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Good reasons for not wanting to be sustainable

By Eric Claus - posted Tuesday, 9 June 2009

Economic activity requires natural resources inputs. We are currently using those natural resources inputs faster than we can replenish them and we are using them faster and faster every year. We are also cutting up and wearing out the natural ecosystems that provide clean air, clean water and other irreplaceable services, faster and faster every year. We are getting less and less sustainable every year. If we continue to do this, we will have a weaker economy and lousier lives than we have now.

The problem is we believe that since everything is good now (in the rich countries), it will always be good and if pressed, we say that new technologies will save us. There is no real concern that living unsustainably is something that we should really take any action to correct.

Sooner or later we have to live sustainably. If it is sooner, we can have a smooth transition and civilisation can continue to progress. If it is later, we will have a bumpy (and probably violent) road to learning that the earth’s resources are finite.


For a long time I have believed that not only is it obvious that being sustainable has to be done sooner or later but it’s also a noble, perhaps even heroic, thing to do. Take this moment in history to make the unprecedented changes needed to prepare society for a different kind of future. Leave the natural world in good condition for future generations. Wow! We’d be heroes to our children.

It’s not obvious, though, and not many people think it is noble, heroic or even very interesting.

After years of banging my head against a wall trying to figure out why nobody wants to be sustainable, it occurred to me that people can’t be that stupid. There must be good reasons for not wanting to be sustainable. I’ve concluded that there are a string of reasons that are all related to our basic instincts as human beings. From our biological programming in the first million years of our species existence, to the things we learned as children.

Biological programming

Fight or flight

Our species would never have survived if we hadn’t learned to either fight better than our enemies (and predators) or run and hide better than our enemies. These are immediate responses to danger and they are hardwired into our brains. When you feel danger, adrenaline pumps through your body and you can fight, run or slam on the brakes, better.

An excellent example of the fact that modern intelligent people still follow fight or flight instincts, can be found in the On Line Opinion comments on contentious articles that usually degenerate into name-calling rather than detailed debate about the issues.


Nobody gets a rush of adrenaline when they hear the dangerous phrase “Cheap oil will probably be gone in 20 or 30 years”, or “The earth doesn’t have enough water or farmland to feed 9 billion people on a first world diet”. Boring.

Sustainability is complicated. Sustainability is multi-faceted. Being unsustainable is going to affect us and our children in the long term. Nobody can get excited about that. It’s boring. It’s your mum telling you to clean up your room and do your homework. It’s your dad telling you to check the oil in your car. OK, OK, but I’m watching TV now.

And even worse, sustainability requires co-ordinated action all around the world. We want to kill a lion or run away from a bear. We don’t want to be part of a co-ordinated effort all around the world to become sustainable. Too complicated.

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About the Author

Eric Claus has worked in civil and environmental engineering for over 20 years.

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