Almost nothing is sustainable

Tree branches overhanging water

Sustainable development’ is an expression that you hear a great deal. It was famously defined by the Brundtland Commission as meeting the needs of the current generation without sacrificing the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. This seems sensible enough, but it raises two major questions: how do we identify the ‘needs’ of this generation, and how do we anticipate the capabilities of future ones.

Most talk of sustainability these days is nonsense. The simple reason for that is that very little of what we do is sustainable. Nothing dependent upon fossil fuels is sustainable, so there go most of our forms of transportation, a lot of our electrical generation, and most of global agriculture. Nothing that destroys the long-term productivity of agricultural land is sustainable, but much of our agriculture does just that. Continually requiring more fertilizers to cope with loss of soil nutrients is not sustainable. Virtually no fisheries anywhere in the world are used in a sustainable way (none when you consider the impact climate change will have on them). Finally, nothing that contributes to accelerating climate change is sustainable; that doesn’t really create sharp categories between what is or is not sustainable. Rather, it gives an idea about the total intensity of all the greenhouse gas emitting things we undertake must be.

What does this generation need?

The matter of defining the ‘needs’ of the current generation is enormous and partially irresolvable. At one absurd extreme is the flawed idea that people have the right to continue living as they always have. Asserting this is akin to a French aristocrat facing the guillotine, arguing that his life of privilege so far justifies more privilege in the future. We cannot have a right to something that demands unacceptable sacrifices from others – particularly when that right hasn’t been earned in any meaningful way. At the other extreme is the assertion that nobody has any right to material things and that people starving around the world and dying from treatable, preventable diseases have no credible moral claim to additional resources. Somewhere between the two lies the truth. The important thing isn’t to work out precisely where, but to generate a universal understanding that constraint is going to need to be a part of human life, if we are to survive in the long term.

Arguably, ‘needs’ are entirely the wrong way to think about things. Instead of starting with who we are and what we want, perhaps we should start with what there is and what impact that has on how we can live, where we can be, and how many of us there can be at any one time.

How capable will future generations be?

The matter of the capabilities of those in the future is similarly challenging. Our expectations about the future produce a ‘treadmill’ effect, where we expect added financial wealth and improved technology to make future generations better off despite how more resources have been depleted, more climatic damage done, and more pollutants released into the environment. If people in the future are super-resourceful technological wizards, the degree of restraint we need to observe in order to accommodate them is small. No wonder this belief is so popular among those seeking to defend the status quo.

Of course, it is possible that future generations will have less capability to satisfy their needs than we do. Most obviously, this could be because of the depletion of fossil fuels (a vast and easily accessed form of energy) or because of the impacts of climate change. To some extent, we need to take such risks into consideration when we are deciding what duties we owe to future generations. Any such consideration will require passing along more resilience, in the form of more resources and a healthier planet.

What might sustainability look like?

Quite possibly, the only people in the world living sustainably are those in small agricultural communities with little or no connection to the outside world. Since they do not import energy, they must be sustainable users of it. Even such communities, however, need not necessarily be sustainable. Unless they have a low enough population density to keep their food production from slowly degrading the land, they too are living on borrowed time.

Producing a sustainable global system probably requires all or most of the following:

  1. The stabilization of global population, perhaps at a level significantly below that of today.
  2. The exclusive use of renewable sources of energy, derived using equipment produced in sustainable ways.
  3. Agriculture without fossil fuels, and with soil and crop management sufficient to make it repeatable indefinitely.
  4. Sustainable transport of old (sailing ships) and new (solar-electric ground vehicles) kinds.
  5. The preservation of ecosystems that provide critical services: for instance, tropical forests that regulate climate.
  6. An end to anthropogenic climate change.

While it is technically possible that we could manage to build problems and solve them through clever technology indefinitely, it does seem as though doing so is risky and probably unethical. It may be more prudent to begin the transition towards a world unendingly capable of providing what we desire from it.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

38 thoughts on “Almost nothing is sustainable”

  1. This is very interesting. The concept of sustainability ceratinly can’t be realized under the current mindset of western, and especially North American, society. We don’t even seem to be aware that we are pillaging 80%+ of the earth’s resources while the rest of the world has to do without basic necessities. One of the biggest issues on people’s minds these days is the “high” cost of gasoline, for pity’s sake. That’s unconscionable. I fear our future is going to look more like the Soylent Green dystopia than a high-tech utopia of never-ending abundance.

