The Risk-Monger

What is sustainability? We have a lot of lofty definitions, hyperbole and weighty normative responsibilities tied to this concept, but what does it mean? In honour of Rio+20, coming in June 2012, the Risk-Monger thought this word should be more deeply analysed. Some people might not be happy with his conclusions.

Back in September, I spoke at a risk conference at the University of Michigan Risk Science Center (for those who are morbidly curious, you can watch my presentation here). The event had the term “sustainable” in the title. Normally I glance over that word in my search for linguistic meaning, but given the circumstances, I thought it merited a little attention (as I was also sitting on a panel with experts and authors on the subject).

But what does sustainability mean? The more I looked at it, the harder it became to put my finger (or footprint) on it.

In my search for a definition, I went to the Rio+20 website where I found lots of nice graphics, flash presentations and reports about other UN reports coming from other conferences that seemed to be well researched, but nothing that spoke to me beyond the Brundtland Report (1987). But besides achieving little, it looked like everyone had a good time at their events. The Brundtland definition states that: “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” It seems like basic common sense until you ask: What is this about?

Sustainability seems to be about progress, but progress towards what? Towards solving society’s problems and advancing humankind to a better place? Progress in returning man to a better balance with nature (eg, undoing the destruction of the fossil fuel-based world economy and proving, finally, that Malthus was right)? Progress towards being able to feed a growing population with increasing water scarcity? Progress towards supplying our growing need for energy while reducing CO2 emissions and fighting the war against global warming? So, would biofuels then be sustainable? Not yet, but with progress … Sadly most of Brundtland’s focus (alleviating world poverty and correcting the injustice between North and South) was lost in the excitement of the environmental activists who saw many campaign opportunities and have much bigger PR budgets than aid and relief agencies.

Clearly, sustainability is better left as an empty concept – a container that can be filled with what we determine to be important. Environmental activists like Greenpeace and WWF have done a good job lobbying to convince many that sustainability is about shifting to renewable energy (and the price we’ll pay through energy shortages is a sacrifice we need to make for future generations). Scientists working on seed technologies agree that the present agricultural practices are unsustainable, and therefore we need more GMOs as soon as possible. Energy experts see the increasing demand for energy and realise it is completely unsustainable to decommission the present generation of nuclear reactors. The Risk-Monger believes we need more investment in chemicals to find solutions to our growing developmental problems (but he seems to be a lone nutter on that one). Sustainability is a cup that we can fill with whatever ails us.

If sustainability were not a vacuous concept, we would never all be able to gather at the UN for Rio+20 and agree on anything. But why should we bother?

Is sustainability a virtue?

The most attractive element of sustainability is its normative value. By thinking of future generations, we are being ethically upright – even virtuous. It fits our eco-religious rituals to reward ourselves with an ethically enhanced character … whether we get it from sorting our rubbish, riding our bicycle in the rain, eating organic … virtue suggests a sacrifice. We all recognise that our rampant consumption (original sin) must be controlled – we must live more sustainably (in harmony with nature). Integrity, harmony, natural – all emotive, value-laden terms. Sacrificing today for future generations is presented as the ultimate goodness (to mix religions, it is Christ-like) and the paradigm of virtue.

Of course virtues are not easily defined, but rather recognised in stories (parables) and contextualised within a battle against vices. In the case of the virtue of sustainability, the stories are about avoiding bad consumption (coal, nuclear, palm oil, APP …) – that onerous temptation of industry, which leads to pollution, corruption and environmental degradation. Those who follow the Risk-Monger’s blogs recognise that he does not sing in this choir on Sundays. Treating sustainability as a virtue is a cornerstone of the attempt to establish and codify environmental ethics – a potentially catastrophic environmentalist strategy that would result in the end of much positive scientific research and some very unsustainable behaviour (see my interpretation from an earlier blog).

As Rio+20 is coming up, I think we have to be vigilant to prevent sustainability from being hijacked by the green eco-religious agenda. Sadly, they have already written the Rio+20 outcome report six months in advance, inspirationally entitled: The Future We Want (who needs consultation or engagement?). But we can still discuss “their future we fear” (I sense it will be a busy year).

In my next blog, I will offer what I think: that sustainability must be, by definition, anecdotal.

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  1. The word ‘sustainability’ is thorwn at everything, knowing that the well trained listener will emit a stepford-child-like positive response, but no-one, at any given moment can tell you what someone meant when they used it.

    That’s the idea.

    As to the bazillionth international conference where charged up delegates get charged up yet again for something they too uniformly nod about,.. well to hell with them two.

