Why Green is not Sustainable.

Garlic“An Environmentalist on the Lie of Locavorism” crossed my desk the other day. It’s a pretty eye-catching title, pitting “An Environmentalist” against local eating and urban farming, darlings of greens and urban planners everywhere – and calling them liars, to boot. That is a pretty big brag.

But it didn’t take much reading to see Will Boisvert’s environmental vision needs a very strong pair of glasses. His myopia is in the difference between Green and Sustainable – two words that could use a little definition. (I am not picking on Boisvert for any particular reason, this sort of mistake is rampant in  “environmental” writing.1 His article just happened to tick me off at a time I felt like writing about it.)

Ignoring flagrant greenwashing,2 I use green to mean stuff that is less bad – and I chose my words carefully – for the planet and the flora and fauna3 that live on it.

Sustainable, on the other hand, gets beaten around the ring – mostly by people who throw their hands in the air and say, “Sustainable. What does that even mean?” Its meaning is quite simple, really.

It means able-to-be-sustained.

It means, for all intents and purposes, that whatever you are talking about can keep on doing what it is doing, and can do so essentially forever. The sun is a sustainable energy source, because it will keep rising in the east, essentially forever. A sustainable fishery is one that would give us surplus fish every year, essentially forever. A sustainable economy would keep providing for the needs of participants, essentially forever.

So, when someone throws their hands in the air, it is probably because they just don’t like the answer – the meaning is really quite easy to understand.

Now, the problem is that many green solutions sound great, but aren’t sustainable: nuclear energy, electric cars, the hydrogen highway, substituting renewables for coal-fired power,4 vertical farming, urban density, public transit – these are green(er), but not sustainable. Green seldom means good for the planet, or good for the environment, it means less bad.

So green can be a continuum. Burning two gallons of gas is better than burning three gallons. Burning one gallon is better than burning two gallons. But something is able-to-be-sustained – or not.5 Bill Rees, of EcoFootprint fame, says that sustainability is like pregnancy – you either are or you aren’t. There is no grey area.

In his critique of locavorism Boisvert makes the same mistake that underlies the most common criticisms6 of the 100 Mile Diet, and shows a deep lack of understanding of sustainability.

NASA is always taking new pictures, but what never changes is the starkness of that little blue droplet surrounded by deep space. What never changes is the inarguable obviousness of the edges of our planet. We live on a finite world.

Because we live on a finite planet everything that makes up our planet is also finite.

So, I googled Will Boisvert, trying to see if he understands limits. I found someone who has argued passionately in favour of the nuclear industry. Boisvert often bases his support of nuclear on decarbonization, so it seems likely he believes in Climate Chaos and wishes we could prevent that. Good for him. I can speculate he is writing his columns from the communications office of a uranium mining company, but that is only speculation.7 He says he supports nuclear, because it can decarbonize our power supply.

But, while he talks about carbon, which mostly comes from fossil fuels, he never talks about peak oil. Nor, in all his writing about how nuclear is the only real option, does he address the limits to the supply of radioactive materials.8

So it seems like Boisvert does not get that we live on a finite planet, and that is why he totally misses the point of local eating.

Boisvert’s argument against locavorism is entirely one of how many gallons of diesel it takes to move a tonne of produce to market. This is the logic that says it is better to eat New Zealand lamb or Mexican tomatoes. Add in the coal9 or natural gas burnt in greenhouses to grow your tomatoes-on-the-vine in January, and the trucked-in Mexican tomato looks even – ahem – greener.

And if only we had an infinite supply of diesel, these arguments may be right – but we don’t, so they aren’t. They are all wrong. A Mexican tomato is less bad than a coal-fired greenhouse tomato, but it is still bad. Bad. Boisvert et al. have seemingly willfully misunderstood the argument, because locavorism was never about your January tomato.

Locavorism is about living within the edges of that little blue droplet. If you want a tomato in January, in August you should cut a nice, ripe tomato into thin slices, sprinkle on a little salt, and dry it in a warm but shady place. Locavorism is about the rhythms of the seasons in the place where you live. It is not about having a tomato whenever the hell you feel like, nor about eating lamb when it is not lambing season.

