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Sustainability Isn’t Sustainable

Sustainability Isn’t Sustainable

Sustainability is all the rage today.  What do we mean by sustainability?  There are numerous and conflicting definitions of what sustainability means.  However, most sources point to the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED), also known as the Brundtland Report.  According to the 1987 Brundtland Report, sustainability is: “Meeting the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.[1] This definition is not testable and is incredibly vague.  Let’s take the word sustainable literally.  A sustainable technology would be one that can be used indefinitely by humans without side effects and without any diminution in its effectiveness.  This definition violates the laws of physics.  Entropy is the second law of thermodynamics and is normally defined as the measure of the disorder of a system or a measure of the energy not available for work.  Entropy was discovered as part of thermodynamics and it explains that a perpetual motion machine is impossible.  Entropy always increases in a closed system.  Sustainability taken literally is an attempt to create a perpetual motion machine.

Some of the key issues for the sustainability crowd revolve around so called non-renewable resources, such as the use of fossil fuels and the using up of other natural resources.  The way this is often phrased today is Peak Oil, Peak Water, Peak _____ (Pick Your Favorite Resource).  For more information see Peak Everything: Eight Things We are Running Out of and Why.[2] Peak Oil (natural resource) occurs when the amount of oil that can be extracted reaches its maximum or the point at which we reach the maximum net energy output from oil.  The alternative definition takes into account that even if we can extract more oil, this is irrelevant if it takes more energy to extract the oil than we receive from the oil.  The supposed solution for our Peak Oil problem is to develop renewable energy resources.  The Clean Energy website provides the following definition “Renewable energy is natural energy which does not have a limited supply.  Renewable energy can be used over and over again, and will never run out.”[3] What is natural energy?  Either all energy is natural, comes from nature, or only animal muscle power is natural.  The natural qualification is complete nonsense – unless they really want us to go back to animal muscle only.  The “never run out qualification is violates entropy.  All energy resources will run out.  All energy sources, fossil fuels, solar, hydroelectric, tidal, biomass, hydrothermal, fission, fusion, etc are solar or at least stellar.  For instance, hydroelectric energy is the result of the Sun heating the oceans or other large bodies of water.  As the water evaporates and then condenses in the form of rain or snow on land masses it is collected in dams.  The dams converted the gravitation force of the water into electric energy.  Fossil fuels are created by plants converting sunlight into biomass (including animals).  The biomass is trapped underground by sea sediment and the pressure and heat converts the biomass into oil, coal, natural gas, etc.[4] Fission is the process whereby heavy elements, generally Uranium, are split into lighter elements and energy is released.  These heavy elements were created in a star that has long since expired.  Thus, all energy is Solar or at least stellar.  The Sun will not last forever and does not provide unlimited energy.  The concept of renewable energy that “will never run out” and “can be used over and over again” is nonsense.  It violates the second law of thermodynamics, entropy.

This concept of peak resources is not new.  You can find numerous examples of “Peak Oil” historically.  For instance, the fertilizer crisis of the 19th century.  In 1830 it was discovered that guano was an excellent fertilizer.  Population exploded, as guano was used in Europe, because of the additional food that was produced because of this excellent fertilizer and mechanization.  The best sources of guano began to run out fairly quickly.  People predicted the equivalent of “Peak Guano.”  The question was not whether we would have “Peak Guano,” but Peak Fertilizer?  We did not have a guano problem we had an invention problem.  The Haber-Bosch process was invented in 1909, which allowed fixing nitrogen in air and solved the “Peak Guano” problem.[5]


Reason magazine in the article Peak Everything? discussed how logical, scientific projections showed we would run out of lithium, neodymium, and phosphorus.[6] Peak lithium was going to limit the batteries necessary for electric cars.  In fact, we would run out of lithium faster than we would run out of oil.  The solution is a new invention that replaces lithium with zinc air batteries.  Note the solution was not a better way to extract lithium, but to make the supply of lithium irrelevant.  It is paradigm shift created by a new invention.  Peak neodymium is going to limit our ability to build the electric motors of hybrid cars as well as other products.  Interestingly, neodymium magnets were invented to overcome the problem of peak cobalt.  In the area of permanent magnets, it appears that a new induction motor will eliminate the need for permanent magnets.  Peak phosphorus is a repeat of Peak Guano.  Peak phosphorous threatens our ability to provide enough fertilizer for our agricultural needs.  One solution, is a that phosphorous is product of human urine.  The phosphorous can be recycled using a no mix toilet according to the article.

