Sustainability Semantics

John Locke, the U.N., and how to figure out if an acre of land would rather be a swamp or a cornfield

The word "sustainability" has appeared more than 3,000 times in major world publications over the last three months, according to the news search engine Nexis. But does anyone know what it really means? Two Michigan Technological University researchers, ecologist John Vucetich and ethicist Michael Nelson try to answer that question in their new paper, “Sustainability: Vulgar or Virtuous?,” in the current issue of the journal BioScience. “Too many environmental scientists think sustainability is primarily about documenting and protecting ecosystem health," they argue, "whereas too many engineers think sustainability is primarily about more efficiently meeting human needs."

Consequently, they invite us to consider the vague concepts of human needs and ecosystem health. “Depending on how societies understand these concepts, sustainability could mean anything from ‘exploit as much as desired without infringing on future ability to exploit as much as desired’ to ‘exploit as little as necessary to maintain a meaningful life,’” they assert. They add, “These two attitudes seem to represent wildly different worlds—one might be called vulgar sustainability and the other virtuous—yet either could be considered ‘sustainable.’”

The two conceptions are indeed different, but why is the second deemed “virtuous?” Vucetich and Nelson style their argument as chiefly a plea for universities to include ethicists in the debates over the meaning of sustainability, but they clearly want to smuggle in a specific ethical view, e.g., ecosystems have some kind of inherent moral value independent of human desires.

In his 2001 BioScience article, “Values, Policy, and Ecosystem Health,” Robert Lackey, a fisheries biologist at Oregon State University, cogently shows that the concept of “ecosystem health” already slips in the idea that nature has value independent of human desires. “Although rarely stated clearly, in most formulations of ecosystem health, there is a premise that natural systems are healthier than human-altered systems,” asserts Lackey. “Tacitly, the assumption is that pristine, or less altered, is good and preferred; highly altered ecosystems, in contrast, are less desirable, if not ‘degraded’.” Lackey also points out that because “ecosystems have no preferences about their states,” defining ecosystem health necessarily involves a person or persons deciding what ecosystem condition or function is “good.” How do we know whether or not an acre of land would “prefer” to be a swamp or a corn field? As Lackey notes, either could be considered “healthy” depending on what human preferences are being implemented.

In trying to lay out the dimensions of the concept of sustainability, Vucetich and Nelson use the loaded term “exploit” without clearly defining it. Exploit can mean either: (1) to employ to the greatest possible advantage, or (2) to make use of selfishly or unethically. Given the context of their argument, it’s pretty clear that Vucetich and Nelson largely mean the latter, since inserting the former definition into their understanding of "virtuous sustainability" would yield the nonsensical phrase “employ to the greatest possible advantage as little as necessary to maintain a meaningful life.”

For an earlier perspective on exploitation and sustainability, let’s take a brief look at the arguments of the 17th century British philosopher John Locke in his Second Treatise on Civil Government. Locke asserts that “he who appropriates land to himself by his labour, does not lessen, but increase the common stock of mankind.” Increase the stock of mankind? How? Because by intensively cultivating land, a person produces “a greater plenty of the conveniencies of life from ten acres, than he could have from an hundred left to nature.” Thus Locke concludes that such a person “may truly be said to give ninety acres to mankind.” In fact, Locke believes he has underestimated human productivity: “I have here rated the improved land very low, in making its product but as ten to one, when it is much nearer an hundred to one.”

This Lockean view seems to comport with the notion of “sustainable development” as defined in the United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development’s 1987 report, Our Common Future. According to that report sustainable development is “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” On the face of it, Our Common Future appears to endorse what Vucetich and Nelson call “vulgar sustainability.”

One implication of Locke’s analysis is that if humanity can produce what we need on the moral equivalent of one acre of land that means that we can leave 99 acres to nature. In other words, there is no inherent contradiction between efficiently meeting human needs and protecting ecosystem health, however it is defined. In other words, pursuing vulgar sustainability is actually quite virtuous.

Ronald Bailey is Reason's science correspondent. His book Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution is now available from Prometheus Books.

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  • ¢||

    How do we know whether or not an acre of land would “prefer” to be a swamp or a corn field?