  2. “Sustainability” seems to mean, in this sense, simply “Stagnation”. The lack of growth in a variety of areas.

    There is good reason to think the human world has always been a dynamic place and never an ethical one.

    If “unsustainable practices” were enough to destroy the human race outright, I’d be more worried, but as is it looks that the worst that could happen is have the population reduced by a major factor, along with the standard of living and comfort.

    Imagine this world, exactly as it is, but without the dilemma of global warming. Is it a better place? Or does it appear much worse, because the destruction of possibilities by repressive societal norms of interaction (re: share capitalism) are not overshadowed by the spectre of global warming?

    If there is some massive human political movement which is ‘right’, it seems doubtful to me that it would be one based on the old Christian values of loving they neighbour, or the old liberal values of respecting the privacy and property of others. This kind of moral principle is inherently inculcated in weakness – it is the morality of the one who cannot brush off insults, the one who pretends to find its highest value outside of itself.

    Any political movement which recognizes both that moral standards are neither externally objective nor contingently created by subjects could never simply propose stewardship of nature – rather, it would need to confront the radical extent to which nature is not natural, to which we ourselves are sick part of a set of relations which only ever had limited endurance.

    Again, we see the failure of Smith’s faith in the hand – to overcome Christian morality, it is not enough to simply find the new objective moral standard, or to ignore moral standards entirely and simply “do what one pleases”. Rather, it is neccesary for the individual to comprehend how he is both the creator of value, and that he can only be so because his selfish acts share a symbiotic relation with the selfish acts of others. There is therefore no contradiction, properly thought, between acting more selfishly and more universally. It is only from within, as an act of subjective freedom, that universal action has any being, and only as a universal act, that any act of subjective freedom is anything other than arbitrary contingency.

  3. Globalization death watch, Part I
    Airlines, cargo ships increasingly desperate due to rising fuel costs
    Posted by Jon Rynn (Guest Contributor) at 5:29 PM on 02 Jun 2008

    “Globalization was built on cheap oil. As that era draws to a close, so will the current phase of global integration, whether Thomas Friedman, Wal-Mart, and all those involved in intercontinental trade like it or not.

    The current transportation infrastructure is based on cars, trucks, airplanes, and cargo ships, which together consume about 70 percent of the gasoline used in the United States. While the greatest focus has been on cars, trucking and airline companies are facing collapse.”

  4. This paragraph restates the heart of why conservatives hate climate science. It requires action by government, which, for conservatives, is the same as socialism (again, except when it comes to government action on behalf of the nuclear and fossil fuel industries, which is good ol’ capitalism).

  5. “Sustainability” seems to mean, in this sense, simply “Stagnation”

    Think about it like a family with an inherited fortune. Generations that spend less than they earn from investments aren’t ‘stagnating.’ They are preserving the common resource that sustained their ancestors and could sustain their children.

    No deep philosophy is needed here, just the recognition that it is foolish to live off the capital, rather than the interest. In the context of the Earth, that means that we can develop all manner of new technologies, artistic and cultural styles, and so forth. We just cannot constantly demand more from the planet than it can indefinitely provide.

  6. 1. The colours in that picture are fabulous. Enhanced or natural?
    2. I’m glad you mention fertilizers because most people (non-gardeners) seem to have no conception of how soil fertility becomes depleted and the difficult balance for preventing it. This is particularly true of those who push biofuels based on relatively high yield plantations in Brazil which are benefitting from thousands of years of wonderful fertile rainforest mulch that will quickly disappear. Worryingly, if climate change causes more severe weather extremes then soil loss through flooding and drought (when it gets blown away) may accelerate even as our capacity to use fertilizer declines.
    3. Declining world population seems reasonable enough, especially when one considers how astonishingly vast our current human population is when compared with the previous millenia. A commitment to biodiversity and maintaining habitat for most currently existing animal species should probably be viewed as an additional moral requirement (which may indeed be required by sustainability anyway, since all sorts of interests products & research can be gleaned from odd plants & critters).

  7. 1. The photo is not substantially modified. It has been subjected to a minor levels adjustment and had an unsharp mask applied.

    2. Agricultural productivity is something most people take completely for granted. As the biofuels situation is starting to show, it is likely to be an area of much more contention in the period ahead. The interconnections between fossil fuel prices (and scarcity), climate change, and agriculture may prove critical.

