Sustainability Isn’t Sustainable

Send to Kindle

By Dale B. Halling

July 7, 2014



Sustainability is all the rage today. But, what do we mean by sustainability? There are numerous and conflicting definitions of what sustainability means. However, most sources point to the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED), also known as the Brundtland Report. According to the 1987 Brundtland Report, sustainability is: “Meeting the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.“[1] This definition is not testable and is incredibly vague. Let’s take the word sustainable literally.

A sustainable technology would be one that can be used indefinitely by humans without side effects and without any diminution in its effectiveness. This definition violates the laws of physics.

The Second Law of Thermodynamics states entropy always increases. Entropy is normally defined as the measure of the disorder of a system or a measure of the energy not available for work. Entropy was discovered as part of thermodynamics and it explains that a perpetual motion machine is impossible. Sustainability taken literally is an attempt to create a perpetual motion machine.

Some of the key issues for the sustainability paradigm revolve around so called non-renewable resources, such as the use of fossil fuels and the using up of other natural resources. The way this is often phrased today is Peak Oil, Peak Water, Peak _____ (pick your favorite resource). For more information see Peak Everything: Eight Things We are Running Out of and Why.[2] Peak Oil (natural resource) occurs when the amount of oil that can be extracted reaches its maximum or the point at which we reach the maximum net energy output from oil. The alternative definition takes into account that even if we can extract more oil, this is redundant if it takes more energy to extract the oil than we receive from the oil. The supposed solution for our Peak Oil problem is to develop renewable energy resources. The Clean Energy website provides the following definition “Renewable energy is natural energy which does not have a limited supply. Renewable energy can be used over and over again, and will never run out.”[3] What is natural energy? Either all energy is natural, since the so-called non-renewable energy also comes from nature, or only animal muscle power is natural.

The nature-as-source qualification is rendered meaningless—unless they really want us to go back to animal muscle only. The “never run out” qualification violates the second law of thermodynamics. All energy resources will run out. All energy sources, fossil fuels, solar, hydroelectric, tidal, biomass, hydrothermal, fission, fusion, etc. are solar or stellar, i.e. arising from a star. For instance, hydroelectric energy is the result of the Sun heating the oceans or other large bodies of water. As the water evaporates and then condenses in the form of rain or snow on land masses it is collected in dams. The dams convert the gravitation force of the water into electric energy. Fossil fuels are created by sunlight converting dead organisms (both plants and animals) into biomass. The biomass is trapped underground by sea sediment and the pressure and heat converts the biomass into oil, coal, natural gas, etc..[4] Fission is the process whereby heavy elements, generally Uranium, are split into lighter elements and energy is released. These heavy elements were created in a star that has long since expired. Thus, all energy is solar or stellar. The Sun will not last forever and it does not provide unlimited energy. The concept of energy that “will never run out” and “can be used over and over again” does not hold up. Thus there is no such thing as renewable energy.

This concept of peak resources is not new. You can find numerous examples of the “Peak Resource” concept in modern human history, e.g. the fertilizer crisis of the 19th century. In 1830, it was discovered that guano was an excellent fertilizer. The human population in Europe expanded in part because of the additional food that was produced due to this excellent fertilizer. The best sources of guano began to run out fairly quickly. People predicted the equivalent of “Peak Guano.” The question was not whether we would have “Peak Guano,” but Peak Fertilizer? We did not have a guano problem; we had an invention problem. The Haber-Bosch process invented in 1909, which allowed fixing nitrogen in air, solved the “Peak Guano” problem.[5]

In the article “Peak Everything?” Reason Magazine, discussed how logical, scientific projections showed we would run out of lithium, neodymium, and phosphorus.[6] Peak Lithium was going to limit the batteries necessary for electric cars. In fact, it was expected that we would run out of lithium faster than we would run out of oil. The solution was a new invention that replaces lithium with zinc air batteries. Note that the solution was not a better way to extract lithium, but to make the supply of lithium irrelevant. It was a paradigm shift created by a new invention. Similarly, Peak Neodymium was going to limit our ability to build the electric motors of hybrid cars as well as other products. Interestingly, neodymium magnets were invented to overcome the problem of Peak Cobalt. In the area of permanent magnets, it now appears that a new induction motor will eliminate the need for permanent magnets. The Peak Phosphorus concept is a repeat of Peak Guano. Peak phosphorous supposedly threatens our ability to provide enough fertilizer for our agricultural needs. One solution is that phosphorous is a product of human urine. The phosphorous can be recycled using a no-mix toilet according to the article.

