And so the word “sustainable” dies

Killed by the NY Times magazine.

The larger idea is to build a more sustainable economy, or what Chinese leaders have called a balanced and harmonious society. In that economy, families would not have to save 20 percent of their income in order to pay for schooling and medical care, as many do now. They would instead be able to afford more of the comforts of modern life “” better housing, clothing, transportation and communication. In time, China would become the world’s next great consumer society.

Maybe you thought that the word ‘sustainable’ was already dead, but really it was only ill — ill-defined by overuse.  But thanks to the NYT magazine and economics columnist David Leonhardt, it has now been officially defined out of existence.

Maybe you thought ‘sustainable’ meant something like “capable of being continued with minimal long-term effect on the environment.”  How wrong you were.  Apparently, to the Times, ‘sustainable’ means being the biggest consumers in the world.  George Orwell would be proud.

Special props to the NYT and Leonhardt for running a piece that uses the words sustainable, sustain, and sustainability six times — without once mentioning global warming or China’s unsustainable contribution to it  — on the day before the big international climate conference in Cancun, a day their op-ed page ran three pieces on global warming, including one explaining the dangers of our unsustainable path (see Farmer in the Times: “Climate change, I believe, may eventually pose an existential threat to my way of life”).

And extra bonus credit to the Times for this head-exploding cover:

Shop china

Yes, the “health of the world economy depends on” China learning to spend “more like Americans.”  As if (see “Is the global economy a Ponzi scheme?“)

The article is a masterpiece of tortured logic and magical thinking.  Here’s the paragraph that follows the one quoted above:

That term may have negative connotations in the United States, particularly after the last decade of debt excess. But the term means something very different for China. A Chinese consumer society would improve the lives of hundreds of millions of people. The benefits of the industrial boom that began in the 1980s would spread more rapidly beyond the country’s eastern coast. The service sector would grow, and the economy would no longer be quite so dependent on smoke-spewing factories.

So the only negative connotation the NYT is aware of for the phrase “world’s next great consumer society” is debt excess.  No treehuggers at the Times magazine.

And somehow the benefits of the industrial boom would spread rapidly beyond the country’s east coast, but smoke-spewing factories wouldn’t?  How exactly are all those mass consumer goods bought by all those new Chinese shopaholics going to be manufactured?  By magic?

Note to NYT:  If you make a bunch of stuff for hundreds of millions of people, you’re gonna have to build a lot of smoke-spewing factories.

Finally, I’m all for improving the lives of hundreds of millions of people — but somehow I imagine it can be done without “cultivating the urge to splurge” of Americans.  Indeed, I am reminded of a piece I wrote two years ago — Chinese Premier: Rich nations should ditch ‘unsustainable’ lifestyles “¦ and stop buying all the crap we make.  I cited an AFP story:

BEIJING (AFP) “” Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao said Friday that rich nations should alter their lifestyles to help tackle global warming, at the start of a two-day meeting on climate change, state media reported.

“The developed countries have a responsibility and an obligation to respond to global climate change by altering their unsustainable way of life,” Wen was quoted as saying by Xinhua news agency.

Not exactly a view that the NYT felt needed to be part of its piece.

That said, the first thing that popped into my head when I read Wen Jiabao’s admonition was this Onion story:

Chinese Factory Worker Can’t Believe The Shit He Makes For Americans

FENGHUA, CHINA-Chen Hsien, an employee of Fenghua Ningbo Plastic Works Ltd., a plastics factory that manufactures lightweight household items for Western markets, expressed his disbelief Monday over the “sheer amount of shit Americans will buy.”

“Often, when we’re assigned a new order for, say, ‘salad shooters,’ I will say to myself, ‘There’s no way that anyone will ever buy these,’ “¦. One month later, we will receive an order for the same product, but three times the quantity. How can anyone have a need for such useless shit?”

“¦ “I hear that Americans can buy anything they want, and I believe it, judging from the things I’ve made for them,” Chen said….

Among the items that Chen has helped create are plastic-bag dispensers, microwave omelet cookers, glow-in-the-dark page magnifiers, Christmas-themed file baskets, animal-shaped contact-lens cases, and adhesive-backed wall hooks.

“Sometimes, an item the factory produces resembles nothing I’ve ever seen,” Chen said. “One time, we made something that looked like a ladle, but it had holes in its cup and a handle that bent down 90 degrees. The foreman told us that it was a soda-can holder for an automobile. If you are lucky enough to own a car, sit back and enjoy the journey. Save the soda beverage for later.”