So yes, it may be less bad – greener – to eat a tomato from Mexico rather than a hothouse tomato grown up the street in Edmonton. But neither of these two options is able-to-be-sustained. Both of these options fail as the supply of fossil fuels fails. What does not fail is eating from your bioregion. Gorge yourself on tomatoes in harvest season or enjoy jars from your pantry, but fresh tomato year-round is not sustainable.

You can see the meaning of the word is quite easy to understand, it is just the answer we don’t like – you can’t always get what you want. The concept of sustainability is very clear, even if is hard to weed out the greens. If you want to separate the two, just try to unpack it as far out as you can. Play elaborate what-if games, imagine scenarios. Plan for the seventh generation.

And stop calling New Zealand lamb sustainable.

 

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{ 26 comments }

  • Lindda February 3, 2014, 12:01 am

    I agree that being sustainable is the way to go to protect our planet but pardon me , I also find it depressing. And I guess that I am not alone. That is why people think that they are green if they buy electric cars for example.
    Yes I am addicted to oil ….There should be a 12 step program for that (ironic)
    Does living in a sustainable way means going back to living on a farm? There were cities before the cheap oïl age but our cities have grown a lot since then and reverting to the land will not be easy. We have lost a lot how knowlegde.
    I will continue to read your website, it is very interesting.

    Reply
    • Ruben April 6, 2014, 4:04 am

      I don’t think sustainable has to mean being a farmer—though until very recently a very large percentage of the population was engaged in farming.

      But, even if only for the joy it brings, I do think we should all try to grow and process some of our own food. A little salad greens, some jam, apple cider, whatever fits.

      Reply
  • Ted Howard August 31, 2013, 10:36 am

    “And stop calling New Zealand lamb sustainable.”
    Thank you! I appreciate your insight!

    I’m from NZ, been a peak oil activist for 15 years, and we’re swamped with brite-green bs, 100% Pure NZ nonsense.

    We are a country of 4.5 million, and via big industrial processes, we import enough fuel, synthetic fertiliser, super phosphate, synthetic pesticides, herbicides, fungicides…to grow enough food for 100 million people.

    As long as the energy is cheap, and phosphate is available, and big industrial supply chains continue to supply us with a those synthesised ingredients, and a mechanised industrial farming system…we can continue to export.

    Susutainable? Forget it.

    But 120 years ago, high performance trading scows were able to sail from here to Sydney Australia in 4.5 days, supplying them with fresh food. That’s only 1 day slower than what the modern container ships do it in.

    The point is, we could go back to more ‘sustainable’ (TM) ways of living. But we won’t, as long as we can keep doing things the way we’re doing it.

    And that’s because we’re “civilised” and we’re told 24/7 that this is the best way to live, and anything less than that is primitive and backward.

    The problem with that is, it’s end result is exactly what’s happening under our noses, though the vast majority have no clue, because they live in towns and cities, the human pen, equivalent to human CAFO’s (concentrated animal feed operations), and are disconnected (by design) with where their food and water comes from, and where their waste goes.

    That consensus trance bubble is pathologically suicidally insane. And sometime very much sooner than later, we’ll be forced to face it.

    The 6th Mass Extinction is now happening at a rate never seen before in the geological rates, and peak everything is starting to impact from all sorts of tipping points, coming from all directions.

    This is NOT an issue of human nature, humanity, human species. It’s about that dominant culture we now find ourselves in. It’s killing us, killing our communities, and the biosphere, at rates we should be waking up to and doing something about.

    “Humans are not destroying the biosphere, ‘civilised’ humans are” Derrick Jensen

    Reply
    • Ruben August 31, 2013, 4:32 pm

      Thanks for your comment, Ted. And especially for the details—I am so excited to see widespread sail freight….

      Reply
  • Carina August 25, 2013, 8:46 pm

    I agree. Amazing how easily people fall for green consumerism too http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/zion-lights/green-consumerism-i-dont-buy-it_b_3739624.html

    Reply
    • Ruben August 25, 2013, 10:39 pm

      Thanks for the link Carina.

      Reply
  • UKgal August 25, 2013, 6:44 pm

    Or, “Bright Green” vs “Deep Green”, etc.

