Sustainability July 2018 • 11 minutes

The main purpose of living things is sustainability. By being alive, you are already in the positive state of being. The goal, more or less, is to continue to be alive for as long as possible. Sustainability as a concept has been co-opted to a degree to mean environmental sustainability. That use evokes a feeling of lofty idealism, but sustainability on a first principles basis just means something that can be sustained.

Applying the concept of sustainability to other areas of life leads to interesting results. What would a sustainable career look like (probably something involving a fundamental need, met by an attitude of continuously learning and adapting) or sustainable communication?

The opposite of sustainability, literally unsustainability or unsustainable, is a vicious form of entropy. Generally things fail slowly and then all at once: first something is unsustainable, and then it can no longer be sustained. That applies to life as much as it does how many hours we work or calories we eat. Continuous growth is not sustainable.

I would argue the goal in all things should above all else to make that thing sustainable. This is easy in some areas (it’s not too difficult to make breathing sustainable in most cases for most people) and hard in others (assuming plastic isn’t sustainable, what alternatives do we have? They all cost way more and seem inferior for most use cases).

The goal should further be to go beyond first-order sustainability (is the number of hours I work in a week a sustainable number indefinitely) and factor in second and third-order considerations as well (is the number of hours the economy wants me to work in a week optimal, or is the number of hours I work in a week sustainable for my family).

Once you consider second and third-order factors that affect sustainability, it becomes much more clear why things fail. Maybe you can sustain the number of hours a week you are working, but your family can’t and that causes problems. You are drawing down on an invisible account of how much the family can adapt to your working too many hours, until things break and things get much worse all at once.

By considering all the possible knock-on effects of how sustainable an aspect of your life is, you can preempt many problems. If you are in a position of financial sustainability, you can continue at your current trajectory and not run out of money. If you are in a position of dietary sustainability, you can continue with your current diet and not end up with a chronic health condition.

Being sustainable generally costs more of something, whether it’s will power, effort, money, social capital or any other form of capital. The reason being, if something were more sustainable and consumed less resources (like solar panels in south Florida), people would do it by default. So we may need some carefully considered nudges to get things moving in the sustainable direction.

This isn’t to say there are no good times to act in an unsustainable way. There are in fact many times where you may want to act in an unsustainable way, so that you may put yourself in a position to gain greater advantage in the future. Starting out in your career, you may work unsustainably hard, or in a new dating relationship you may be unsustainably charming. Always keep in mind though when you are making these trade offs, because the people around you may confuse your efforts as a permanent, sustainable expectation.

It is actually much easier to accomplish your goals by pursuing sustainability, because it forces moderation. Trying to be the most happy you can would seem to put you on a hedonic treadmill that ends in mania. Whereas trying to sustain your happiness would allow you to focus on (and thereby come to appreciate) the things that make you happy right now. And by focusing on those things and investing in their wellbeing, you can sustain it.

Something taken for granted by older people with more life experience, and missed entirely by young people with less life experience, is the merit in pursuing sustainability. Many people consider themselves work hard, play hard kind of people. The goal, obviously, is to be successful, fulfilled and recognized. Burnout, however, is extremely hard to dig yourself out of, and comes as a direct result of willfully pursuing working hard and playing hard at the same time. It turns out that it is hard to sustain so much intensity for so long, so people burn out and learn the hard way that moderation is necessary to accomplish most goals.

Speaking on a more granular level, there are many small decisions that can be made to make life more sustainable. Finding a way to eliminate an unnecessary $1/day expense can result in a savings of $20k over the course of a typical adult life. It’s pretty clear that economic expansion comes as a result of trade-offs in the area of sustainability. And over time, these trade offs are less worth it relative to the value in living a well edited life.

The world seems to be in the process of swallowing the bitter pill that is becoming aware of the trade offs that have been made through recent history. Burning millions of years of accumulated, squished biomass (oil) so that we can have more wealth for a few hundred isn’t sustainable. At this point it isn’t about whether this is the case, and more about what we do about it. But we should not stop with the environmental unsustainability.

Not using toilet paper or going vegan isn’t going to move the needle though in terms of sustainability at the macro level. We are already too deep in expansion mode to take incremental steps. The world is operating on the assumption that in order to have a large population and be sustainable, we need to use bridge sources of energy (unsustainable ones) to create wealth that will allow us to nurture and develop sustainable ones.

It’s unlikely that without the boom in cheap energy over the last few hundred years, we could have overcome our history as subsistence farmers, and before that as hunter gatherers. It’s much more likely that we are viewing the world through the lens of being in the middle of a fundamental shift from survival to self-aware sustainability.