    3. It is entirely possible that a larger world population would be sustainable, provided it derived energy and used resources in more sensible ways. The sustainable population is a product of both size and intensity.

    That said, sharing the resources that exist between fewer people is a relatively pain-free way to achieve a diminished overall impact.

  8. No such thing as interest in the natural world though, and that is the problem. The world and its resources are finite. There is only so much oil in the ground to be found. So much steel in the ground to be mined, etc… That said the basics of life (water, oxygen, food) IS renewable (though even technically those processes rely on solar energy, which is theoretically finite as well)… The problem is no one wants to survive on only the basics of life.

    That said I hardly think its unethical to not preserve something for a generation that doesn’t even exist yet. To think that a future has a right to anything is absurd. If you think so abortion would be illegal as there is no greater right than the right to life, as you are basically arguing that a future generation has a right to resources for survival…

    No the only way to get people to do anything about the environment is if you make it about their life. Which of course is a problem as the big effects of AGW will not happen for 50 to 100 years. So you got to appeal to other things. Make saving energy about saving money, stuff like that.

  9. BuddyRich,

    You are right to draw a distinction between renewable and non-renewable resources. A further one lies between non-renewables that get exhausted (oil, gas, etc) and those that often do not (iron, copper). We need to learn to live without the former and use the latter in ways that preserve them for the future. I have no doubt that we will eventually be mining the landfills of today.

    The problem is no one wants to survive on only the basics of life.

    We could live excellent lives based around sustainable agriculture, renewable energy, and the re-use of recyclable materials. We just need to shift from an unsustainable pathway to a more enlightened one.

    If you think so abortion would be illegal as there is no greater right than the right to life

    You can argue that unborn fetuses are not objects of moral consideration. They are akin to stones, rather than people. Alternatively, you can accord some level of consideration to unborn children, but say that the right of a woman to choose whether to have a child or not is more important.

    People in future generations, on the other hand, are definitely objects of moral consideration. Indeed, they are the ultimate example of innocents. We have an almost unlimited power to do harm to them (through climate change, nuclear waste, etc) but they have no way of ever harming us. Stripping the planet before they have the chance to be born is profoundly unjust.

    No the only way to get people to do anything about the environment is if you make it about their life.

    If this is true, humanity is almost certainly doomed to extinction sooner rather than later. While there are cases where the interests of present generations line up with those of future generations, that isn’t always the case. If future generations are to have any chance, the present generation must learn to live with restraint.

  10. On a seperate note, I think it is very rarely useful to talk about absolute ‘rights’ because they pretty much always come into conflict. If two rights conflict, and are both absolute, we are left in a situation where it is impossible to judge which course of action is morally preferable.

    Rather, we can use concept like ‘rights’ to help produce better outcomes than those that would arise in situations where such ideas were not considered. Rights are a means to an end, not a fact in themselves.

  11. I don’t think I can agree. If (and I use If, I am prochoice myself) a single unborn life is not an object for moral consideration, how does it follow that multiple unborn lives (ie future generations) can be? That is not logical. Its hypocritical. If 1 unborn fetus is akin to a stone, then 1000 are akin to 1000 stones. Alternatively if a mothers right to choose (in the present) trumps a single life, how (or why) do choices we make now have to take the future generations into consideration ethically? I don’t mean to sound critical, or argumentative I just want to see the reasoning and rationale behind that statement.

    If you have no concepts of absolutes (in this case rights) then how do you make any kind of moral or ethical judgement? Everything would be relative. As for rights themselves as a means to an ends, that just sounds so utilitarian… sure rights are are only a concept, but I think their purpose is based on more than just their utility… though personally I think the only absolute right, is the right to life, after that typical rights such a property rights I don’t agree with (Im much more Proudhommean in what I think property rights should be)…

    As for self-sufficency I follow this site:

    Basically an urban farm on 0.20 acre city plot in Pasedena that is more or less sustainable… They manage to produce 6000lbs of produce a year! Granted they get three growing seasons in California they use no fertilizer, no pesticide, all organic. They keep some laying hens, have a goat, a couple other animals, recycle their own water, brew their own biodisel from their waste. The very model of self-suffieciency. Though for them to live like that is a full time job… I am not so sure society is ready to go back to an agrarian lifestyle… Maybe the planet doesn’t need everone to go that far, but it would be a major shift, and given that greed seems to be the inherint trait amongst humans learning to live with restraint is going to be a hard sell to most people, especially the West which does seem to have an entrenched sense of entitlement.