    The acres sing to the virtuous. The earth's song of longing to be the mass grave of five billion darkies is sung to the tune of "Fernando." That's why white people full of PBR are irresistibly drawn to sing it at pseudo-ironic karaoke nights.

  • Jordan||

    Haha nice.

  • Patriot Henry||

    "The acres sing to the virtuous."

    Wendell Berry says a good farmer should have a conversation with the land - and he should know.

  • ||

    I love the alt-text.

  • Chinny Chin Chin||

    I would have far less issue with the use of "sustainable" if anyone ever linked the idea with a timescale. "Sustainable for the next 10 minutes" means something vastly different from "sustainable for the next 10,000 years."

    Also: the human vs. natural dichotomy is pure bunk. I'm going to have to RTFA, but hopefully Lackey took his argument that far.

  • Patriot Henry||

    'I would have far less issue with the use of "sustainable" if anyone ever linked the idea with a timescale. "Sustainable for the next 10 minutes" means something vastly different from "sustainable for the next 10,000 years."'

    Indeed. There is only one relevant time table for "sustainable" - an infinite number of years. Sustainable means not only can you do it or do it again, but that you can do it forever.

    Wendell Berry defined "sustainable agriculture" as "a way of farming that can be continued indefinitely because it conforms to the terms imposed upon it by the nature of places and the nature of people. "

  • Ebeneezer Scrooge||

    "Farming" is a consequence of the terms and conditions that people impose on nature.

    So Berry boy means what, precisely, with this blabber?

  • ||

    Even this concept of "sustainablity" begs some questions. Also, it's not like a farmer is going to destroy his/her land even over a long term. A farmer wants to INCREASE output over the long haul, and the market tends to iron out excesses and punish those who destroy their own productive capacity. Any modern concept of "sustainability" is simply an excuse to control things from the top down. Markets are inherently sustainable, because they change. This may seem oxymoronic, but it is my belief that no system of production will be able to remain static, with people doing the same exact thing everyday for all eternity. Sustainability requires adaptation. To achieve growth and sustainability at the same time requires adaptation even more.

  • Thomas||

    Vucetich and Nelson use the loaded term “exploit” without clearly defining it

    Environmentalists always neglect to define terms, that way they can always be right. The most obvious example is "climate change".

  • Fiscal Meth||

    Hey, at least they allowed room for humans to live "a meaningful life". That's quite an olive branch for enviornmentalists. Although they don't define meaningful life either. It probably means a life of self sacrificial service to the ecosystem.

  • jtuf||

    A student or two in my ecology and evolution grad program would argue that allowing "room for humans to live" is an olive branch.

  • Fiscal Meth||

    I imagine that their definition of "a meaningful life" wouldn't be much better than not being alive at all. Splitting hairs really.

  • Old Mexican||

    “Too many environmental scientists think sustainability is primarily about documenting and protecting ecosystem health," they argue, "whereas too many engineers think sustainability is primarily about more efficiently meeting human needs."

    Which brings to the forefront the question of just what the optimal number of environmental scientists that say one thing and what the optimal number of engineers that say the other are required in order not to say "too many."

  • Fiscal Meth||

    You require too much clarity OM.

  • Old Mexican||

    That's my lifelong burden.

  • Fiscal Meth||

    Too many of me share this burden.

  • jtuf||

    I say, 1 environmental scientist, 19 engineers, and they get to vote on lunch.

  • Van||

    What sustainability means to me.

    Sustainability means living in a Eco-friendly high rise apartment building in an urban center. It means not owning a car, but using green public transportation instead. It means all wilderness areas and wetlands will be National Parks, which I can only gain access to with proper authorization. It means living in a world of perfect environmental responsibility.

    It means living in a world not unlike the Former Soviet Union when I visited it in 1996.

    It means that in the future all responsible consumers like me will be happy, and controlled.

  • jtuf||

    New York city leads the country in density, mass transit use, and walking. It got that way because most of it was built before social engineering. The subway system, be best in the country, was built by three separate, competing, private companies.

  • Van||

    New York is a model for Sustainability.

    In the future the subway will have to be managed by the government and all new housing will have to be constructed by the government, or at least certified green by the government.