    Reply
  • UKgal August 25, 2013, 6:43 pm

    Thank you for this important piece, Ruben. Pseudo-environmentalists must be stopped! And our language, being power, must be clear and correct. And nowadays, nuclear energy is being marketed as ‘green’ …

    What do you think of the Light Green vs. Deep Green terms as espressions of differing relationship to sustainability?

    Reply
    • Ruben August 25, 2013, 10:39 pm

      Thanks for reading and commenting. I think that Light Green is what is called Green, so it is less bad, but not good. Let’s not forget the Bright Greens—the Worldchanging crowd—that believe we can have a lot (not all) of our cake and eat it too, thanks to the magic unicorn dust of social media.

      Deep Green or Deep Ecology is what I am calling sustainability, so I think it is great, it is just that the term does not have the “acceptance” of sustainability. I would prefer Deep Ecology over Deep Green, just to keep things from getting confused.

      Reply
  • daltxguy August 23, 2013, 1:44 am

    Unless. of course, you live in New Zealand! Well, I have lived in New Zealand and I have seen the way they farm sheep and it itself is unsustainable as there are many unsustainable inputs ( eg aerial liming of paddocks!)
    I share the frustration with the abuse of the term sustainable. I would go on to say that the definition has to be a little more precise because in being able to continue something in perpetuity, you have to also say that you are not degrading something else.
    I defined like this several years ago:
    A balanced system of consumption and production which can be maintained in perpetuity* without degradation of the environment.

    *perpetuity = approx 2 billion years until the sun goes supernova or some other calamitous event wipes us off the earth

    Reply
    • Ruben August 23, 2013, 5:26 am

      I like where you are going with this. This is the world I want to live in, but I don’t think sustainable requires a lack of degradation.

      In David Quammen’s excellent essay Planet of Weeds, he suggests we may end up with a planet with only a few species left—the weed species like humans, deer, cockroaches, kudzu. It sounds terrible, but it could actually be a stable ecosystem—just a barren and impoverished one.

      And my friend J.B. MacKinnon has a new book coming out in September, the Once and Future World. He has deeply researched extinctions after human migrations—humans move in and all the large and slow animals are killed. This happened so long ago that we can’t imagine the world as it once was. What we think of as undegraded he calls a 10% world, only 10% of the original “nature” remains. He makes the point that all the discussions about rewilding are really about arbitrary choices.

      That is what I think it comes down to: we must choose the world we want. Weeds? 10%? Rewilded?

      But I am with you. I want a regenerative sustainability.

      Reply
      • Mike Ballard August 31, 2013, 4:10 am

        The elephant in the room is capitalism and the illusion that a sustainable environment can be attained under class rule. The fact of the matter is that no matter how many tiny things we do as individuals for the environment and how much of a psychological buzz we get from saving a gallon of gasoline, we don’t control what we’re hired to produce when we go to work to earn a living.

        Reply
  • Disappointed August 22, 2013, 5:00 pm

    the claim that “substituting renewables for coal-fired power,4 ”

    and then 4 expanded “Just because coal is not sustainable does not mean windmills are sustainable at the scale needed to replace coal”

    is a worthless and paltry argument. Its inclusion was a distraction at best and pathetically lazy and misinformed at worst

    Reply
    • Ruben August 22, 2013, 11:34 pm

      I am willing to discuss and provide backup for any statement I make. But, I really debated not putting your comment through, as there is nothing to discuss in it. In order to keep the comments section a rich source of dialogue, I have been sternly advised by long term bloggers to be quite ruthless to commenters if I don’t like the tone of their comment. But, I am not yet jaded, so I will approve and respond. If you see this, and choose to respond, you had better have quite a lot of citations, or it will be into the trash with you.

      So. Public transit and renewable power are two darlings of “green” movement—and indeed, in the right place and at the right scale, I think they are a great idea. But reality does not run on ideas, reality runs on energy and material. In last week’s Archdruid Report, commenter Rhisiart Gwilym told a pertinent story:

      Some years back, I was studying generally around the idea of the Pacific-proa ship-form, before I built my own 70-footer.

      A detail which stuck for ever in my mind was this:

      An old Polynesian man was asked, by modern researchers hoping to revive the supremely ocean-worthy traditional proas, what was the sequence of things to do when undertaking a new vessel from scratch, using just what the Pacific islands alone could offer for raw materials, before they got into extensive modern contacts with the rest of the world.