Paul Romer has observed, “Every generation has perceived the limits to growth that finite resources and undesirable side effects would pose if no new recipes or ideas were discovered. And every generation has underestimated the potential for finding new recipes and ideas. We consistently fail to grasp how many ideas remain to be discovered. The difficulty is the same one we have with compounding: possibilities do not merely add up; they multiply.”[7]

The computer industry has also been beset by predictions of impeding doom, when it could no longer achieve Moore’s law of doubling the number of transistors every eighteen months.  Ray Kurzweil has shown that if you restate Moore’s law as computational power, every time a technology reaches its limit to improve computational power a new technology takes over.  Using this he shows that computational power has been growing exponentially since 1900.  The first computational devices were electromechanical.  When this reached their limit, they were replaced with relay devices, then these were replaced with vacuum tubes, then transistors, and then integrated circuits.[8]

Life is a fight against entropy.  The unique way humans overcome entropy is by inventing.  Inventions are not subject to diminishing returns or entropy.  Potential inventions grow factorially, which is much faster than diminishing returns from natural resources shrinks.  We do not have natural resources problem, we have an invention problem.  The sustainability crowd are pushing a political slogan not science.  In the process they are actually inhibiting new technologies from being developed, by diverting resources from the most promising technologies to the politically acceptable technologies.



Sustainability Violates the Second Law of Thermodynamics.


Sustainability is a Political Slogan, not Science.


[1] Brundtland Commision, Wikipedia,, 11/7/10.

[2] Alter, Lloyd, Peak Everything: Eight Things We are Running Out of and Why, Treehugger: A Discovery Company, 5/27/08, 11/7/10.

[4] Note that have been some alternative explanations proposed for how oil is produced that does not involve this biomass conversion

[5] Mark Ridley had numerous “Peak Oil” examples in his book The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves, Harper Collins, 2010, New York, pp 121 -156.

[6] Bailey, Ronald,, Peak Everything?, April 27, 2010,, 10/16/10.

[7] Bailey, Ronald,, Peak Everything?, April 27, 2010,, 10/16/10.

[8] Kurzwiel, Ray, The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Human Biology, Penguin Books, 2005, p 67.



  1. Hey DB,

    You’ve picked on a favorite topic of mine and you have completely mischaracterized what “Peak Oil” is about.

    I don’t blame you though because the term “Peak Oil” is not very informative in itself and denialists try to take advantage of the ambiguity.

    Peak Oil is about practical flow rates.
    It is not about total amount available here on Earth or on Jupiter. Much as it may upset all of us, there is a flow rate limit and many countries (including the USA) are well past their peaks.

  2. Stepback,

    I have looked a number of definition and did not find yours, but it makes sense. Although flow rates could be increased if there is no regard for economic return, which is why I added the second definition that is more about net energy return.

  3. DB,

    Sorry I didn’t have time earlier to respond in more detail. There is after all a definite “Peak Time” of 24 hours per day and I can’t seem to “produce” more than that hard as I try.

    Even the Tree-Hugger site that you link to explains that it has something to do with “the rate of production of fossil fuels” in a given locale and when such will peak. Rate of production (i.e. barrels per day) is just another way of saying flow rate.

    The so-called Hubbert curve is a very simple thing that is basically saying there is a finite area under the production rate curve and one way or another, that curve is going to have a peak and then return to essentially zero.

    The area under the curve is called the URR (Ultimately Recoverable Resource or ‘Reserves’). If you extract N barrels a day at a time variable flow rate of F(time), then that function will, as a mathematical certainty, have at least one peak point and ultimately it will hit essentially zero (when the URR is exhausted).

    There is nothing mysterious or deep about that.

    The “debate” (if you can call it a “debate”) is over the detailed shape of the curve, the timing and duration of the “peak” and the rate of the decline.

    Some claim we (humanity) has already passed the global peak of production point. Othersr say, wait not yet. One thing for sure, we’ll know it in our rear view mirrors as we start plummeting down the petro plummet part of the curve. It won’t be pretty.

  4. Stepback,

    Thanks for the explanation. The point of the post is that we will always have some peak resource. These peak resources are real. However, the solution is not “sustainability”, which is nonsense. The solution is to invent faster than we run out any particular resource.

    There is an analogy with antibiotics. The attempt to ration antibiotics is hopeless. The whole point of evolution is that bacteria evolve, regardless of whether we ration antibiotics. The only long term solution is to invent new antibiotics faster than bacteria evolve.

  5. DB,

    You know I’m fully with you in arguing that continued invention and innovation are important to maintaining and/or improving the well-being (a.k.a. “wealth”) of people everywhere.

    However, zealous belief in an ideology will quickly get one into the realm of magical thinking and disconnect from reality.

    The so-called peaks of different (cough, cough) “commodities” cannot be lumped into a one fits-all egg-crate.

    Peak “oil” is different from, but not disconnected from Peak Fertilizer (peak dirt) or Peak ___ (don’t be so glib in ignorantly and arrogantly filling in a blank –the world is complicated; very complicated).

    Antibiotics is a technology and socio-economic undertaking very different from extraction of crude oil. Despite what they may have taught you in Algebra 1 class, not every problem has a happy solution. There simply may not be an antibiotic to “invent”, for defeating certain microbes. Jumping onto a rat race treadmill (an unsustainable mill) by saying we’ll invent our way out of every new problem is simply not rational decision-making no matter how appealing, even if appealing to our shared ideology about inventions. ;-)

  6. Stepback,

    I disagree – actually you are wrong. They all follow the laws of entropy. Physics is not zealous belief in an ideology – it is science. All resources will run out because of entropy. Inventions are not subject to entropy. The decay rate of a natural resource can best be modeled as an exponential decay. Potential inventions grow factorially. Thus we can (not necessarily will) invent faster than we will run out of resources.