    After all, what do they do? Nothing. They’re role in life is to leverage the effort other peoples’, people who are productive, and by that very same token pollute either a little or a lot, but in any event are people who play a genuine role in society as MAKERS not TAKERS.

    We are the ones who get a new rule (brought to you by some form of moral vanity) thrown at us every other week, and are told to work out a way to continue to do what you do, to which they are almost always inimical or obstructively demanding unsustainable and useless levels of documentation and justification regardless.

    They are our new aristocracy, and they have no qualms being generous with other peoples’ livelihoods, resources, and savings. While they might have found some smiley-smiley-nicey-nicey subject to give themselves a means of imposing themselves on other, all they really are are a morally repugnant elite who pretend that their dictums don’t induce poverty or at least a great deal of widespread mediocrity that they will be exempted any effect from.

    1. Thanks Joe. A while back (before it was fashionable to catch climate activists on their contradictions), when I had started this blog, I wrote about the elitism of environmentalism – if you are new to my counter-intuitivism, this might enrage you a bit more.
      Most UN delegates are passive, trained seals, going to UN conferences to represent their governments and read statements. They might be nice people, and good at networking, but they don’t necessarily need to know very much about their briefs (it is better for governments if they don’t because otherwise they might actually feel empowered to act). It was only the UN afterall.
      But recently, NGO activists have started showing up at meetings and demanding a voice and they found themselves in an easy forum where they can change things, uncontested. They even had the balls to take over the IPCC and put one of theirs in charge to ensure that the science went their way … able then to put their activists on committees and publish their reports. They also have one of theirs in charge of UNEP. Maybe the rest of us should pay a bit more attention to this.
      I have decided Joe that the Risk Monger should be allowed to become a delegate for Rio+20 (as a voice against the people … the people that is, who are doing great damage to a less represented population). Just think about it, the Copa in June (!) and a chance to offend the self-righteous. I have blocked the dates in my schedule. Now … can any one advise me on how I can become a delegate???

  2. Renewable energy and energy shortages? It seems the “risk monger” got it all wrong in his analysis when he argues that a transition away from exhaustible fossil fuel resources (and into renewable energy) will lead to energy shortages. Apparently he missed a great deal of analysis by us and many others on how to provide the energy we need in Europe hour-by-hour using the variating renewables (such as windpower) in an integrated system. Please see the scenarios we collected on

    1. Thank you Gunnar for this information. I am pleased to see that you are very certain about your scenarios (and the point of my blog, that we cannot be certain about sustainability claims, must therefore be all wrong). As a risk analyst, I enjoy scenario building because it involves dreaming up futures (not really too science determined since they need to range from best to worst case scenarios and as they are scenarios who really challenges them? – they are afterall only possible future worlds – they are made for policy preparations for what could happen, not to justify policy action). The UK government ran a series of scenarios and concluded, best case, to prepare for a future of rotating brownouts. That is not their will but they need to prepare for all types of scenarios.
      The groups making up your consortia are aspiration driven – you want to have a world based on renewables so you are juicing the numbers to the scenario you want (shut down nuclear, fossil fuels and any industrial production beyond cottage industries). Don’t get me wrong, I think it is wonderful how you dream of perfect worlds … I just get worried when people like Connie the Magician or Angela the Frightened listen to your lobbying cum “FP7 funded science (mutual learning programme?)” because scenarios don’t actually involve facts (never did, and why they are so much fun). But here is a fact your scenario building does not have to consider when you offer to replace nuclear with wind. Before Angela the Frightened got startled with the scenario of Munich getting hit by a 30m high tsunami (once again, facts don’t matter), Germany produced 20,000 MW from nuclear. The average wind turbine has a capacity of 1.8 MW and on average, with wind speeds in Germany, operate at one third capacity (0.6 MW per turbine). So if my calculator is correct (numbers don’t matter either!), in order to replace German nuclear capacity with wind, you would then need to construct 33,300 wind turbines. When I confronted a German renewables expert in the European Parliament with these numbers, he did not deny them (except to sheepishly argue that the new turbines are more efficient and will be able to produce up to 0.8 MW). So what do scenario builders do when they risk looking stupid by insisting on building 33,300 turbines to avoid the Munich tsuanmi scenario? They come up with another scenario – let’s call it the smart grid. I have written elsewhere how environmentally destructive the smart grid will be and how the poor will suffer from this scenario (no, I don’t work for the oil industry, nor for IBM and GE who are lobbying hard for all these new smart grid gadgets they can sell us).
      Please Gunner, recognise that you have aspirations (dreams), and as you surround yourself with other dreamers, it is easy to start to believe these scenarios. That is fine, it is charming, but please don’t be so arrogant as you are in your message above to those who respect facts and try to think a little about the fate of the populations that will have to pay the price for your dreams. Arrogance is something you should try to avoid especially as we are beginning to see that your base premise, that the world is warming due to anthropogenic CO2 emissions, is fatally flawed (Oh, I forgot – those are all lobbyists and your friends are not … charming indeed!).
      Humility is a virtue when those who believed you are made to be fools.

