profit which pays me for my effort and gives me the incentive to keep providing this product or service.

In a free society, the ultimate measure of sustainability is profits.   Profits are what make the division of labor possible, which in turn is the only approach we have ever found to living above a subsistence level.  Without profits, activity beyond subsistence only occurs through coercion at the point of a gun.  If an activity does not yield us surplus, does not reward us for our time spent, then we only pursue it if our rulers use force to make us do so.

iPods and Dell computers and Big Macs are sustainable.  Government health care and cash for clunkers and the Post Office and Amtrak and about everything run by the State of California are not -- except when the government uses its power of force to grab the money it needs to close their budget gap or restrict individual choices or both.   The Post Office is a great example -- the government uses force to take money via taxes from citizens to cover its operating losses, which the Post Office incurs even though the US has used force to prevent anyone from competing with its first class mail business (particularly the most profitable segment, intracity mail).  And still, I might add, the Post Office is going bankrupt.

Look at Exxon vs. Amtrak.  One runs for profit, and in fact gets excoriated for its profits, while the other is run by the government and is lauded for its beneficence.  Which has proven the most sustainable?

And private enterprise has checks on their behavior that don't exist for monopoly government offerings.  When private businesses screw up, or become senescent, or even corrupt, and fail to cover their costs, they are supposed to go bankrupt.  For all the public handwringing about Enron being a bad example for capitalism, it was in fact a victory for capitalism  --  an unsound, possibly corrupt, business died.  Unsustainable business models, whether they be banks making nothing down mortgages or car companies producing bad cars, fail -- in fact, they are supposed to fail -- and resources are diverted to sustainable companies and businesses.  Except when .... you guessed it .... the government intervenes to prevent this from happening by bailing out bankers and manufacturers alike because those companies are owned by or employ people who helped get the president elected.

This renewal never happens in government.  We still have Amtrak, despite nearly 40 years of losses.  We still struggle with the post office and the DMV.  Heck, we still have state alcohol boards fingerprinting bar owners and running FBI checks on them to make sure we are not Al Capone, a problem that went away with the end of prohibition 3 generations ago.

Postscript: A part of the linked post is also a plea by two progressives for more protectionism.   Clearly, these two folks don't agree with the majority economic opinion that protectionism is bad for all nations.  But let's accept their premise for a moment.  Let's assume, as they do, that trade is a mercantilist zero sum and that protectionism would net boost our economy.   They are essentially advocating that the US, the wealthiest country on Earth, protect its workers to the detriment of poorer workers around the world.  Is this really the progressive position?

Postscript #2: A good question I have been using for people lately who show great confidence in the government's ability to solve problems through coercion:  "Imagine what powers you want to give the government.  Now, imagine your political opponents in the _____ Party wielding those powers.  Are you still happy?  If not, what are you counting on?  Point to the period in history where the same party held the presidency for 30 or forty years straight."  This question works well because almost everyone who favors giving coercive power to the government imagines only themselves or their allies wielding this power.

** Footnote: OK, the guy in private enterprise may also have gotten rich from rent-seeking and government favoritism,  but is that a failure of free enterprise or government?    I would normally have said this was a rhetorical question -- clearly, to me at least, rent seeking is the result of a system that gives government employees power over individual decisions.  In a country of strong personal liberties and limited government,  rent-seeking is much much harder.  But my liberal mother-in-law is totally convinced that rent-seeking is not the fault either of the structure of the government or the individual occupants of government but totally the fault of private businesses, and that only more regulation will stop it.


  1. Michael:

    "But my liberal mother-in-law is totally convinced that rent-seeking is not the fault either of the structure of the government or the individual occupants of government but totally the fault of private businesses, and that only more regulation will stop it."

    Does she really believe that the occupants of government don't create rent-seeking? To have this logic, she must believe that the occupants of government must be frail puppets whose stings are pulled by big business.

  2. John Moore:

    The guy in private enterprise may also have gotten rich through agency problems that evolve in the structure of the complex capitalist society. Executive over-compensation is a clear example of this.

    None of this detracts from your primary point, but give credit to private enterprise - it also can screw up without government help.

  3. Gil:

    Hmmm. Strange post - you started off against 'sustainability' and finished talking about 'rent-seeking'. Are you talking of 'environmental sustainability' or 'economic sustainability'? Economic sustainability doesn't automatically equate with environmental sustainabilty.

  4. Prof Frink:

    Going after your mother-in-law on your blog? Asking for trouble...

    I agree with Gil, usually liberals are speaking of environmental sustainability.

  5. DrTorch:

    One has to define "environmental stability". Is it a freeze frame of the world at some given point in time? That we'll have a certain quantity of whales, eagles and snail darters?

    What makes that snapshot so sacred?

    Moreover, why aren't environmental and economic stability connected? Even animals can overconsume and destroy their local environment, and it's long been stated that populations fluctuate w/ available resources. That in fact is economics.

  6. Esox Lucius:

    My little town has committees that I am occasionally on. They are always for things like "Bike Trails" or "Community gardens" and the like. I usually suggest in the meeting that if they want "Sustainable-Sustainability" they need to "Make Money".

    ...and you can see the smoke coming out of their ears...

    It's funny how they don't see licking the boots of our local politicians or going door to door with their tin cup grubbing for money as unsustainable.

  7. dave smith:

    economic sustainability == true enviromental sustainability.

    Here's why. If an economic activity harms the enviroment, the opportunity cost of that activity goes up. Profitability goes down and produces will seek substitutes.