  12. I don’t think I can agree. If (and I use If, I am prochoice myself) a single unborn life is not an object for moral consideration, how does it follow that multiple unborn lives (ie future generations) can be? That is not logical. Its hypocritical. If 1 unborn fetus is akin to a stone, then 1000 are akin to 1000 stones.

    The issue is enjoyment and suffering. A fetus can feel neither but future generations will feel both. It is sentience that makes people (and some animals) objects of moral consideration.

    If you have no concepts of absolutes (in this case rights) then how do you make any kind of moral or ethical judgement? Everything would be relative.

    There are non-relativist frameworks other than ones based on absolute rights. I see rights as a shorthand way to access considerations about outcomes. It is outcomes that really matter – what happens in the world to morally considerable creatures. That is not a relativist position: it is a utilitarian one.

  13. sure rights are are only a concept, but I think their purpose is based on more than just their utility… though personally I think the only absolute right, is the right to life

    Believing in an absolute right to life doesn’t help us deal with ethical problems. If a patient could be saved by a billion dollar operation, would we be morally obliged to provide it? If not, there is no absolute right to life. Similarly, belief in an absolute right to life doesn’t let us express moral preference for an outcome where one person dies compared to 100.

    Absolute rights fail to be useful as soon as they come into conflict, and all contentious moral questions involve conflicting moral claims.

    Sometimes, we secure the best outcome by pretending we believe in moral absolutes – for instance, that torture is always an inexcusable crime – but the only reason for adopting or maintaining such a stance is because it produces the best overall outcome in the world.

  14. Maybe the planet doesn’t need everone to go that far, but it would be a major shift, and given that greed seems to be the inherint trait amongst humans learning to live with restraint is going to be a hard sell to most people, especially the West which does seem to have an entrenched sense of entitlement.

    Hopefully, the planet doesn’t require people to go so far. Basically, that would mean abandoning all the gains that arise from the specialization of labour (Adam Smith’s pin factory, etc). What we need to do is move from a global economic system that can only be sustained until the weakest points fail to one where even the most stressed elements are still within tolerable limits.

  15. I don’t spend nearly the time Milan does with the environmental issues, but the future I picture:

    * Rising costs of limited resources due to high demand will continue to create discomforts in our current myopic economy. In some cases, mostly in the First World, these discomforts will be inconveniences. Some may be very serious and force a lifestyle change.
    * Most First World countries, with their high level of wealth, human capital, power, and governmental stability, will go through a difficult adjustment period similar to (but less choreographed than) Cuba’s adjustment during their oil crisis of the 1990’s.
    * Priorities will change. A higher percentage of income will be spent on food (and maybe water), which will result in both more incentives for food production over other activities, and more thrifty attitudes towards food.
    * Most First World countries will emerge with “toned-down” economies focusing more on local food production
    * The First World countries that are best at surviving this period of adjustment will likely be in a good position to develop more sustainable technology to move forward and create enjoyable lifestyles, not just barely tolerable ones.

    As for the Least Developed Countries, I am less optimistic. I think they have already paid a high price for global economic mismanagement, and they’re going to get it coming and going. Their cash crops will suffer when global trade is impeded by high gas prices. They will starve when they can’t grow or afford to import enough food anymore. Many countries are not stable enough to survive a recession/depression. Many countries have a high percentage of young men with access to deadly weapons, no education, and a quick political temper. In short, it won’t be a whole lot different than what it’s like already.

    Subsistence farming will partially mitigate this-there may be a reversal of urban migration, back to the farms. I think that in Africa, some of the most “undeveloped” regions may in fact offer the most hope in the event of such a catastrophe.

    Well it’s hard to imagine how such a fundamental change will affect us. But this is my best shot.

  16. Oh, and it would be nice if we had all heeded the crazy, hippy environmentalists and started planning for all this shit we know is going to happen, before it becomes an emergency.

    Today on my local news, some dumbass had to sell his new SUV for $4000 less than he paid for it because he can no longer afford to fill it. His comment?

    “I never saw it coming”.


  17. One thing that is not sustainable is currently inflated oil prices. When the war ends, demand will drop off. Also, the price is speculated to kingdom come.

    What is strange is that there is no talk of restarting the 55mph US speed limit.

