Most people agree that whether something is “sustainable” refers to the need to act or make decisions now with a view of the long-term health of communities, democracy, or the environment. However, what seems sustainable to one person often seems unsustainable to another. Progressives, environmentalists, and conservationists typically use the word "sustainable" - or renewable - to argue that a course of action can proceed indefinitely without depleting limited resources needed to sustain the action. The word is also used to mean that the action does not wreak havoc on life and the planet. For example, environmentalists claim that an economy based on oil, coal, and gas is unsustainable due to the finite amounts of these resources. More important, they argue, is the degradation of the environment in extracting, refining, and using the resources. Instead, they advocate for the use of sustainable sources of energy such as solar, wind, and wave. Building new hydropower plants is not considered sustainable due to the drastic environmental changes it imposes on rivers and their ecosystems.
Conservatives often argue that the world economy cannot sustain a drastically reduced use of non-renewable energy sources. They point to the huge job losses that could take place in these industries if policies are instituted that significantly reduce their use. And they cite the high cost and unreliability of wind and solar power (though environmentalists see these same high costs as rapidly declining). Conservatives also put forth the argument that emerging market economies around the world could grind to a halt in the face of global pressure to reduce their consumption. Or they could gain a competitive advantage over the United States during its struggle to shift to renewable energy.
Sustainability is also an issue seen differently regarding America's food industry. Environmentalists and whole food advocates assert that current large-scale farming practices - monocultures and high animal protein production - are unsustainable due to high health, environmental, and animal welfare costs. For example, environmentalists point to the historical fragility of monocultures and the high cost (in water and resources) of producing animal protein. They worry about drought, widespread crop loss, and environmental devastation. Conservatives question both the premises and the forecasts of these assertions. In their minds, the need to maintain jobs and affordable food supplies through efficient farming techniques trumps these concerns, even if such farming techniques may only be efficient in the short or medium term.
Many on both sides agree that advancing energy technology can offer a way forward. And to the delight of conservatives, a few leading environmentalists have even suggested that nuclear energy is a viable bridge between where we are now and where we need to be. (But only a few; most environmentalists still see nuclear power as unsustainable due to its high risks and its generation of toxic materials.) Whole food advocates seem to be gaining ground as more consumers literally buy into the idea that organic and less processed foods are better for their health and for the environment. Conservatives are much more amenable to such market shifts when they are consumer driven.
The degree of urgency to address environmental concerns in both the energy and food sectors can be dramatically different between liberals and conservatives. Yet both groups share an interest in the sustainable health and wellbeing of individuals and the long-term sustainability of the our species.
QUESTIONS TO PLAY WITH:
- If you were the leader of the world, and you could choose a time from every industry and technology would focus on improving, which would you choose: the next 30 years or the next 300 years? Why?
- If we “used up” the earth, and maybe went off to use up other planets in the future, how much would that bother you? Would it be a horrible thing, or just the future of humanity?
- Where do you get the energy that powers your life? Why do you get it from there? Would you rather get it from somewhere else?
- If you could have the best meal of your life, where would it come from?