… Chen expressed similar confusion over the tens of thousands of pineapple corers, plastic eyeshades, toothpick dispensers, and dog pull-toys that he has helped manufacture.

“Why the demand for so many kitchen gadgets?” Chen said. “I can understand having a good wok, a rice cooker, a tea kettle, a hot plate, some utensils, good china, a teapot with a strainer, and maybe a thermos. But all these extra things-where do the Americans put them? How many times will you use a taco-shell holder? ‘Oh, I really need this silverware-drawer sorter or I will have fits.’ Shut up, stupid American.”

Chen added that many of the items break after only a few uses.

“None are built to last very long,” Chen said. “That is probably so the Americans can return to buy more. Not even the badly translated assembly instructions deter them. If I bought a kitchen item that came with such poor Mandarin instructions, I would return the item immediately.”

May Gao of the Hong Kong-based labor-advocacy group China Labour Bulletin said complaints like Chen’s are common among workers in China’s bustling industrial cities.

“Last week, I took testimony from several young female workers from Shenzhen who said they were locked in a work room for 18 straight hours making inflatable Frisbees,” Gao said. “Finally, the girls joined hands on the factory floor and began to chant, ‘No more insane flying toys for Western pigs!’ They quickly lost their jobs and were ostracized by their families, but the incident was a testament to China’s growing disillusionment with producing needless crap for fat-ass foreigners.”

Continued Gao: “As Chinese manufacturing and foreign investment continue to grow, and more silly novelty products are invented, we can expect to see more of these protests.”

And if the NYT magazine has their way, the Chinese can look forward to making their own crap too!


32 Responses to And so the word “sustainable” dies

  1. Albert says:

    I prefer the word “balanced” to “sustainable,” changing the lack thereof from “unsustainable” to “unbalanced” (with it’s hint of madness), or even “precarious,” or “teetering,” like we are now.

  2. Albert says:

    ps – Balanced also makes me think of stability and sensibility, as in balanced accounts, balanced equations. Output equals input.

  3. Bob Ashworth says:

    Can anyone foresee a time when people will voluntarily reduce their consumption? Personally I can’t see it happening until it is forced upon people. I don’t see so many adverts urging us to buy less.

    Consumption of goods and energy is continuing to rise and new products drive that. Any fall in economic growth causes governments to run round providing stimulus to bring it back.

  4. Sue says:

    Tragically funny article.

  5. in the words of Albert Bartlett


    I guess the math doesn’t apply to China.

  6. David Smith says:

    I fear we are seeing the twilight of capitalism, not because the basic tenents of traditional capitalism are ill-founded, but because the players have distorted its principles to the extreme; distortion of markets, manipulation of consumers, as this article points out, mass production (and consumtion) of incredibly useless things. The most successful markets seem to involve products that need to be replaced almost as soon as they are purchased. And on top of that the planned is rebelling.

    The fear part is that I don’t have any real sense of what comes next.

  7. Pangolin says:

    “Sustainable” died when tens of thousands of city and town councils adapted policies of “sustainable growth” while ignoring certain realities of geography and physics. “Sustainability” policies of universities are almost as bad.

  8. They mean “economically sustainable.”

    [JR: There is no difference between economically sustainable and environmentally sustainable.]

    Currently, China’s savings rate is 40%. To avoid unemployment, they need to enough investment to absorb those savings. That investment increases their productive capacity, but they have to export much of what they produce, because they save their money rather than using it to buy what they produce. As China’s productive capacity keeps expanding rapidly, it will not be possible for the world to keep consuming as much as they they need to export. That is why their current course is not sustainable – which means literally that it cannot continue indefinitely.

    [JR: But their current course was not sustainable strictly on climate and environmental grounds. The notion that the world cannot keep consuming as much as they need to export is hardly a “fact” the way human-caused climate change is.]

    So, instead of saving so much, they need to spend more of their money on consumer goods – which would mean less dependency on exports, less investment, and SLOWER ECONOMIC GROWTH because of the reduced saving and investment.

    That slower growth is not enough to achieve environmental sustainability as well as economic sustainability, but it is a step in the right direction.

    [JR: This I think is counting angels dancing on the head of a pin, to change from one unsustainable path to another. Moreover, what the NYT article describes is not a step in the right direction.]