  18. One thing that is not sustainable is currently inflated oil prices.

    It is possible they will keep rising in the medium term. If Saudi Arabia is basically producing flat out, a lot of fields are declining in output, and new discoveries cannot keep pace with new demand, prices could just keep going.

    When the war ends, demand will drop off.

    This really depends on how the war ends. If the US pulls out and produces a major civil war – or even a regional war – it is unlikely to manifest itself in lower prices.

    Also, the price is speculated to kingdom come.

    This is hard to assess. Buying the (expensive) right to buy oil at a set price in the future could reflect rational expectations about what will happen to the price of oil.

  19. “When the war ends, demand will drop off.

    I have one word for you: China.”

    Fine, then lowering the speed limit to 55 would reduce demand enough for the price to drop significantly. European countries could do it as well.

    I personally don’t mind high oil prices. I drive minimally, and wouldn’t drive any less at 2$ a liter. But, others do. Their preferences count for something.

  20. Politicians are too spineless. Drivers and truckers would have them for dinner if they forced people to spend twice as long going from A to B.

  21. Stuck for answers, politicians have been looking for scapegoats. Top of the list are the speculators profiting from other people’s hardship. Some $260 billion is invested in commodity funds, 20 times the level of 2003. Surely all that hot money has supercharged the demand for oil? But that is plain wrong. Such speculators do not own real oil. Every barrel they buy in the futures markets they sell back again before the contract ends. That may raise the price of “paper barrels”, but not of the black stuff refiners turn into petrol. It is true that high futures prices could lead someone to hoard oil today in the hope of a higher price tomorrow. But inventories are not especially full just now and there are few signs of hoarding.

  22. IPS: Won’t temperatures that high release massive amounts of carbon and methane stored in the northern region’s permafrost?

    CR: Yes. We are running the risk of catastrophic, unstoppable climate change. And with the changes we’re observing in the oceans such temperatures could come sooner.

    IPS: How do we prevent this from happening?

    CR: We need to shift to a no-growth society. Our resources are largely depleted and are being used unsustainably so it makes sense to recycle and reuse what resources we have and redesign our lives and economies on this basis. For instance, with the proper insulation and ventilation our bodies alone could heat our homes. But rather than investing in research and development that could make this possible and affordable, governments are subsiding the use of fossil fuels. If solar energy was subsidised in the same way, solar panels would be far cheaper and better.

    IPS: What will it take to make this major shift?

    CR: Strong leadership from governments, especially the U.S. and Canada. The lack of leadership on climate change is a major problem. All governments can do simple things such as taxing motor vehicles so that people will only buy the smallest, most efficient. I’m afraid it is going to take a major catastrophe in the developed world to get that kind of leadership. And that could come too late when we’re already in a runaway climate change situation.

  23. Lowering the speed limit to 55 would postpone, not prevent, a long-term rise in the price of oil.

    Also, the point I was making above about transitioning refers to other unsustainable lifestyle habits such as a meat-based diet, a consumer economy where everything is built to be thrown out and replaced, and general wastefulness. These things all contribute to a use of resources for trivial activities over things essential for human life.

  24. So, it’s not just a problem of re-engineering (something humans are good at), but a question of changing very basic viewpoints and socially inculcated ideas about what constitutes health and progress for humans (something which humans seem to have harder time doing).

    Even in this, the 21st century, I’ve encountered other people, who are educated and clear-minded folks, who still don’t believe that it’s possible for humans to have the level of impact on the planet that the environmentalists claim.

    This touches on denialism, which is a very pernicious problem. When people simply do not want the discomfort of changing their beliefs to fit new realities, they are willing to endure, in some cases, quite dire consequences rather than change their thinking.

  25. Premises of Endgame

    Premise One: Civilization is not and can never be sustainable. This is especially true for industrial civilization.

    Premise Two: Traditional communities do not often voluntarily give up or sell the resources on which their communities are based until their communities have been destroyed. They also do not willingly allow their landbases to be damaged so that other resources—gold, oil, and so on—can be extracted. It follows that those who want the resources will do what they can to destroy traditional communities.

    Premise Three: Our way of living—industrial civilization—is based on, requires, and would collapse very quickly without persistent and widespread violence.

  26. “How serious is the threat to the environment? Here is one measure of the problem: all we have to do to destroy the planet’s climate and biota and leave a ruined world for our children and grandchildren is to keep doing exactly what we are doing today, with no growth in the human population or the world economy.”