  3. Thnak you for the reply. Of course scnearios are not facts, they are descriptions of possible futures, and good scenarios are based on fact-based analysis of the topic they focus on, such as energy. One type of energy scenarios are analysing the technical possibilities for future energy supplies, such as making the majority of a national power supply with windpower. These kind of scenarios typically scale up the current variating windpower and include solutions to deal with this in affordable ways. This often involves elements of the “smart-grid” that you apparently are not so fund of; but the smart grid is just a communication tool to tell the users of power that have agreed an interruptible power supply when it is time to switch on or off. And it does it in a way where the equipment can react automatically, not like in India, where the power dispatcher turns on and off villages in a rotating pattern because of lack of electric energy. Models of power systems consistently show that with the right combination of flexible demand (for instance heat pumps with heat storages), we can have above 50% windower in many countries, in Denmark even 80%, without expensieve battery storages or unrealistic expansions of power lines.
    Another type of scenarios focus on the economy of future societies fuelled by different forms of energy. The results are obviously very dependent on the assumptions regarding future fuel prices as well as economy of scale of new technologies. If we assume that fossil fuel prices continue to increase as they have done in the last decade, many scenarios show that it will be cheaper to change to renewable energy than staying with the increasingly costly fossils. If we take the slow increases in fossil fuel prices in one of the IEA middle scenario, the conclusion of most scenarios are that there will be same or slightly higher costs for a transition to renewable energy that for status quo – if we do not value the reduction of greenhouse gases. And of course if fossil fuel prices go down, the transition to renewable energy will be more expensive. In that way a transition to renewable energy can be seen as an insurance against escalating fosil fuel prices, where we only have to pay if the prices do not go up.
    Therefore I cannot agree with your statement about the problem to pay for the transition. Rather I am worried about the costs of using the present energy system in the future, relying on high fossil fuel consumption and increasing imports of fossil fuels with probably increasing prices.

    1. Unfortunately Gunnar, I cannot make it to Paris next month for your event (I have a lecture), but I hope someone asks the following questions about your scenarios (and pricing aspects):
      – How will your smart-grid scenario adapt to the the off-peak consumption increase when everyone starts plugging their electric cars in overnight? WWF seems to think it is OK to have more electric cars (rather than the logical idea of building fewer cars).
      – How will your pricing scenarios evolve if natgas supplies continue to increase with the wider availability of shale and renewable feed-in tariffs contine to decline?
      – Do any of your scenarios do a CO2 lifecycle assessment of photovoltaics? I have blogged many times that the present solar design consumes an enormous amount of CO2 (which countries like Belgium and Germany will probably never recoup) and this CO2 is cummulative in the atmosphere.
      – Do any of your scenarios account for the increased consumption of new consumer appliances to adapt to smart grid pricing variabilities. I think the lobbying that big companies are doing for you is indicative that the increased markets and consumption will offset any possible savings in CO2.
      – Do your scenarios bring in increased – cumulative – CO2 emissions from the production of unnecessary things like electric cars (not to mention resource exploitation of rare earths for all of those batteries), or are these issues taboo?

      Sadly I cannot come to debate your group in person – in any case my views have been well blogged on. Maybe another time.

  4. Sustainability is to continue using the available resources far beyond the lifetime of some society using it. There is better use of those resources possible with less impact on environment allowing nature to keep pace with the changes made.
    The current open loop economy with all its externals -not to the liking of the profit seeking, – denies that every action will have re-action. Known since Newton, so one externalizes those effects.
    It has little use trying to defeat diseases if environment is being changed in such a rapid way that there is no (known) environment left to live in as we know it/used to. Example: setting up sea-walls for protecting against sea-level rise and storms which used to occur every 100 years has little use when environment changes to have such storms more or less every 25 years. Killing all carriers of e.g. malaria in an area devastated by drought, insecticides and nuclear waste where nobody can grow its food any more is not that useful.

    Debunking the climate myths I leave to John Cook on There are people writing articles with a very good understanding of the science behind climate change, global warming peer reviewed and all.

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