  9. clearscience says:

    Certainly the furthest thing from sustainable economics…

  10. Plenty of studies show the disaster resulting from the rise of consumerism in China and elsewhere. From my article (yes again) on the first major study of the enviro impacts published last summer in Berlin.

    “Rising global wealth spells disaster for the planet, with environmental impacts growing roughly 80 percent with a doubling of income, reports the first comprehensive study of consumption”

  11. Leif says:

    I hope we are seeing the twilight of Capitalism in its present incantation, David, @ 4, and in its stead a commitment to manufacture goods and services that promote the well being of all humanity and not just the privileged few. Where products are made to last a life time and be passed generation to generation as treasured heirlooms. Where economies are structured to reach the lowest cast so they to can purchase quality goods, not planned obsolescence goods that a small segment must buy over and over again only to fill the dumps of the world. Where windfall profits are passed to the masses and utilized for the resurrection of the commons, not lining the pockets of the oligarchy. A Capitalism that values the contribution of functioning ecosystems and the interdependence of ALL life upon Space Ship Earth.

  12. Mark S says:

    Great comments from Steven Chu getting play at yahoo:

  13. fj3 says:

    Even funnier juxtapose of serious (really!) NY Times and satirical Onion.

    Hasn’t the NY Times heard of such books as “Prosperity without Growth” and others attempting to model future civilizations inevitably based on minimal material throughputs and emissions?

    The Times would be wise to do an “Oops!” follow-up article.

  14. Sailesh Rao says:

    David Leonhardt’s article was in hilarious juxtaposition with several comments over on Andy Revkin’s Dot Earth blog lamenting the overpopulation of the planet. As if it is the number of living, breathing humans that matters most to the planet, and not their total consumption. Now that the American consumer seems to have plateaued at a fairly obese level, David Leonhardt and his corporate taskmasters appear to be encouraging the Chinese and presumably, Indian consumer to reach a similar state of consumptive obesity. All to ensure that the world economy continues to grow until it collapses spectacularly.

  15. fj3 says:

    Live Webcast 12/1: Joseph Stiglitz, Dean Baker and Others to Respond to Dec 1st Fiscal Commission Report

    Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz, will respond to the findings and recommend alternative paths to fiscal responsibility, with sustained economic growth for all Americans.

  16. Jonah says:

    We need to stop providing weasel-wordable terms like “sustainable” and “balanced” and “green”. As soon as they are uttered they’re corrupted to mean whatever the speaker wants. If you stick with strongly negative words (like the right wing does) then they’re harder to twist.

    I like “destructive consumption”. Sounds like a horrible disease or something.

  17. Leif,

    ‘…not planned obsolescence goods that a small segment must buy over and over again only to fill the dumps of the world.’

    Amen to that, and that includes these very machines we use to pass on these messages. It is extremely irksome to have to junk perfectly viable equipment because the latest OS version does not provide an adequate driver. Open source is not always the answer.

  18. I have sent the Onion story to some friends (without saying it is from the Onion), am waiting for reactions.

  19. Jeffrey Davis says:

    Sue (#4) said it best. That article from The Onion is priceless.

  20. Richard Miller says:

    Stephen et al,

    Thanks for the link to your article. I read your article on the death spiral of the arctic sea ice, when you posted the link on this site. It was excellent. I wish you were writing for the NYTimes.

    I am going to donate to further your work. I would encourage CP readers to make a donation to Stephen’s website and further independent journalism. We are in desperate need of good climate journalism so we should help to support Stephen.


  21. Mike#22 says:

    OK, in the messaging sense, the words sustainable, sustainability, were worn out years ago. Too many (not very sincere) public statements about sustainable this, sustainable that. But the progressive goal of a sustainable civilization remains.

    Assuming the word is damaged beyond repair, but the concept isn’t, a new term is needed. Not that I can think of any.

    Same problem with the word environmentalist. Maybe that meant something fourty years ago, but somehwere along the way it stopped being about activism and became about a sort of consumer behavior, the whole “greener than thou” thing.

  22. Joe, there is no doubt that the NY Times is going for a dramatic effect by saying “shop, China, shop,” and I agree with you completely that it is not sustainable to focus our lives on shopping.

    Nevertheless, the underlying economic point is true: China has to reduce its rate of saving and investment, and shift some of that money to consumption instead. All that saving and investment generates their rapid growth (GDP doubling roughly every seven years) which clearly is not sustainable.

    In my opinion, to move toward a future that is both economically and environmentally sustainable, the Chinese need to slow down the heavy investment and growth, to continue to increase consumption until it reaches a point where people are economically comfortable, and then to let economic growth level off.