    Speth, Gus. The Bridge at the Edge of the World.

  27. Lowering the speed limit to 55 would postpone, not prevent, a long-term rise in the price of oil.

    I agree, though this is both valuable and the best we can hope for. More efficient vehicles cannot overcome the finite nature of fossil fuel resources, but they can give us more time to develop and deploy sustainable sources of energy.

  28. Is the global economy a Ponzi scheme? Part 1
    Are we all Bernie Madoffs, and what comes next?
    Posted by Joseph Romm (Guest Contributor) at 7:10 PM on 10 Mar 2009

    “We created a way of raising standards of living that we can’t possibly pass on to our children,” said Joe Romm, a physicist and climate expert who writes the indispensable blog We have been getting rich by depleting all our natural stocks — water, hydrocarbons, forests, rivers, fish and arable land — and not by generating renewable flows.

    “You can get this burst of wealth that we have created from this rapacious behavior,” added Romm. “But it has to collapse, unless adults stand up and say, ‘This is a Ponzi scheme. We have not generated real wealth, and we are destroying a livable climate …’ Real wealth is something you can pass on in a way that others can enjoy.”

  29. A special report on waste
    Less is more

    Feb 26th 2009
    From The Economist print edition
    The ultimate in waste disposal is to tackle the problem at source

    And there are more young people around than usual in rural Germany. Sieben Linden, a self-proclaimed eco-village, is growing fast, unlike the surrounding towns.

    The 120 inhabitants have decided to live in as green a manner as possible. They are trying to wean themselves off fossil fuels, grow their own food and timber, acquire fewer frivolous possessions and produce less waste. Food comes either from their own fields or from wholesalers, so there is no need for much packaging. Any scraps are composted. Urine from the toilets is diverted to a reedbed for natural purification, and the faeces are turned into compost for the community’s forest.

    The residents live separately but share big appliances such as washing machines and cars. Before buying a new tool, say, they will put a note into the community’s logbook to ask if anybody has one they could borrow. If not, they will probably buy one secondhand. They often wear one another’s hand-me-downs. Unwanted possessions are left out for others to help themselves.

    Carefree consumption is not actually forbidden, though it would raise eyebrows, says Eva Stützel, who helped to found Sieben Linden over a decade ago. But the main reason the inhabitants buy less and waste less is that they have a rich community life which does not revolve around trips to shops, restaurants and cinemas. They go ice-skating on a nearby pond in winter and swimming in summer; they teach one another horse-riding and yoga and tai chi; they put on plays and concerts and seminars.

    The idea, explains Kosha Joubert, another resident, is not to adopt a dreary, ascetic lifestyle but to demonstrate that it is possible to live in a green manner without undue sacrifice or disruption. Western urbanites could easily adopt elements of the eco-village lifestyle, she says, by forming car pools, say, or shopping co-operatives.

  30. BuddyRich,

    “I don’t think I can agree. If (and I use If, I am pro-choice myself) a single unborn life is not an object for moral consideration, how does it follow that multiple unborn lives (ie future generations) can be?”

    The difference comes from the binary nature of the choice and the existence of a singular object verses the existence of a class of possible objects. I am pro-choice. Let us simplify to a ridiculous position and claim that only people may have rights, so I may provide you with the most straightforward account of how future concern is logical and not hypocritical even under the most extreme rights restrictive position. An “unborn” – I resent the term – has the theoretical possibility to become an infant, and a child and then a teenager and then an adult, and so on. On this basis, rights are not ascribed immediately to the fetus, but once a child is born it gains a set of rights: at 16 it can drive, 18 it enjoys political enfranchisement, 18~19 it may purchase spirits. On this model it is incorrect to claim that a child has a right to vote prior to becoming 18 just because it is likely they will become 18. The reason is that person might never become 18, so this is why we can’t retroactively attribute all rights to children or fetuses. Rights are only ascribed to the actual, because the theoretic possibility admits many potential outcomes, and even the statistical average, which allows for predictions of probable outcomes, fails to settle what will happen in any particular case. The fetus itself still has the moral equivalency of “a stone”. (I would phrase it differently, but I am falling your words.)

