Saving the planet is an illusion

April 15, 2023

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I think it would be fair to say that anyone who cares about sustainability is very frustrated by the perception of a lack of progress. I think there's something interesting about the talk about it that unreasonably adds to all the frustration and panic about its apparent pace. It lies in the arguments about why sustainable change is needed.


Sustainability discussions often prioritise saving the planet, missing the fact that the planet doesn't care about climate change. Maybe we should focus on the imminent death and disease instead of the planet's feelings.

The frustration and panic surrounding the apparent lack of progress in sustainability seems largely to do with the way we're thinking about sustainability. The prevailing focus on "saving the earth" emphasises maintaining our current way of life, in order to keep living how we're living. It seems a bit absurd to try and solve for this kind of circularity. Maybe we should instead concentrate more on the negative effects on human health and well-being caused by climate change and inequality.

No headings in this article!

There are two conversations that happen at universities like Cambridge. One is about sustainability.1 It's important work, raising awareness, I guess, although by now it's become a rather stale conversation. There is even more important work happening in places where people don't just talk about these things. One such place is sustainablity consulting, which does the hard and heavy work of putting the talk into very pretty reports for businesses and business coalitions to fund, run PR with,2 and then more-or-less discard. It's a real upgrade on the powerpoints of legacy management consulting,3 I assure you. Don't get me started on how helpful and specific people have been finding all of the COPs and the SDGs and the ESG requirements. Yes, all-in-all things are moving very fast in the sustainability world.

I think it would be fair to say that anyone who cares about sustainability is very frustrated by the perception of a lack of progress, despite enormous interest. I once sat next to a professor at dinner who came to literal tears at the subject, and have friends who regularly panic about bringing children into a world in which nothing is changing.

I'm not really that qualified or interested in assessing the amount of progress,4 but I do think there's something interesting about the talk about it that unreasonably adds to all the frustration and panic about its apparent pace. It lies in the arguments about why sustainable change is needed.

There are two arguments for sustainability that strike me as uncontroversially sensible:

  1. A great deal of people will die due to things like climate change in addition to the growing number of deaths due to various inequality concerns and the interaction between the two is likely to be problematic in many health-related ways. It doesn't really matter if you're more upset about the inequality in the death and disease or simply the death and disease itself, it's usually pretty trendy to find heaps of death and disease distasteful.
  2. A great deal of people will be displaced. This is already happening. Again, it's not really that important whether you're more concerned about them coming to some place you actually do care about and changing it in difficult ways, or if you're more concerned about the general problem of people losing their homes and livelihoods, you probably do (or should) care about this issue.

Both are troubling on ethical and pragmatic grounds, and everyone reasonable should care about these regardless of political alignment. But neither of these issues is the one that we see the most of. Maybe it's some legacy of the origins of sustainable thinking in the tree-hugging 60's and 70's,5 but the issue we see the most is something about preserving the earth.

The problem with this more common save-the-earth theme is that there's something pervasively weird about it. Here are some examples of what I mean. I just picked these from the first page of the first search, but you'll find the sentiment almost anywhere you find sustainability-focused content.

From the HBR:

the ultimate question ... comes from a very simple notion ... the day that we use up all the resources that the world can replenish ... And after that day ... when we overshoot these planetary boundaries so much, less bad is simply not good enough anymore.

But what are these planetary boundaries? Who set them? Not the planet. Unless I am very much mistaken, the planet was just as happy doing stromatolites as it is doing what it's doing now.

From the WWF:

Our planet can only produce a finite number of resources – from food, to water – and can only withstand a certain degree of greenhouse gas emissions in order to stay healthy.

But, what does it mean for our planet to stay healthy? Healthy for people right? According to standards we are defining right now, right?

And from the UN:

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development provides a global blueprint for dignity, peace and prosperity for people and the planet, now and in the future.

But the planet doesn't care about dignity, peace, and prosperity. It's only people who care about these things.

It's like some sort of persistent category error. These arguments are not really about the planet at all. That doesn't make sense. They're actually something about what people think people want. And this leads us to the core of the issue. All these concerns imply something like:

we like things as they are, so we want to keep the world as it is, so we should stop doing things as they are

Back to the WWF:

Much of the planet’s economic growth has been achieved as a result of over-exploiting resources, such as fossil fuels. But as the world’s resources are coming under increasing pressure, so the constraints to growth are becoming increasingly visible.

It's no wonder we feel like progress is paralysed. On the surface, the most straightforward solution to this problem is to change what we're doing. But we don't want to do that so much that we're defining sustainability largely in terms of how to continue supporting what we're doing.

Worth noting, of course, is that there's something important in all this about inequality. Some countries got a nice ride and so other countries should also have a nice ride. Or maybe, we got a nice ride, so future generations should also get a nice ride. But this is more-or-less the same circular argument---the earth can't support what we're doing, so we need to pump the brakes, so others can keep doing it.

It's sort of absurd, and I don't really have a solution,6 but it feels like a good place to start would be to focus a little more on that whole death and disease thing. I assure you, the planet won't mind.

  1. The other is, obviously, identity. AI doesn't get its own mention because it's basically just the happy marriage of concerns about sustainability and identity in the form of good old fashioned technology uncertainty. 

  2. Funnily enough, this PR is largely internal. I guess your employees are less likely to accuse you of greenwashing? 

  3. Yeah I said legacy consulting. Do you know what the profit margins on producing reports at consulting rates is? You heard it here first. Sustainability consulting will soon be all management consulting. 

  4. I might work in sustainability consulting, but honestly I rarely read the reports. 

  5. I don't actually know if this is the origin, or if it was just very influential. Don't correct me, I don't care and my point still stands. 

  6. Imagine I made a clever joke here about how this is the real circular economy, because I couldn't think of one but you know it would be great. 

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