What's Still Wrong With Kansas?

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E. Thomas McClanahan, Kansas City Star Editorial Page columnist bad mouths Earth Day:

With another Earth Day coming up, we’re hearing the usual blather about sustainability — an essentially meaningless term. The Wikipedia entry on the topic says that “For humans to live sustainably, the Earth’s resources must be used at a rate at which they can be replenished.”

McClanahan’s impression of sustainability, like so many others, is distorted by the misuse of this important concept. Sustainability certain does have meaning. It is the ability of any system to produce something we want indefinitely or, at least, over a long period. This is not just a casual dictionary word. It has great relevance in our lives. We have recently learned, to our chagrin, that our financial system lacked this property. It collpsed in a veritable moment. Along with all the money that evaporated, confidence, security, and trust have been lost. Those in charge of getting the system running again know that it will be easier to restore the flow of money than to rebuild the qualities, like security, that have disappeared.

His referral to Wikipedia is highly selective. Here is how that entry begins: “Sustainability, in a broad sense is the ability to maintain a certain process or state.” The sentence he quotes above is a good example of why Wikipedia is not the ultimate arbiter of the truth. Sustainability is a noun and defines a property of systems. Sustainable is an adjective and sustainably an adverb. Both these two grammatical forms modify something. To live sustainably is a bit oxymoronic. To live is fundamentally to continue to function.

The rest of his column is devoted to a criticism of the idea that the Earth’s resources are limited, suggesting that we have no reason to worry about sustainability.

We aren’t “running out of resources,” as many environmentalists constantly claim. If that were so, commodity prices would have risen over time. But the opposite is true.

The truth of this statement depends entirely on how long a period of time is involved. We have lived through a very long period of extraordinary technological advancement and economic growth. The continuation of that growth is in question these days given the recent abrupt reversal of the economic trend. His statement is also dismissive of the rest of the world outside of Kansas, that is, most of the inhabitants on Earth. I wonder what McClanahan might say if he included the whole 6 plus billion, heading for 9 billion, people in his use of “we.” Many of those have not even begun to utilize these resources. If and when they do, all bets about limits would have to be reconsidered.

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