      “First plant your gardens!” was the old master-shipwright’s intriguing reply.

      The logic was simple, and unbuckable: Such a large undertaking for a stone-age village culture would require a lot of hands, including relatives visiting from other villages during the build. These extra people would have to be fed. Growing the extra food was going to take a while, before the nearby big tree in the island’s forest cover that was designated to be the main hull could even be felled, hollowed out with fire and stone tools, and then hauled to the beach-front building yard.

      Precious little renewable energy has any hope of paying for itself inside of 25 years. Google EROEI for renewables to see studies, and make sure you look for ones that try to account for manufacturing, mining and refining.

      Another critical aspect is that not all energy is created equal for every task. Using solar panels to generate electricity to run smelters is much, much less efficient than just burning coal, which also adds carbon to the process if needed. Using solar electricity to run your baseboard heaters is much less efficient than just burning natural gas. So, those solar panels need to pay for the energy used to manufacture them before they are put to use manufacturing more windmills or solar panels.

      And then, of course, we need to extract resources for new windmills—rare metals and other elements. That is all done with diesel right now, and I have yet to see anyone suggest we can build a truck with renewable power, build its batteries with renewable power, and charge those batteries with renewable power, in order to mine more materials to make more renewable power.

      So, we might be able to keep a few lights on, maybe some critical refrigeration, but I see no chance that we will replace fossil fuels with renewables at any kind of similar power output. Even achieving 20% of global energy use produced by renewables would require a mindset that, while theoretically possible, does not seem to be in evidence.

      I don’t take any joy from these conclusions, but I try to base my thoughts on reality as I best understand it. If you have any good references—not just “if only we…” optimism—I would love to see them.

      Reply
      • Hermann September 3, 2013, 12:04 am

        Don’t we already supply 20% of the world’s primary energy with renewables?
        Mostly in form of dried cow poo, if I recall correctly.

        Reply
  • Mara August 22, 2013, 10:28 am

    Very thought-provoking article! We are all stamped with a sense of entitlement these days – we throw tantrums if we are expected to modify our habits to adjust to the rhythms of the natural world. Then we get terribly indignant if we get flooded, or have to endure shortages of any kind… what?! no strawberries year round, etc etc.

    Reply
  • michelle August 22, 2013, 9:20 am

    Thanks for the awesome article. My intial impression of green people (as someone whos just started socialising with enviromentalists) is that there seems to be an issue of fussing over words & definitions. This intrigues me> I believe it is a facet of human nature to do this.
    When soemthing starts to get ‘old’ it can displease you when it used to please you. Things can look sour when they used to look beautiful. Marriages for example.
    Every community I go into there are the new people valuing everything they are seeing and the long term people are often much more negative obsessing over small things that could be better.
    The solution is to realise if you are in a car going at 60 mph you can think wow. My human body is travelling at 60 mph or you could think Bleh would much rather be going at 70. Its a state of mind that forgets the incredibleness and takes it all for granted. And it is everywhere in every thing. Just the fact the word green exists and people are trying is so beautiful, inspiring, amazing, kind, thoughful and is going to evolve into something much bigger than it currently is

    Reply
  • heather ibbotson August 22, 2013, 6:38 am

    that was very interesting John I am now going to google boisvert

    Reply
    • Trisha August 23, 2013, 5:07 am

      Thank you for that refreshing clear article. I too am tired of debating what sustainability means. And it has been my experience that at the end of the day (or the argument) it’s not actually the word some people find offensive but the concept. No matter what we call it, they will find reason to object (and debate the meaning of the word so as to cause doubt about the best course of action and delay any real action).

      I found Boisvert similarly disposed to being contrary. He sees the Locavore movement as something approaching mainstream and therein lies his concern, sparking a need to find a contrary position. After all, there’s nothing more contrary than a so called “environmentalist” extolling the virtues of nuclear power!

      To say that New York needs more apartments not more greenery to be sustainable ignores so many of the causes of unsustainability as to discredit his argument entirely. (As an aside, anyone who thinks nuclear power is the answer needs to rethink the question).

      Reply
      • Ruben August 23, 2013, 5:17 am

        I am glad you enjoyed it Trisha. I hope you keep coming back.

        Reply

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