    When we are dealing with one fetus, the decision is binary in nature. If an abortion is chosen, the “unborn” will never be born. Under the rights model outlined, the person will never exist, so it makes little sense to talk of his or her rights. The difference with multiple objects is that you are now talking about a class of objects. The theoretic potential is different because the outcomes of binary choices that would lead to the non-existence of many of the potential objects of that class do not destroy the existence of the class. A simplified example – We have 1000 fetuses, 500 women choose to abort, the other 500 fetuses still don’t have rights, 500 babies are born, those babies come to possess rights and their well-being is a proper object of moral consideration. I would like to stress explicitly that it is still dependent on their being born and still doesn’t ascribe rights or moral obligations to fetuses.

    From moving from a single potential object to the class you’ve changed the type of theoretical potentiality from where abortion completely negates the class (of 1 object) to where the abortion of potential objects that fall into the class merely change the particulars of the class. (Maybe 800, or 600, or a different 600, or a different 600, or 50 are born) Once we reach this point it is easy to justify concern on the grounds of prudence and moral obligation. You would have to argue that the entire class (that not one child will come to exist) to claim that we have no moral obligation to future generations. Such an argument is correct, no future generation means we don’t have any moral consideration, but the problem is that such an outcome isn’t likely – at least one new person shall exist. Since we are working on the assumption of a future generation, it makes sense prudentially and morally to prepare. Moral obligations are only owed to existing persons for many reasons – subjective experience, sapience, being able to use the interlocutor function of language without falling in express self-contradiction. The obligation to future generation then depends on a theoretical potential but it is different from the theoretical potential of an “unborn”. It is the likelihood that there will be living, feeling, demanding individuals at a point in time, which we may sensibly ascribe rights to, rather than the potential of a particular fetus to become a living, feeling person. So as a society we may sensibly invest in a new university for future generations of scholars even though those scholars don’t exist yet, because we believe that (existing) individuals have a right to maximize their potential and that a particular person will come to hold such a right at some point in the future. This is a distinctly different proposition from claiming that I owe “unborn” and never-to-be born “Jenny” an education.

    Why Isn’t the Brain Green?

    Published: April 16, 2009

    Two days after Barack Obama was sworn in as president of the United States, the Pew Research Center released a poll ranking the issues that Americans said were the most important priorities for this year. At the top of the list were several concerns — jobs and the economy — related to the current recession. Farther down, well after terrorism, deficit reduction and en ergy (and even something the pollsters characterized as “moral decline”) was climate change. It was priority No. 20. That was last place.

    A little more than a week after the poll was published, I took a seat in a wood-paneled room at Columbia University, where a few dozen academics had assembled for a two-day conference on the environment. In many respects, the Pew rankings were a suitable backdrop for the get-together, a meeting of researchers affiliated with something called CRED, or the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions. A branch of behavioral research situated at the intersection of psychology and economics, decision science focuses on the mental proces ses that shape our choices, behaviors and attitudes. The field’s origins grew mostly out of the work, beginning in the 1970s, of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, two psychologists whose experiments have demonstrated that people can behave unexpectedly when confronted with simple choices. We have many automatic biases — we’re more averse to losses than we are interested in gains, for instance — and we make repeated errors in judgment based on our tendency to use shorthand rules to solve problems. We can also be extremely susceptible to how questions are posed. Would you undergo surgery if it had a 20 percent mortality rate? What if it had an 80 percent survival rate? It’s the same procedure, of course, but in various experiments, responses from patients can differ markedly.

  32. Here’s a question: must a truly sustainable world be planned world?

    Or is there any way in which the behaviour of individual humans and organizations can become sustainable in a decentralized manner?

    In the medium term, ‘sustainable’ means at least ‘carbon neutral’ and ‘not reliant on fossil fuels.’

  33. This is a horrible question. You’re setting up “planning” to be something in opposition to freedom. In fact, people can get together and accomplish many things they can’t do alone.

    Was stopping the Spadina expressway an example of “planning”, as opposed to driving along an expressway an example of individual human freedom?

    The political solutions are simple. The complicated thing is – why are they “politically impossible”. You might ask why has universal health care been politically impossible, and the public option even now – despite there being overwhelming public (as in, the population) support for thirty years.

    We need to figure out how to do things together. This means lots of “planning” – but what’s essential is who and how the planning is done. Any political system might be able to be sustainable, except the one we have right now.

  34. ‘Planned’ doesn’t mean ‘planned by a secretive cabal or Wizard of Oz figure at the top.’

    Planning can be done in an open and democratic way. What is important is replacing the random consequences of people responding to immediate incentives with a scheme that takes into consideration serious long-term issues.

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