    Imagine what a Utopia New York will become in the future!

  • jtuf||

    Actually, ever since the social engineers took over, New York City has kept a stagnant population level. Instead of living in the city, people sprawl out into the suburbs. The subway system has not expanded significantly after it was nationalized, and it is currently undergoing cuts in services. A professor at Columbia U has a dream to make vertical farms to conserve land. However, zoning laws prohibbit him from building a prototype. On the other hand, Harlem residents will see their buildings bulldozed to make room for Columbia Univerisity's expantion. The contrast between the thriving free-market New York City of the past and the stagnant socialist New York City of today is a clear lesson in the value of freedom.

  • jtuf||

    While we're wasting water on open air farms instead of conserving with with crops grown in greenhouses, residents are asked to cut back on their water use. I just got a call from the local water company telling us to reduce water use. The call ended with, "voluntary water use reductions will prevent the need for manditory reductions."

  • ||

    I think Van is a parody of leftists. Just for starters, "Eco-friendly high rise apartment" is an oxymoron.

  • Van||

    Those high rises are the dream. What you will get is more like what they have in Russia, or some of the failed Housing Projects here in the U.S.

  • Joshua||

    If you're a land use nazi, high rises are eco-friendly by definition. They're also more energy efficient, and residents are more likely to use less fuel for transportation.

    I'm kinda diggin' high rise living, but I don't think people should be governmentally "encouraged" to live in one.

  • jtuf||

    In New Jersey, sustainability means spending massive amounts of tax dollars for parks and easments so that low income people are priced out of wealthy areas. That is why farms and forests get lumped into the same category of "open space". Both of types of land are cheap, undeveloped plots that could potentially contain affordable housing.

  • Van||

    The poor can be relocated to communal farms.

    Their neighborhoods tend to become toxic waste dumps and will have to be reclaimed.

    Most of New Jersey is suburbia. There will be no suburbia in a Sustainable Economy, so much of New Jersey will be converted into Parkland.

  • jtuf||

    Actully, New Jersy is about 1/3 farms, 1/3 forests, and 1/3 suburban/urban. The land use stastitics are easy enough to find. Perhaps you should educate yourself before writing your opinions. The view from your window is not a random sample of the state geography.

  • jtuf||

    I agree about how low income people get stuck with environmental wastes. The region just north of Newark was forests when the Dutch settlers arrived. They clear cutted it, turning much of it into marsh. Dams built more recently reduced river flows so that the tidal waters now extend farther north than they used to. These factors combine to create vast wetlands (aka swaps) that environmentalists insist on preserving. They trumpet the wetlands for their ability to naturally filter water. So, instead of the northern most (and wealthiest) towns of New Jersey upgrading their treatment plants to process all organic matter in run off, they send it down to the wetlands to decompose. This decomposing happens out in the open next to the low income neighborhoods. That smell you notice on the Turnpike between Manhattan and Newark is the handiwork of environmentalists.

  • Van||

    I thought it was Newark I was smelling.

    I hope you are not taking my suggestions seriously, I was writing Satirically.

    I spent a month in the FSU and doing so gives one a good idea of what we can expect from this type of central planning. Sad thing is our planners think they are better smarter people than the Russians, and it will work here better than anywhere else.

    Suburban sprawl is a common complaint of environmentalists, and that sprawl into New Jersey is what I was joking about.

    You seem to be an environmentalist who favors market solutions? Is that correct?

  • jtuf||

    Yeah. I've been a Libertarian since High School. I went to grad school for ecology and evolution because that field of biology had the most math. While there I learned that most of the department was dedicated to kissing up to the state. Now I'm a freelance writer, and I tinker with hydroponics to try to invent more efficient farming methods. Sorry I was so rough with you. Bayesian statistics, I get. Satire is over my head.

  • EasyPeasy||

    He forgot to say Bazinga.

  • Hate Potion Number Nine||

    I'm gonna take a wild guess and say that you smoke your experimental crops.

  • juris imprudent||

    Michigan Technological University researchers

    debate vulgarity and virtue? Is that like asking a couple of Religious and Women's studies profs to debate suspension versus cantilever bridges?

  • cynical||

    Well, this is a religious argument. Scientists would be advised to stay out of it.

