Top 10 sustainability myths

Written by adam


I winced when I saw the headline “Top 10 Myths about Sustainability.” These articles are almost always an excuse for lame contrarianism. Did you know that a Prius is worse than a Hummer!?!?!! Did you know that farmer’s markets kill panda bears!?!?

But hey, guess what, the article is really good, providing food for thought on a number of contentious issues. For example:

**Myth 2: Sustainability is all about the environment.**

Is climate change an environmental issue or an economic issue? Are we killing the planet, or just making it an inhospitable place for humans?

**Myth 4: It’s all about recycling.**

Recycling is important, but the outsized grip it has on the public imagination puzzles a lot of environmentalists. Do you recycle religiously, eat a ton of fast food, and drive thirty miles to work every day? If so, your environmental priorities may be out of whack.

**Myth 7: Consumer choices and grassroots activism, not government intervention, offer the fastest, most efficient routes to sustainability.**

We obviously need grassroots activism, consumer awareness, *and* government intervention. But in a world of tradeoffs and priorities, this all-of-the-above formulation can be a bit of a cop-out. What problems can we reasonably expect individuals to address, and what areas require a strong policy framework?

**Myth 9: Sustainability is ultimately a population problem.**

In a trivial sense everything is a population problem: no people, no problem. Unfortunately, this formulation fails to provide any leverage on a solution. The challenge for humanity is, how do we support this number of people on this Earth, in a sustainable manner?

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  1. richard schumacher

    Yes! Finally, one article that gets everything right. Now to come up with the attractive compelling soundbite versions of those points. I especially like calling nuclear “sustainable” rather than the more emotionally loaded “green”, and the point about government intervention being more important than individual action. For example, my house did not have the option of buying 100% wind power from a local utility until deregulation; and, of the small number of people who have installed Solar PV systems most would not have done so without mandated buybacks, rebates and tax credits.

  2. Meaghan McCamman

    This article incorrectly characterizes the population problem as “trivial.” Certainly a policy solution to overpopulation is extremely contentious and probably far-fetched, but there’s no reason to play down the importance of a reduction in birthrate around the world, especially in ecologically (and economically) stressed areas.
    Humans can be over-consumers who live to 100, OR we can choose to have unlimited numbers of children. We’ll learn soon that we cannot have both.

  3. Woody

    “Unfortunately, this formulation fails to provide any leverage on a solution.”–sounds like intellectual obfuscation to me.
    What’s so difficult about this concept: fewer people = fewer carbon emissions.

  4. Adam Stein

    Nothing’s difficult about it. What’s so difficult about the concept that the world population is going to reach 9 billion people in 2050, and we’d better figure out how to fit them in?

  5. Anonymous

    …while we work to minimize that projected number. We can do more than one thing at a time.

  6. Garrett

    I think both articles get the population point wrong. The first sentence in the article’s “Myth #9” states “This is not a myth.”, and further, that current levels of energy use and waste are unsustainable. Do we know what is sustainable? No, we don’t. We may already be beyond that point in population level. What if we find out that 9 billion people is not at all sustainable? Then we will find out what is, especially if the most dire climate change predictions come true, and it will be significantly more painful than “egregiously trampling on individual rights”. The challenge we face is how to limit human population growth now, find out what is sustainable (those levels will change in the very long term), and do it before nature does it for us and we find out the hard way.
    What is so difficult about introducing birth control methods and making them available to regions that have the most population growth (a policy the US government does not support)? Better that now then to assume we’ll be at 9 billion people, try and fit them in, just to learn it isn’t possible. That number is projected, and every person worried about the environment should consider this more than a trivial point or a false solution.

  7. Adam Stein

    No one said population is a trivial issue. It’s just not an issue that I’ve ever heard any plausible policy for addressing, other than the one mentioned in the article: educate women in developing countries and make everyone richer. These are long-term projects. There’s no quick fix.

  8. disdaniel

    We could give kids in our schools semi-automatic weapons, which they could then use to shoot-up the place whenever their brain-chemistry becomes unbalanced.
    This way the children are no longer our future.
    Oh *snap* we are already trying this…
    Seriously there is no *policy* solution to overpopulation (except war) that doesn’t smack of zealotry, eugenics, bigotry or all three.

  9. megacleve

    So how do you suggest to “reduce” our global population? Try China’s one child policy where 115 boys are born for every 100 girls? Or why not stop our efforts to increase access to life-saving and -prolonging medical treatments? I have to see a version of population control that doesn’t perpetuate some kind of class, race, or gender biased form of massive injustice.

  10. Garrett

    Making birth control available to countries, before they become richer and more educated, would not be a policy that could be successful on a shorter term scale? How can you educate and raise the standard of living in a country that is doubling its population every 20-30 years (most of Africa)?
    The Catholic Church has an anti-condom policy, recently reiteriated by the Pope in Africa (, where AIDS affects millions. All I would propose is we work towards rational policies that reduce population growth now, and not pursue raising education and standard of living until it is too late and forced upon us in even more horrific ways (hunger, poverty, disease, war, etc). All the concerns about zealotry, bigotry, etc. will go out the window for large, overgrown populations when they need to kill each other for access to water and food for their children.

  11. Adam Stein

    I don’t think birth control availability is really the issue. Read this response to the Pope’s comments from an actual aid worker in Africa. Botswana is apparently so drenched in condoms that kids turn them into soccer balls. Disease and population growth are systemic problems.

  12. Garrett

    Thanks for the link. Interesting reading, but I would also add that one person’s experience cannot speak for the situation in other countries. Other countries are in need of birth control, not just Africa, and don’t have access to it because of bad policy and lack of willingness. It also sounds like we need to educate men (not just women).
    I hope the population projection falls short- else I worry about making any effective dent on climate change and preservation of our natural environment as we strive to raise the standard of living for that many people, which in many cases equals an increase in energy use, pollution, etc. But I also think its possible that we or nature will find ways to reach more sustainable population levels- painful ones that we won’t be able to stop.
    Anyway good discussion and I really enjoy reading the blog. Keep up the good work and I hope more people start reading it.

  13. harshnotmild

    i suggest we try self-control and to propogate self-control we spread the word on what we can expect for our children when we overcrowd the world.