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Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of…Sustainability?

June 25, 2008

“Sustainability” is ubiquitous these days. If you want to sound smart, deep, and concerned for the future, you’ve gotta throw in the word ‘sustainable’ somewhere. Entire departments of “Sustainability Studies” are being built as we speak. “Meeting today’s needs without jeopardizing the ability of future generations to meet their future needs” is the slogan. Wow. I have to catch my breath after such hyperbole….Things degenerate into comedy when one hears people assess our present condition as being unsustainable and that in the past we were somewhat better in that regardĀ  (if so, how did we get to the supposedly “horrible” present situation?), and that if we don’t act immediately, in unison, with some kind of general mobilization, we are doomed. These feelings probably arise from a sense of “lack-of-control”. People are used to plan for the future in their own lives: they study, save, postpone, etc…it’s a very rational thing to do. But when their gaze pans out onto the large modern open societies we live in, they see a world run amok. It’s hard to comprehend how a complex system such as human society coupled with a complex system such as nature could possibly evolve in a positive direction without supervision. To my knowledge economics is the only discipline ever to attempt finding an explanation for this ‘miracle’. I say ‘miracle’ because of course we are getting better and better at sustaining the lives and dreams of more and more people in cleaner and cleaner environments. Sustainability is already happening, and I wouldn’t be opposed to studies that tried to explain the mechanisms for our current prosperity, and to show that it is exactly because each one of us lacks excessive control on our collective future that we can feel safe and confident that we will adapt to whatever will come. The problem arises when people start to believe that (global) sustainability can be somehow “planned” in the same way an individual plans for his family. City-planners in the small town where I live have already botched several projects, and yet concerned citizens continue to band together under the banner of ‘sustainability’. At what point do people start to recognize the “Hayekian fallacy” that our attitudes within small families or groups do not necessarily extend to a larger dynamic society?

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