Sustainability means that we have enough resources for some population of humans, or continuance of the human species, to keep
on living forever. Any other definition just doesn't do justice to the way people use that word. Sustainability is not just a now problem. It's a forever
Us humans are building our mounds of stuff, collecting energy and matter into denser and more complex structures in order to satisfy our desires, which themselves are increasing in number and magnitude. Bottom line: more people, more stuff. This situation isn't new, it's just that we're now capable of seeing it and suffering from it on a large scale.
But maybe an environmental collapse will wipe a lot of us out. Then we'll be back in a situation when the world population was low and it just didn't occur to people to think about global sustainability. Besides the massive suffering and trauma, that would solve the problem right? Nope, that's still not sustainable. It wouldn't necessarily stop us from figuring things out again and growing just as complex as we had grown before, running into the same problems we're facing today. It doesn't mean that such regeneration would necessarily happen, either. But that's not sustainability, that's luck. It's not predictable and it's not manageable. And it's not forever.
So maybe sustainability isn't possible. The endgame scenario is that we build increasingly more complex and energy dense piles of stuff in some places, taking resources from other places, all leading to humans' complete demise. And by the way, probably these complex and energy dense piles of stuff would end up serving the needs and desires of increasingly fewer people, leaving more and more people to live more and more meager lives. It's a dystopian hyper inequality problem where life gets worse and worse and worse, whether at a slow or fast pace, until it's all over. Sustainability problem solved!
But of course neither of these scenarios - some of us luckily finding ourselves in a temporary, unpredictable circumstance of minimally enough resources indefinitely into the future, or, all of us dying - is very interesting to most of us. It's also important to note that climate change isn't the only thing that could lead to these situations. Both could happen in several different ways, at different times in our future, and for different reasons. Therefore, there are only two long-term options if we want to live sustainably, and I'm going to show that there's really just one.
The first is that at some point our population stabilizes and we're able to live in a net-zero material culture. This is sustainability as a predictable, manageable replenishment of anything we use at a rate equal to that at which we use it. In order to accomplish this we'd have to have perfect, 100% energy efficient recycling of everything we make. But this is not possible. Why? Local entropy. Things compacted want to spread out. All our stuff is compacted other stuff and it takes energy to do the compacting. Thus, even if we could recycle the stuff with perfect efficiency we still couldn't account for the energy it takes to compact and then recycle that stuff. Even if our population is stable, as long as we live in a material culture we'll have to keep finding more sources of energy in order to continue building and recycling - oil, sunshine, asteroids, whatever. But all of those material things are finite. Not sustainable.
There's another, interior reason why I don't think this solution works. We're an antsy species - that's antsy, like we can't sit still. We keep moving around making problems, solving them, then making more. We build taller buildings, accumulate more money, run faster, get more insight, develop more complex, more simple, more comprehensive, more whatever philosophies, engineer more efficient and more subtle technologies, discern and express more nuanced identities, and illuminate ever more intimate, rarified, and extraordinary depths of human experience. We just keep moving. And we won't stop. We can't, we'd have to die. Is there going to be some moral cause for which we all sacrifice ourselves? Maybe, but probably not, though that would solve our sustainability problem too. And despite everything I've heard so far, including the revelations and inner sciences of the mystics and contemplatives who address this issue most directly and with the most expertise, I don't think the antsyness is ever going away.
Conclusion: the only solution to our sustainability problem is infinite growth. Counterintuitive, huh? But, as antsy creatures, who love building greater and greater everythings, it's the only way. Perhaps you're sad. It's strange that infinite life could be depressing, but somehow, for some of us, it might be. For those of us with reservations about our current material culture, with consumerism, capitalism and greed, with the current direct relationship between growth and natural degradation, economic inequality, and dissociated cultures, the idea of infinite growth seems horrendous. Yet, it could be good. These things don't have to be tied to infinite growth.
A central problem has been the types of energy we use. But as we build forever, we'll have to find an energy source that is infinite. What could provide that? Certainly no physical object or set of physical objects could qualify. Outsider physicists say we can get energy from the vacuum. More, if we're going to achieve sustainability, it's necessary. Contemplatives' interior experiments likewise intimate an inexhaustible expressiveness. The moment of the big bang defies definition as a simple nothing. So too, your own fluxing experience defies definition as a simple something. Nowhere anywhere do we find simple nothings or somethings, rather everything exists as a reality which is neither one nor the other, nor both, nor neither. The idea that an infinite somethingness and an absolute nothingness therefore could be inextricably intertwined in the vacuum is a radical proposition, but with a radically deep basis. After all, can you imagine the energy of the whole universe being exhausted? Where would it go?
Despite this inspiring speculative grounding, I don't think it's a guarantee that infinite energy is possible. There are millennia of practical problems we'll have to solve to find out. But if it is possible, and if we do figure it out, I think along the way we will have grown our creative abilities significantly. And as infinite energy gives rise to infinite material creation, these new abilities could lead to a radical future. An intergalactic human race, perhaps, but one in which human desires are fulfillable on grander scale than may yet be imaginable. In the end, the old rational ideal of using technology to provide for everyone's needs, is only possible on an infinite scale. Could we create whole physical worlds? Could we create whole universes? Could people continue to become more and more unique, and, at the same time, be able to live the highly particular kinds of lives they want with others wishing the same. I think we could, I think we might.
This isn't utopia. I don't believe those exist. But this would be a sustainable world, and quite an interesting one too. For some, our fear of death provokes us to find sustainable solutions to current problems. If so, we must think at this scale eventually. But for others, perhaps our fear of life sneaks a self-sabotaging wrench into all of our altruist technological, environmental, and activist works. If sustainability means infinite sustainability we'll have to come to accept that humans, or a continuance of our species, may be a facet of this universe forever. Can we live with ourselves with that potential? Do you believe in our own goodness enough to see that this could be a beautiful world?
But then, maybe we're tired of living. Maybe we're not interested in being able to predict and manage infinite resources. Or maybe all expansions end in contractions and sustainability is impossible. And then maybe there are available futures outside all of these possibilities. Life as a pure energy being anyone? We'll see.