This is not necessarily a bad thing though. We cannot go back to being an agrarian society without billions of people dying from the resulting lack of specialization and wealth. The only path forward is to develop technology that moves us in the direction of sustainability. And to recognize, accept and come to see meaning in a well edited life as opposed to a growth oriented one. Without this it would seem the main failure of culture is the failure to sustain.

A lot of people are frustrated by the powerless feeling one has trying to swim upstream and fight for environmental sustainability. The reality though is that spending ourselves to a solution won’t work. Fighting environmental unsustainability (maybe some adaptive problems in the current) with financial unsustainability is simply bad math. We can only win the environmental sustainability game with sustainable finances too.

My approach to this problem would be to increase and decrease taxes on things to reflect how sustainable they are. Burning oil for fuel is temporary, and there are so many uses of oil that only oil can perform (tires) that we should tax those less and optional uses (heat) more. Overeating is unsustainable, so products that induce or contribute to chronic health conditions should be required to cover the cost of treating those health conditions.

Food is a great example of this effect. Cheap food tends to have less nutrients: calories can be made cheaper or more expensive but nutrition (actual micronutrients) is a perfect commodity. A perfect commodity is something that more or less prices the same across alternatives. So healthy food costs more to a degree to reflect the fact that more actual nutritional value had to be extracted from the natural world and shifted into the nutrient content of that food. Junk food provides calories (not a commodity) with minimal nutrients (a perfect commodity). But the cheapness is deceptive, because you eat more (your body eats until you have all the nutrients it wants, not until you have all the calories you need. It takes more calories of doritos to get enough micronutrients than it does to get them from broccoli) and there are chronic costs. Net net, healthy foods are cheaper, and taxes should reflect this.

Another good example is politics. At a certain point, governments become a little too well funded and seem to start eating themselves. A sustainable government is one in which the earnings on retained capital exceed the outflows of capital. Norway is a good example of this: moderate socialism is a great option when your outflows of capital are less than the earnings on your capital – you can keep the system going forever by default. Most Western countries practice Robin Hood cash flow instead: taxing the productive and giving to the non-productive. The right approach would be to tax the unsustainable and give to the sustainable alternatives. Subsidizing gas exploration and taxing electricity is lose-lose, but we do it for the above reasons.

If the holiest trait is adaptability, the most virtuous one is effective sustainability. Not sustainability signaling, like driving a Prius (batteries still emit more emissions while being built than a gas car over their lifetime – you just don’t have it on your hands as the owner), actual sustainability. And that can be hard, because some sustainable things are unpopular. Unpopular things are hard because we are social beings, and because these are social issues.

It’s pretty clear that sharing resources within small populations and trading between them is superior to other economic models (micro socialism – like a family who shares what’s in the fridge, and macro capitalist – groups trading specialized goods). But people seem to be losing faith in capitalism at all levels, including the scale at which it still works well. The core problem is that macro socialism is unsustainable: we cannot act rationally when dealing with other people’s resources. So we need to specialize, and we need to trade, and we need to share, but we need to do it at the right level so it can be sustained.

Another area sustainability is not so popular is in having children. Many people seem to feel that having kids has net negative value to sustainability of the environment – this is a false but increasingly popular position. If there is one way to guarantee no one exists in 100 years, it’s to not have kids. By comparison, burning all the oil we can find as fast as we can burn it is much less likely to result in the end of the world. It isn’t virtuous to not have kids for the environment – it is simply a much less sustainable non-decision than staying the course and fighting for sustainability in parenting.

In terms of putting these concepts into practice, the current politics on these issues is quite strange. Whether you live in a country of Republicans and Democrats or Liberal and Conservative, both “sides” of the political axis have attributes of sustainability and unsustainability. Neither informs someone about second and third-order impact of a decision that a person can actually make when navigating their world. Both “sides” again tend to be right about what things are sustainable about their valued issues, and ignore the other side.

It’s going to take much effort, cultural change and generational changing of the guard to shift things in the direction of sustainability. We should stop advocating for politically motivated and fundamentally unsustainable band-aids and getting too obsessed with the environment relative to other domains, and start to focus on what things can be done to make things better. This can be helped along by raising scientific awareness of what micro decisions lead to sustainability, because most people seem quite confused.

If you take one thing away, it’s that sustainability can be applied to anything (spending, working, relationships, health, personal finance, media consumption, ecology, politics) and those things will be better off when it’s applied considering all orders of consequences it has on their being. Eventually the practice of applying it becomes second nature, and we’ll have much better long-term decision making as a result of broad acceptance of this concept.