Facing the Future

The Hype Over Sustainability

Das Kohlekraftwerk Mehrum und Windräder produzieren am 09.09.2015 Strom in Hohenhameln im Landkreis Peine (Niedersachsen). Nach der EEG-Reform ist der Strommarkt-Umbau für Wirtschaftsminister Gabriel die wichtigste Baustelle bis zur Wahl. Der Staat will sich so gut es geht heraushalten - für das Einmotten alter Kohlemeiler aber viel Geld zahlen. Foto: Julian Stratenschulte/dpa (zu dpa "Gabriel treibt Kraftwerks-Reform voran - Kritik von den Grünen" vom 09.09.2015) [ Rechtehinweis: Verwendung weltweit, usage worldwide ]
Sustainability has turned into an empty buzz word.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    The author argues that basing our decisions about sustainability on the needs of future generations is the wrong approach, since we have no way of knowing what the needs of their technical capabilities will be.

  • Facts


    • Our concept of sustainability is based on a 1987 study completed for the United Nations.
    • It defined sustainable development as meeting the needs of the present without compromising the needs of future generations.
    • The idea of sustainability has become so pervasive in today’s society that it has become somewhat meaningless.
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The global population has been living beyond its means since last month, according to calculations by environmental organizations.

In the period from January 1 to August 8, mankind apparently consumed more resources than the earth can regenerate in the entire year. We will be living on existing reserves for the rest of the year, according to the environmental activists.

This year marks the earliest Earth Overshoot Day in history. The earth’s resources apparently lasted five days longer in 2015. This, according to the environmental groups, is far from sustainable.

“There is a problem with the hype about sustainability.”

Bert Rürup, German economist

Irrespective of the validity of such calculations, it is a good idea to estimate the long-term consequences of political, economic and personal decisions. But there is a problem with the hype about sustainability: Demand is tied to the wishes of future generations – which no one knows.

Today’s understanding of sustainability goes back to a study completed for the United Nations. The Brundtland report, published in 1987, defines sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

The idea of taking future generations into account when making decisions today is much older, and it already existed in archaic cultures in the form of councils of elders.

Their maxim was that future generations should be able to live the same life as their ancestors and those alive today. In other words, the world should always remain the same.

In modern, liberal societies, characterized in equal measure by economic restructuring, changing lifestyles, an ongoing shortening of the half-life of knowledge and a high degree of technological momentum, citing the unknown concerns of future generations is as trite as it is arbitrary.

In the early 1960s, air pollution in the industrial Ruhr area was so intolerable that a large majority of Germans supported nuclear energy as the environmentally friendly technology of the future. That preference was subsidized – apparently in a bet on the knowledge and needs of future generations.

Half a century later, however, precisely those future generations used similar arguments to support a nuclear phase-out, saying that future generations should not have to face the long-term consequences of nuclear energy.

The fact is, no one today knows whether this decision will still be viewed as the correct cornerstone of energy policy in 50 years. It is certainly conceivable that this decision will be revised – in the interest of future generations, of course. If we fail to reach world climate goals, we run out of fossil fuels or a solution for the final storage of nuclear waste emerges.

The turnaround in Germany’s energy policy, known as the Energiewende, is certainly one of the central challenges of our time. But we should avoid using the unknown needs of future generations to legitimize our decisions.

The nuclear phase-out and the transition to renewable energy are in keeping with today’s predictions – and this legitimizes the argument. But claiming that the transition meets the needs and lifestyles of future generations is actually a big guess: In reality, we are neither familiar with their technical possibilities nor their needs.

Nevertheless, the idea of sustainability is so appealing that it now finds its way into every area of politics.

Its traditional environmental dimension is being supplemented by an economic, social and, more recently, cultural perspective. Because economic sustainability is hardly compatible with our economic system, which is geared toward growth and realizing profits, we use indicators to make it more specific: a generationally fair, sustainably financed social system that is poverty-proof; government finances that are sustainable in the long term; a stable banking system, a high level of attractiveness of economic sites, a good education and research system. The list goes on.

In fact, these criteria are ultimately an open economic policy wish list shaped by individual political locations. Because it is being applied to more and more aspects of life and politics, “sustainability” has degenerated into an empty phrase.

The underlying idea is certainly valuable and correct. It is true that the consequences of many decisions that are made today will still be felt in decades to come. Not caring about future generations at all is certainly not a basis for responsible action. But neither is gazing into a crystal ball in which we only see what we want to see.


The author is president of the Handelsblatt Research Institute. You can reach him at: ruerup@handelsblatt.com

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