    The only way we can overcome our problems is by inventing. That is the only tool we have as humans to solve problems. Conservation is a false choice. It does not solve the underlying problem and usually takes away resources from inventing.

  7. – actually you are wrong.
    Physics is …


    ROFLOL –with due respect sir.

    Frankly, I do “get it” in terms of the gut feeling you probably have about how “things have to be”, including a supposed “exponential decay” of “resources” –whatever that means and the supposed mathematical growth rate of “inventions” at geometric (factorial) rates.

    All these mathematical buzz terms are nothing but magical thinking without any basis in scientific evidence and fact.

    Unless you are talking about the radioactive decay of basic elements like nitrogen (abundant in the form of N2), such “resources” do not decay at any cognizable rate. They remain here on Earth.

    The problem is that of having enough concentrated energy to break apart the N2 molecule and “fix” the unchained N atom (and other vital elements, i.e. K) into fertilizer so that we can have enough “green revolution” to keep feeding our exponentially bursting population of fellow human beings (now almost 7 Billion strong).

    No amount of inventing can get around certain rate problems where the number of mouths to feed increases faster than the rate at which we can fix nitrogen and grow crops and run the oil-hungry combines that then reap the harvest and the oil hungry trucks that bring produce to market. Internet packets do not deliver real food, just virtual food for feeding second lifers. And even those internet packets live only because they are supported by an oil-based infrastructure.

  8. Stepback,

    Actually, the factorial growth of the number of potential inventions is not magic thinking. It is based on natural laws and has been discussed by many people. It is based on the simple fact that every invention can form the basis of a new element for another invention.

    Exponential decay is consistent with the idea of diminishing returns and entropy. There is not logical reason or empirical evidence to suggest that a resource has a step function of being easily extracted and then being impossible to extract. Because of entropy the natural resource is likely to be scattered in varying degrees of order. This implies an exponential decay.

    If there are problems we just cannot solve, then I guess we should just all kill ourselves. Certainly, conservation is not the answer.

  9. Certainly, conservation is not the answer.

    “Certain” for whom?

    If we figured out a way to humanely control population and to humanely redistribute wealth based on something other than borrowing from exponentially larger pools of humans not yet born, then we and our progeny may be better off for the mid-term run.

    Of course, in the long long term run, and assuming that the Hubble Constant remains above 1.0 (meaning an ever expanding universe), our progeny of the far off future faces the inescapable doom of the Big Freeze (the counter part to the Big Bang). But should we prematurely just kill ourselves now? I’m not sure that is a well thought out answer.

  10. Stepback,

    Yes I am certain. Because of entropy we will run out of the resources for the present technology. Generally, this occurs relatively quickly. Only by inventing can we truly extend present resources and invent substitute resources. Conservation means premature death for most of the human population. It also diverts resource from finding substitute resources. Only by inventing can we avoid disaster.

  11. The one thing in common among peak oil advocates is the absence of an innovative or creative bone in their bodies.

  12. this is from the wikipedia page on peak oil:

    “Some do not agree with peak oil, at least as it has been presented by Matthew Simmons. The president of Royal Dutch Shell’s U.S. operations John Hofmeister, while agreeing that conventional oil production will soon start to decline, has criticized Simmons’s analysis for being “overly focused on a single country: Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest exporter and OPEC swing producer.” He also points to the large reserves at the U.S. outer continental shelf, which holds an estimated 100 billion barrels (16×109 m3) of oil and natural gas. As things stand, however, only 15% of those reserves are currently exploitable, a good part of that off the coasts of Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, and Texas. Hofmeister also contends that Simmons erred in excluding unconventional sources of oil such as the oil sands of Canada, where Shell is already active. ”

    It is not about total amount available here on Earth or on Jupiter. Much as it may upset all of us, there is a flow rate limit and many countries (including the USA) are well past their peaks.

    maybe if you put retarded laws about oil production into it

  13. Michael,

    I believe there are a number of potential errors in the peak oil analysis. (However, there is a finite amount of mass on earth and sunlight hitting earth so there must be some peak to oil) I have thought it would be an interesting analysis to compare the total amount of fossil fuel reserves according to the experts and compare it to a theoretical analysis of the amount of fossil fuels that could have been created on Earth. The theoretical analysis would start by multiply the average amount of biomass created on Earth per year times the number of years plants have covered the earth (4 billion years?). From this we would subtract biomass converted back into CO2 by bacteria, animals, termites etc. If we assume 1% or 0.1% is converted into fossil fuels, my guess is this would dwarf the proven reserves of fossil fuels. Now one counter argument would be that this exceeds the total amount of carbon on Earth. The estimates for the total amount of carbon on Earth are very low. This is surprising since carbon is the sixth most common element in the universe. It is a common end point for a star to become what is called a carbon star. This makes me suspicious of the estimates for the amount of carbon on Earth, especially since we have a lot of silicon which is a much less common end point for the thermonuclear reactions of a star.

  14. [...] You are either moving forward or moving backwards.  You cannot remain static. The reason why is in post Sustainability isn’t Sustainable [...]

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