  • ||

    sustainability is primarily about documenting and protecting ecosystem health," they argue, "whereas too many engineers think sustainability is primarily about more efficiently meeting human needs."

    "ecosystem health" is a subset of "meeting human needs". Anything else is hating people.

  • Chad||

    One implication of Locke’s analysis is that if humanity can produce what we need on the moral equivalent of one acre of land that means that we can leave 99 acres to nature.

    The problem is that we don't do this, Ron. Rather, we multiply our "needs" by 99% and leave little to nature or future generations.

    I am sure our great grandkids will love all the broken infrastructure and SUV carcasses we are leaving them.

  • ||

    If you were truly into sustainability, Chad, you wouldn't any kids, grandkids, or greatgrandkids.

  • ||

    Well, lots of our "needs" in an age of abundance consist of entertainment and information, which don't tend to be resource heavy, so I don't really buy that.

    Farmland really has actually been going out of use due to increased crop yields, despite a growing population. And it's not because we're importing our food from third-world sweat-farms.

  • Chad||

    Unfortunately, that farmland rarely reverts to nature. Rather, it becomes McMansions and the roads to service them.

  • jtuf||

    Actually, there the acres of farmland that turned into forests in New Jersey during the 1990's was about equal to the acres of forests that were cleared for developments. New England is full of forests that used to be farmland. Once again, the view from your window is not a valid sample of land use changes.

  • ||

    You can look at how treeless Kitty Hawk was when the Wright bros. made their first flight by looking at the pictures. Go there now, and it is full of trees.

  • ||

    Chad|7.6.10 @ 9:24PM|#
    "One implication of Locke’s analysis is that if humanity can produce what we need on the moral equivalent of one acre of land that means that we can leave 99 acres to nature.
    The problem is that we don't do this, Ron. Rather, we multiply our "needs" by 99% and leave little to nature or future generations."

    Cite, bozo?
    That was *exactly* Malthus' point, and you'd look real good in a 'world ends tomorrow' sandwich board.
    So, cite, bozo?

  • Joshua||

    If we multiply our needs by 99%, we reduce them by 1%. I thought you were supposed to be one of the smart trolls?

    SUV carcasses are too valuable to leave lying around. They will be used for whatever purpose is considered desirable in that next generation.

  • ||

    I disagree that the infrastructure is "broken." The government does a good deal to prevent private investment in that area too, but I digress. The benefits of modern technology are as such that infrastructure will be less necessary. In a day and age when people can work, shop, and communicate with the world at home on their computers, across wireless networks, using devices and machines powered by wireless energy, the real need for infrastructure will be moot. Yes, people will still go outside for leisure and some entertainment from time to time, but the task of building roads isn't that difficult. Plus, people are naturally going to urbanize, probably to a point that they will be living directly above the few shops and social locales. The truth is that future technology will make the need for infrastructure less relevant.

  • CSI||

    This strange obsession with perpetual population growth America has. If you keep converting all you forests and farmlands into suburbs then eventually you won't have any of either left. And New York City's is "stagnant" because its reached the limit of how many people you can reasonably cram into it.

  • ||

    The welfare state isn't sustainable without perpetual population growth.

    You need several times more young healthy workers than retirees and dependents in order to provide social security and medicare benefits.

    The mainstream hasn't quite begun to realize this yet for the US, but it's been broadly recognized for Japan and Europe. Slow population growth = greater percentage of older people = unsustainable pension funds.

  • ||

    CSI|7.6.10 @ 10:00PM|#
    "This strange obsession with perpetual population growth America has. If you keep converting all you forests and farmlands into suburbs then eventually you won't have any of either left."

    Oh, it's *true*! And did you know the sun will go red-giant?!
    What should we do?!
    (I presume you might have noticed that while the world's population has increased, we seem to have more and more food from less and less land)

  • Chad with fingers in ears||

    NoNoNoNoNoNoNoNo!!!!

    More people equals more bad!!

    More wild places equals more goooood!

  • Chad||

    Wrong. I consistently argue that all nations should target zero population growth among its native population. That would imply that the US actually needs a few more babies, not fewer.

  • mr simple||

    target zero population growth among its native population.

