The single most important principle for sustainability

December 1, 2013

No doubt you know someone who’s told you about his or her great aunt who lived to be 98 and never went to a doctor. Or maybe it was a grandparent who led a vigorous existence and never went to a hospital, not once. We think of such people as being the hardiest of the species. But, there might be an additional explanation. Has it ever occurred to you that both people were that healthy and vigorous BECAUSE they never went a doctor or a hospital?

One estimate puts deaths from medical errors at around 200,000 per year in the United States, a number which does not, of course, include those injured but not killed and saddled with disabilities–both obvious and subtle–that can affect health for a lifetime. Now, why am I telling you a medical story if my topic is principles for sustainability?

The short answer is that medicine has a term for its errors–which include outright mistakes by physicians, but also adverse reactions to drugs and other treatments. And, it attempts to count these errors which it calls iatrogenic, meaning caused by the doctor’s treatment.

But, we have iatrogenic-like errors and problems caused by all sorts of modern inventions and procedures in a wide array of professions, trades, and industries–inventions and procedures which are thought to be improvements over the past. Think about how financial derivatives were supposed to be far superior instruments for mitigating and managing risk in the marketplace–until the 2008 market meltdown showed derivatives to have enormous hidden risks!

The late CBS television reporter and commentator Eric Sevaried was famous for saying, "The chief cause of problems is solutions." Perhaps we should say "presumed" solutions. The main problem with these presumed solutions is that typically, we have very little history with them, especially if they are the product of recent technological innovation. So, the risks associated with these supposed "solutions" are largely hidden from us.

The "solutions" we find in nature (and therefore in our bodies which are part of nature) are tested through the evolutionary process for a very long time. They may not be perfect solutions. But neither are many modern pseudo-solutions to our perceived problems. In fact, these pseudo-solutions often make matters worse–sometimes much worse–for reasons that cannot be detected until it is too late (and sometimes not at all if the risks are well hidden). The watchword in the medical profession used to be, "First, do no harm." Now, it’s intervene so that the patient thinks you are doing something. And that, it seems, has become true in so many other professions as well. How can the fee be justified otherwise?

So here, finally, is the principle: "The non-natural needs to prove its benefits, not the natural."

I take this principle directly from a book I’ve mentioned previously, Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. And, my discussion of it is largely based on his observations. This principle is the clearest expression of the precautionary principle I’ve ever seen, and it is even more stringent.

Now, those who shower our air, water, soil and bodies with newfangled chemicals (some of them called pharmaceuticals), tell us that it is our responsibility to provide evidence that these novel chemicals are harmful. In fact, logic dictates that those who introduce non-natural substances into the environment should be obliged to prove that those substances are safe. Nature’s record is long, unassailable and open to inspection. The chemical industry has been with us for less than 200 years, and the modern chemical industry as we know it is a post-World War II phenomenon, an industry not exactly celebrated for its openness to public scrutiny.

So, here’s a corollary to the principle above. A novel substance or action used to address a perceived problem for individuals or society should have far greater benefits than natural substances or than just doing nothing. Taleb suggests absolutely NO medical treatment for minor ailments such as headaches (the temporary kind), muscle spasms, and indigestion, for example. Nature suggests a change of diet, a change of routine, or even a change of jobs, strategies which have little risk associated with them compared to novel treatments.

When it comes to broader planetary issues, the introduction of massive amounts of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere through the burning of fossil fuels, deforestation, and modern farming practices, is clearly non-natural. The true risks remained largely hidden even 100 years after Svante Arrhenius did the first calculations concerning global warming in 1896.

(Arrhenius vastly underestimated the pace of that warming, calculating that it would take 2,000 years to double carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere. The current time line puts this event in the middle of this century. But, he was surprisingly close to modern estimates of the likely temperature change, about 5 degrees C. Incidentally, he did all these calculations by hand!)

