Sustainability – a Contrary View

I have always been in favour of efficiency and the avoidance of waste. As an engineer much of my career has been devoted to the development of better systems for using energy. I am currently a member of the Sustainability Group at the Dublin Institute of Technology. I am not a member of the Green Party or Greenpeace or any such organisation, although I respect their positions and am glad that they exist. By the way, the views expressed here are entirely my own; in fact they are not so much views as reflections, because I am not secure or at ease with them, and they are not static.

However, I feel somewhat like a renegade. My views about sustainability, renewable energy and energy efficiency are not as politically correct or as well synchronised with what is currently seen as proper thinking as they ought to be. I can’t seem to help it. I am very academic by nature and all sorts of crazy thoughts run about within my head and impose themselves on me. Of course I have developed certain skills in applying some constraints and enforcing certain ground rules on those thoughts. I certainly don’t want to offend anybody, especially people I believe to be well intentioned.

Some of my ideas are surely over-academic and dissociated from everyday reality. I admit that. Many of these are not so much ideas as questions that frustrate me no end, whereas for most people I suspect they are not even on the radar. What is sustainability? Does it exist? Did it ever exist? Should sustainability exist? Do we want it? Do we need it?

There is a fair degree of scientific consensus that the known, vast universe started with a bang perhaps fourteen-and-a-half billion years ago (14,500,000,000). Our solar system was formed perhaps four-and-a-half billion years ago and nothing, so far, has been sustained in the sense of remaining unchanged or fixed. To over-simplify the situation, the universe was unbelievably hot and unbelievably compact very shortly after the Big Bang, but has been expanding and cooling down ever since. We are passengers on a not uncommon type of planet orbiting a not uncommon type of star in a not uncommon type of galaxy in the vast universe. The very atoms like iron, silicon and oxygen that make up our world are the products of cataclysmic galactic events that may have gone through multiple cycles. Everything is relative in the Cosmos and our relatively young planet has gone through continuous change and many cycles. There have been collisions of huge meteorites with our Earth. There have been ice ages and very hot periods. In the very distant past there were natural nuclear reactors on or near the surface of the Earth. Neither the first nuclear reactors nor, perhaps, the first nuclear bomb that detonated on the Earth were man-made. The magnetic polarity of the Earth has inverted in the past and may go through inversions in the future.

Our Earth is delicately balanced in many ways. One of these is the fact that it has its own daughter stabilizer, the Moon. Going back more than ten thousand years it is very hard to find evidence of an organized human society on the Earth. It is really only in the last few hundred years that humankind has been able to exert a significant influence on the Earth, in the sense of influencing such things as the weather or the appearance of the planet when viewed from afar.