    You do realize that if some nations do this and don't completely close their borders they will be overrun by non-native population growth. Any group that chooses not to breed will be overtaken by those that do.

  • Chad||

    If all nations have zero NPG, where will the immigrants come from?

  • the innominate one||

    they will still come from other nations, but the emigrants will equal the immigrants in number, for a net migration rate of zero

  • The Sierra Club||

    And New York City's is "stagnant" because its reached the limit of how many people you can reasonably cram into it.

    Not it hasn't.

  • Chad||

    A better phrase would be "NYC's population is stagnant because subsidies for living in suburbia pull people out as fast as new people move in".

    I thought libertarians hated subsidies?

  • jtuf||

    Please give more details on these subsidies. You peaked my interest.

  • Chad||

    Oh, the $500 billion a year in fossil fuel subsidies would be a good start. If you actually had to pay anything approximating the true cost of driving your SUV to your McMansion, you would change your habits in a hurry.

  • ||

    You throw that 500 billion dollar figure around a lot, Chad. I do believe that the 500 billion dollar figure is the global subsidization of all fossil fuel emitting energy sources. You make it sound like oil itself receives 500 billion dollars a year in subsidies in this country. If you average that number out to per kilowatt hour or per gallon, it isn't that impressive. You're also ignoring how much we'd have to subsidize other fuel sources just to produce the same exact amount of energy.

  • the innominate one||

    or "piqued", perhaps?

  • ||

    It's a combination of a lot of factors. Yes, the government subsidizes less dense locales. However, much of that subsidy comes from the taxes taken from the people who live in those areas who choose to pay the higher tax in order to enjoy a more spacious living. Also, NYC does have a lot of things that stand in the way of growth and development and make it harder to knock down smaller buildings to replace them with taller buildings.

  • ||

    You can't build taller buildings? I don't believe that NYC is anywhere near being overfilled. There are denser populations all over the world, and records for tall buildings are being broken every year, nowadays.

  • Paul||

    Uber win on the alt-text.

  • TallDave||

    But does anyone know what it really means?

    Yes, "sustainable" means

    1) Your taxes are going up
    2) Your costs are going up
    3) Productivity is going down
    4) Gaia has been appeased
    5) Al Gore is buying another oceanfront mansion

  • Neu Mejican||

    “Too many environmental scientists think sustainability is primarily about documenting and protecting ecosystem health," they argue, "whereas too many engineers think sustainability is primarily about more efficiently meeting human needs."

    Of course if you take the term "sustainable" seriously this is a false dichotomy since humans (and their needs) are a part of the ecosystem.

  • ||

    What is sustainable changes as you take a larger or smaller sample area. The sustainability camp usually pushes for the idea that local areas should be able to produce most of their own food, clothing, etc, as if those locales were going to be cut off from the world tomorrow. However, if you look at a globalized marketplace, people can live in a manner that would be considered "unsustainable" in an isolated city or town. Farming can ebb and flow in one part of the world or another while manufacturing can do the same in another part of the world and this flux over the long haul is "sustainable" forever as long as there is a market to allocate resources to where they are desired and punish inefficient and costly production. Globalization and markets are as sustainable as subsidizing local farmers and farmer's markets, but allow for a lot more growth and experimentation.

    As I said before, most of the sustainability clowns simply believe that everyone should live in semi isolated economies and get as much food and manufactured goods from the local area as possible. That isn't really more sustainable, just less dynamic. It might be safer, ya know, if WW3 or the collapse of unified civilization were around the corner, but it could also be argued that being completely self reliant could sharpen ideological differences between geographical areas, as they would no longer be dependent on each other for their quality of life. People might develop a much stronger us vs. them mentality in addition to producing less and living a lower quality of life.

  • Leah||

    This article is confusing. 1) an acre of land might revert to a prior state if left unattended, e.g. a marsh meadow might grow over and become more or less wet, depending on the hydrology--but it's not going to "prefer" to become anything. 2) Popular wetland science has changed since the 2001 referenced BioScience article was published. The definition of "healthy ecosystem" has changed and so has the concept of sustainability. Bailey's article would be interesting in the context of some more recent discussion on the topic.

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