  8. morganovich:

    environment is a luxury good. sorry if this offends people's sensibilities, but it really is. it behaves just like any other luxury good and has in every society over time.

    people concerned about the next meal don't care about where it comes from or what gets hurt. they need to eat. the american indians were ecological disasters because they lived too close to subsistence level. the Iroquois used exhaustion farming and then burned forests to make new fields. they did it because they needed the food and lacked the wealth and technology required not to do it.

    look around the world now. which countries are clean and which are filthy? rich countries have much less pollution and more parks etc. they tend to be more sustainable. they weren;t always this way. london used to have a level of pollution and smog that makes beijing look like tahiti. visibility was measured in centimeters during bad "pea soupers".

    why did it get better? people got rich. this same thing has happened all over the world, over and over.

    there is a tipping point of wealth where suddenly, everyone wants to consume more "environment". it's driven by being far enough away from subsistence freeing up division of labor to produce more wealth and technology etc.

    there is no other option. poor people are not environmental stewards. the best thing we can do is help them get rich.

    this is not to say there are not a few special cases. fisheries provide and very distinct challenge as a population constrained prisoner's dilemma inside a tragedy of the commons. there are population densities beneath which fish stop breeding and the whole resource can just collapse. this may come well before a price signal can reduce consumption, especially in a capital intensive industry.

    but, for the most part, wealth = environmentalism.

    it is small wonder that rapidly developing countries like india and china are not interested in our environmental preaching. we certainly didn't follow those tenets when we were developing.

  9. Not Sure:

    I quit reading when I got to this:

    "...we need to view every part of the biosphere, from the mosquito to the redwood as equally sacred as we are—I know that flips out a lot of religious folks. But I'm concerned that if we don't recapture that in our culture, our culture is screwed or doomed. To be sustainable is not to be in our own human cocoon or cubicle, and say, here, look at this, we can make our machines work. It has to mean to be seamlessly integrated with all of nature."

    A mosquito is as sacred as a redwood is as sacred as a person? Where have I heard that before? Oh, yeah... “A rat is a pig is a dog is a boy.” And I'll bet when his kids get sick, he doesn't give them medicine because that would kill the sacred germs that are killing his kids. Right.

    And what's that "seamlessly integrated with all of nature" nonsense, anyway? From everything I've read about people who think like him, "nature" is everything *except* humans and their interactions with the world. How, exactly, would one go about seamlessly integrating with all of nature without having an effect on any of it?

    BTW- Mr. Hartmann is flogging his new book in the linked interview. Don't they cut down trees to make books?

  10. time123:

    I didn’t click through to read the article you argued against but there are a few important issues you didn’t take into account.

    1. The tragedy of the commons. So long as there are some public spaces, or semi-public private spaces this will be a problem.
    2. Market externalities. Air pollution is a good example of this.
    3. Established systems that are nearing total resource utilization. Think water rights. If the price gets high enough individuals that have lived in a location for a while (generations maybe) will be unable to buy what they need. It may never be profitable to sell them water at the price they can afford. “Suck it up and move someplace wet.” Is a nice philosophical position but it works a lot better if you don’t have to deal with the effects of the problem.

  11. DKN:

    I was just gonna lurk, but that "sacred nature" c**p gets my goat. I loooove nature. I've made a career of environmental protection. But good golly, nature is AMORAL. It has no morals and no concience. It's a concept, a figment of our imagination, a way for us to organize information and communicate it. To the degree it is "sacred" or has moral value it is because we project these onto it. WE are the moral entities, so to state that "A mosquito is as sacred as a redwood is as sacred as a person" is to reject the special value of this world's only moral entity. /rant off :-)

  12. Mark:

    I love the new, or at least I think they are new, interest in "local sustainability". These advocates endorse the idea that communities live only off what can be produced regionally. That anyone in the 21st century can publically endorse this type of concept without shame really opens up questions to how we are educating our youth!

    I once had a chat with someone who claimed that it was "interesting" and something to think about as a goal. I asked her, "How many people can the local region around New York City support using "sustainable", i.e. organic, agricultural methods and what do we do with the people who cannot be supported locallly?" There was no answer but she still insisted it was an idea worth "considering". When several millions of limosuine liberal New Yorkers and Los Angelines volunteer to be eliminated from this earth I will think it is an idea worth considering.

  13. Mesa Econoguy:

    …clearly, to me at least, rent seeking is the result of a system that gives government employees power over individual decisions.

    Rent-seeking is an incented behavior: where the proper conditions exist (manipulable nonmarket forces entering the competitive market), rent-seeking will arise. See also regulatory capture.

    What these fools don't understand is that overt controls themselves do more harm than good (seen & unseen).

    And private enterprise has checks on their behavior that don’t exist for monopoly government offerings.

    Bingo, and that's exactly why the proposed healthcare "reform" is complete bullshit, brought to you by the same dumb people.

    "Progressives" are economically illiterate morons.

  14. Anton Sherwood:

    Any fool knows we need vigorous Government to restrain the corporations that control the Government.

  15. Steve Bonner:

    What I find lacking in the whole "sustainability" debate is the concept of balance. I've spent the last 20 years helping people talk about the balance between economic development, environmental impact, and social responsibility. I think that true sustainability is perched upon the tip of that balance point, but I'm still struggling to find the words to coherently express the idea.

    I'll be launching my own blog in the next week or two dedicated to looking at all the various definitions and viewpoints, with the hope of coming out the other end with a set of principles to apply to organizations, infrastructure, and natural resources to reach the goal of sustainability. I appreciate all the views posted here, and will certainly be quoting and referencing.