    In my opinion, also, we in the United States are well beyond the point where we consume enough to be economically comfortable. I am sure you have seen the international surveys of happiness that show that happiness increases until nations reach a per capita GDP about half as great as the United States, and stops increasing above that level.

    In terms of both sustainability and human well being, the ideal is that consumption should reach about half the US current level, the level where it stops increasing happiness, and then growth should stop. That ideal may not be completely realizable, but some countries have moved in that direction, most notably, the Netherlands.

    China needs significantly more consumption before it reaches that point. It needs to shift toward more consumption to change from a developing economy with rapid growth and a low standard of living into a mature economy with slower growth and a comfortable standard of living.

    That is the first step. The next step, and the one that is desperately needed for environmental sustainability, is for the world’s mature economies to recognize that economic growth is no longer increasing their happiness, as Derek Bok has pointed out at length.

  23. burk says:

    Hey, all- Don’t get your knickers in a twist.. environmentally sustainable and fiscally sustainable are two different things. Economists agree that the international trade scene is only sustainable if countries are keeping their trade imbalances under control by letting their currencies float. Countries who have chronic surpluses (China, Germany) are shortchanging their citizens of purchasing power, while subsidizing debtor countries (the US). They do this as a jobs program, but that isn’t balanced or sustainable.

  24. Roger Wehage says:

    Sustainable is dead? What happened to Viagra?

  25. I agree that “environmentally sustainable and fiscally sustainable are two different things.”

    I can imagine an economy that is completely sustainable in environmental terms – based entirely on renewable energy, on recycled resources, and on renewable resources harvested at a sustainable level – while it is not sustainable in fiscal terms, because of constantly increasing levels of debt, because of trade imbalances, or for some other reason.

    The US economy is both – environmentally unsustainable because of our co2 emissions and depletion of resources, and fiscally unsustainable because of our chronic federal budget deficits and trade imbalances. China is also both – environmentally unsustainable because its our co2 emissions and depletion of resources, and fiscally unsustainable because of its excessive savings rate and trade surpluses.

  26. Richard (#21) appreciate your support. I’m here in Cancun covering UN climate COP thanks to some support from the public – otherwise no can do give the current media disinterest in climate and environment.

  27. Richard Brenne says:

    Sex used to mean biology until it became a marketing tool; sustainability is a marketing tool that will inevitably become what nature finds for every species, including our own.

  28. Andrew DeWit says:

    Actually, sustainability is getting big in the American military because unsustainability costs them money, lives and the flexibility to deploy where they want. Hence, the Army is stressing renewables and aiming for “net zero energy” as well as huge water and waste cuts by 2030:

    The Chair of the US Joint Chiefs spoke on these issues on October 13:

    And in an echo of the Onion piece, and maybe Full Metal Jacket, the NYT reports that the military’s also taking fast food away from its people because they’re fed up with fat recruits who get injuries through even the simplest basic training:

    A whopping 75% of US youth are ineligible for military service because they’re either obese, uneducated or delinquent:

    That’s another mark of profoundly unsustainable political economy, parasitized by vested interests in finance, food and energy, that take what they can get and fight hard for the entitlement to pass on all their environmental, social and etc costs.

    With the political process in dysfunction (or essentially bankrupted, as in California), it looks like the key driver for sustainability in the US is its military. Looking at you people from here in Tokyo, one gets a sense of the mindset that went along when the military took control from corrupt and incompetent politicians in the 30s.

    Maybe the NYT should ask if the American Republic is sustainable.

  29. Leif says:

    If “Sustainability” is dead perhaps we need to adopt “Creation Care” from the right.

  30. Interesting how we are seeing a culture shift in Chinese ideals. Shopping more and not saving for college?

  31. It is not just the NYT that is confused about meaning. I went to a lecture in London by Dr Chris Gibson-Smith, Chairman of the Stock Exchange in London that had the title, “A New Economic Model for Europe: Building sustainable growth”. There were four areas to be addressed, he said, not one of which was climate change or resource depletion. Burk at #24 makes the common mistake of thinking that the economy can be “sustained” without regard to the “sustianability” of the natural world. Maybe it could have been if human numbers had remained at the few hundred million they were when the “laws” of economics were first described, but it clearly ain’t going to work with 7 going on 9 billion of us on the planet. We urgently need to redeign the economic system to reward people for living with the Earth rather than on it.