Modern farming practices–the so-called Green Revolution–lulled the world into believing that farming could sustainably be transformed into just another industrial activity with cookie cutter instructions. Grain yields and food supplies bounded upward until the mid-1980s, when per-capita grain yields began to fall. They haven’t fallen dramatically. But, the fact that they have fallen tells us that there are limits to what industrial farming can do. We have more grain, but less grain per person than we used to.

It turns out that these limits might result from what we are doing to the soil through such farming. The solution so far has been to pour more chemicals onto the land. But that, too, is starting to lose its effectiveness as yields level off or even drop in areas where soil has been depleted of its natural fertility.

The real solution has been to look to nature and how it preserves and enhances soil fertility. Organic farmers have known this for a long time. The problem from the modern point of view with this approach is that it would likely require many more people to be involved in growing food. Organic farming typically requires more labor inputs than the machine-driven agriculture of monocrop grain farms.

All of this is not to say that NO improvements can be made over what is naturally occurring. More precisely, it is to say that the proposed improvements ought to be so compelling and so advantageous that any unanticipated downsides can be tolerated. A patient near death is unlikely to complain much about long-term side effects if the medicine saves him or her. One who has a headache but ends up with, say, a rare, life-threatening blood disorder from the treatment, will almost certainly conclude that the cure was not worth the (hidden) cost.

Expectant mothers who took thalidomide to relieve the distressing (but temporary) symptoms of morning sickness–only to have deformed children later– were unknowingly taking large risks for small immediate gains. And, that seems to be the problem with much of what we label "progress." It’s only progress until the unanticipated side effects kick in.

Okay, so let’s think for a minute about the previously announced principle for sustainability: "The non-natural needs to prove its benefits, not the natural." Think about how deeply conservative that principle is. And, here I mean conservative in what has become an almost archaic sense of the word, that is, to conserve those practices and attitudes which have proven themselves truly sustainable over the ages.

What passes for conservative today is actually a radical political and economic agenda to strip the world of its resources as quickly as possible and turn them into wealth for a small elite. There is absolutely nothing conservative about this program.

But even those who style themselves liberal are typically only a few steps behind their pseudoconservative adversaries. Many of the world’s progressives essentially believe that we should strip the world of its resources as well, only at a more measured rate while sharing the spoils more equitably. Both ways of thinking, however, have modern human society racing toward destruction. And, political liberals–who congratulate themselves for being open to the newest trends–may be even more susceptible to new technologies and methods that come with large hidden costs.

This piece is not a call to reverse history. That would be futile even if that’s what I were proposing. Rather, it is a call to look with considerable skepticism on so-called "solutions" to the present crises that have no antecedent in nature or no long relevant tradition in society–and to place a special burden on technological solutions to show how they are far better than what nature suggests to us.

Let me give you an example of what I mean. The emerging sharing economy is based on the relevant and longstanding tradition of sharing with neighbors. It is not really a technological innovation so much as it is a social innovation–one, that is, well, not exactly new.

What’s new is that the Internet makes sharing across vast distances with people you don’t know possible–sharing extra rooms, cars, and office space, for example. The founders of the sharing economy didn’t invent sharing; nor did they invent the Internet. They simply took an age-old tradition and used now existing technology to take advantage of huge unused capacity available worldwide in people’s homes and driveways.

By my lights, this is an innovation that has big advantages over building more cars, more offices, and more hotels, by lowering overall consumption and freeing people from ownership of things which they only need occasionally.

In this I’m admitting that the Internet–a hog for electricity–might have net benefits when these kinds of insights are applied to it.

The criteria I’ve suggested for evaluating innovations are not scientific, nor could they be since they touch on values. But at least they offer a way to sift through the plethora of ideas for a sustainable world and ask whether these ideas themselves are sustainable and advantageous on their face.

Kurt Cobb

Kurt Cobb is a freelance writer and communications consultant who writes frequently about energy and environment. His work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique,, OilVoice, TalkMarkets,, Business Insider and many other places. He is the author of an oil-themed novel entitled Prelude and has a widely followed blog called Resource Insights. He is currently a fellow of the Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions.

Tags: antifragile, climate change, green revolution, precautionary principle, sharing economy