What these prophets of doom ignore or forget is that the most important natural human resource is the human mind and our ability to create inventions to overcome these obstacles. As Paul Romer has observed,

“Every generation has perceived the limits to growth that finite resources and undesirable side effects would pose if no new recipes or ideas were discovered. And every generation has underestimated the potential for finding new recipes and ideas. We consistently fail to grasp how many ideas remain to be discovered. The difficulty is the same one we have with compounding: possibilities do not merely add up; they multiply.”[7]

The computer industry has also been beset by predictions of impeding doom, when it could no longer achieve Moore’s law of doubling the number of transistors every eighteen months. Ray Kurzweil has shown that if you restate Moore’s law as computational power, every time a technology reaches its limit to improve computational power a new technology takes over. Using this he shows that computational power has been growing exponentially since 1900. The first computational devices were electromechanical. When this reached their limit, they were replaced with relay devices; the relay devices were replaced with vacuum tubes, then transistors, and then integrated circuits.[8]

Life is a fight against entropy.

The unique way humans overcome entropy is by inventing. Inventions are not subject to diminishing returns or entropy. Potential inventions grow factorially, which is much faster than diminishing returns from natural resources. We do not have natural resources problem, we have an invention problem. The sustainability movement is pushing a political slogan, not science. In the process, they are actually inhibiting new technologies from being developed, by diverting resources from the most promising technologies to the politically acceptable technologies.

Humans have created imaging devices that allow us to see individual molecules, perceive objects light years away, and microminute tissues inside the human body. Spacecraft have left our solar system, planes cross continents in a few hours, communication devices allow us to talk to almost anyone in the world instantaneously, vaccines have been invented that prevent diseases, medicines have been manufactured to treat all sorts of ailments. Food supply is so plentiful today that the biggest problem in many countries today is not starvation but overeating. All of this has taken place in just the last 100 years. Imagine what we can do in the next 100 years.



[1] Brundtland Commision, Wikipedia,, 11/7/10.

[2] Alter, Lloyd, Peak Everything: Eight Things We are Running Out of and Why, Treehugger: A Discovery Company, 5/27/08, 11/7/10.

[3] 11/7/10/.

[4] Note that have been some alternative explanations proposed for how oil is produced that does not involve this biomass conversion

[5] Mark Ridley had numerous “Peak Oil” examples in his book The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves, Harper Collins, 2010, New York, pp 121 -156.

[6] Bailey, Ronald,, Peak Everything?, April 27, 2010,, 10/16/10.

[7] Bailey, Ronald,, Peak Everything?, April 27, 2010,, 10/16/10.

[8] Kurzwiel, Ray, The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Human Biology, Penguin Books, 2005, p 67.



(Visited 405 times, 1 visits today)
  • Have Your Say

    “The sustainability crowd is pushing a political slogan, not science.” I like this line.

  • Dale Netherton

    Notice the interest by politicians in “shortages”. The renewable cry for more legislation and taxes reverberates every time a crisis can be envisioned. Harold Hill on the look out for a Pool Hall to instigate action. If perpetual motion were possible the politicians would panic. How do you name a crisis you can point to when the solution is apparent and recognized?

  • m1tmc

    Having lived on both sides of this discussion it is easy to recognize that sustainability loses the argument once population is considered, but wise consumption of finite resources is a no-brainer. Lovelock’s ‘Gaia’ theory was reasonable until the sustainability crowd did what Gore did with ?Ravelle?’s global warming hypothesis, who Gore eventually tried to discredit when his mentor, Ravelle, tried to reel him in. Inventions and ‘yankee ingenuity’ seem to be bought upon discovery by energy suppliers that are raking in the dough; what they are in business for.

  • I am writing this comment almost two years after the post, since the post was used as a reference in one of today’s featured Galt’s Gulch threads.

    (1) According to a Google search I just made, “sustainable” means “able to be maintained at a certain rate or level”, which is not the same as your “literal” definition at all.

    (2) What is wrong with the Brundtland Report definition? I can immediately think of an instance to illustrate it’s applicability: the harvesting of a crop. Farmers can, and do, provide for the present generation without compromising the needs of future generations.

    As is oft your want, you are digressing from your supposed task: to show that “sustainability isn’t sustainable”. I stopped reading after the first few paragraphs, since – no matter what else you said – sustainability IS sustainable.

    • dbhalling

      Actually farming is not sustainable. if you use the same technology over and over your output declines overtime. It is easier to see with older farming methods (slash and burn), but it is true of any farm method where the technology is stagnant.