Back Home

Sustainable Development: how it is impossible and possible

The paper presented at ISA convention May 2005 in Honolulu Hawaii USA
P. Hideo Shingu

Kyoto Energy-Environmental Research Association
Kitaku Kamigamo Sakakidacho 54,Kyoto 603-8051, Japan


The notion of sustainable development certainly contains contradicting ideas. Everything in this world comes to an end: wisdom expressed as the increase of entropy in energy science. However, it appears that one is happy when one has to exert one’s effort to develop. Then an aporia, an insolvable difficult question, emerges that the catastrophe due to the unlimited development and people’s happiness seems to go together. In this paper, the way to evade such an aporia will be presented in three steps. 1. Examination of human nature: why avarice toward growth or development is associated with happiness. 2. Brief review of world energy consumption to show that living a frugal life, not technological development, should be given the first priority in policy making. 3. Presentation of pragmatic method to take advantage of avarice for practicing a frugal way of life resulting in the restoration of the happiness and dignity of humankind. ----“An easy life cannot be a chaste life”--- Uncle Vanya: A.Chekhov

1.Human nature : why growth is desirable.

The success of Adam Smith’s economic theory rests on the fact that he constructed his idea of free market economy based on the sober observation of human nature (1). He noticed that the powerful driving force for the exertion of the ability of people comes from greed or avarice. For the sake of one’s own profit one exerts the full power of his ability.
The free run of people’s greed, which is never satiable, promotes the ceaseless economic growth of a country. This, in Adam Smith’s day, was most praised for generating the increase in the wealth of the nation.
Today, the amount of primary energy consumption became as large as about 100ppm of the total energy input from the sun. Both from the point of view of the limitation of natural resources and of environmental degradation, continuation of growth of economic activity is no longer possible. It is not ethical not to share nature with our future generations. However, in the world of economic activity, and also in the world of governments, it is repeatedly asserted that economic growth rates should be maintained in order to keep national and world economies in “sound” state. For this purpose, it is openly stated by many famed “economists” that the stimulation or activation of consumption should be promoted.
The transition from growth economics to a steady state or, as recently called, sustainable development, has been much talked about and many excellent accounts of why that is necessary have been written and such books are not unpopular in general.  However, scarcely any

Figure 1

Maitre Cornille vainly persuaded the villagers that steam is the invention of devil while wind is the breath of God. Did growth alleviated poverty and brought happiness? A.Daudet, Lettres de mon Moulin (1873). Drawing; courtesy of R.Fukazawa.

political or economic movements are actively promoting this view.
Since the industrial revolution, people have consistently preferred “development” to the more natural and environmentally sound old fashioned way of life, as symbolically appears in Daudet’s story on how wind mills were replaced by the steam force factories (Figure 1).
Simply stating, it appears that growth should be maintained for the attainment of happiness. Yet, sustainable economy is an ethical imperative. In order to find the way out of this paradoxical situation, we must explore how the feeling of happiness could be associated with growth while keeping the economy sustainable.
For this purpose one should examine the reason why growth give human being a happy feeling and the reason why greed or avarice is embedded in human nature.

2.Stress is important: Satisfaction does not bring happiness.

Human nature has been formed in the past millions of years so that we would take actions voluntarily, feeling pleasure, in a direction that is in accord with the need for survival and continuation of the human species. Without the greed or avarice for love, fortune and fame, human beings would have long ago perished in the competition with other creatures. Thus, the desire to obtain more, ambition for growth, became the nature of human being. Growth of things needs a driving force. The action of force to a body is the stress. Since the practices of greed have been advantageous for our survival, we have evolved so as to feel secure under stress.
Stress can work to maintain sound mental health. Although stress is usually thought to be detrimental to mental and physical health, as stated in the generally accepte theory by H. Selye, stress is actually necessary and needed to maintain a sound mental state, in other words, a secure and happy state of mind. The reason why some economists insist that the “acceleration” of economic growth is needed to maintain a sound social state comes from the fact that acceleration, the increase of velocity, means stress.
In this connection Ancient Chinese wisdom in “Great Learning” says that “Common person when let free without things to do start doing no good conduct, in fact, he will do any wrong doing imaginable”. Smith wrote that a single week’s idleness is often enough to undo a person completely to let one commit enormous crimes.
Similarly, Aristotle wrote that happiness is not in a certain disposition of character but is rather in some form of activity (Greek energeia) itself (2). He claims that activity in philosophical contemplation brings the utmost happiness. It may well be so for the people of high culture, but for common people, the majority of the population, activities based on avarice must be the source of happiness.
These ancient wisdoms confirm that people’s pursuit of happiness inevitably drives the growth of social activities and consequently economic development and mass consumption of energy. However, one should be aware that it is not the gain itself that gives people happiness, but rather the stress involved in the process of growth.
These views on the nature of happiness lead to the rather curious notion that when one is satisfied, one is not satisfied. Thus, when the term happiness is taken as synonymous with satisfaction, one is not happy when one is happy (see a symbolical expression given in Figure 2).

Figure 2

The first of 64 combinations of six yin and yan symbols of Chinese Yi-Ching, is all yan and no yin. The common interpretation of this combination is as follows; a dragon made it to the heavens and had regrets. This dragon, while he was in the way of rising, had to exert his full power so he was happy. Once he made it to his final goal, heaven, he could find nowhere to go, and could do nothing but deplore his situation.

It may appear curious that satisfaction is contrary to happiness. However, one can understand this paradoxical situation from the teaching in economics which states that the marginal value is the greater when goods or services are the scarcer and the marginal value becomes zero when supply is just enough.
Before discussing further how to find out the way to maintain happy feeling of stress associated with growth without actually increasing the consumption of energy, let us review briefly the state of energy consumption in the present world to understand how urgent the restriction of economic growth is.

3.Limitation of growth due to the nature of energy. 50 full-moon equivalent of energy consumption.

R.Clausius who gave the definition of “entropy” stated in 1896 that “No matter how much progress of science is achieved human being cannot create energy. Hence, we are destined to live by the energy from the sun” (3).
The sun is providing to the earth’s surface enormous amount of energy but we should not add too much energy to it if we want the environment of earth to be as comfortable as it has been for past many millenniums. The amount of total energy addition, the amount of primary energy consumption of humankind, now is roughly as large as 100ppm of the sun’s radiation energy.
For the purpose of comparison, if the energy from the full moon, which is the reflection of sun’s ray, is calculated, it amounts to about 2ppm. So that it appears that we are using energy in the amount equivalent to about 50 full moons in every moment throughout the year. Fifty full moons of energy is roughly the equivalent of the electrical energy generated by ten thousand full-size nuclear or fossil fuel power plants. To be aware of the fact that not only the amount of our energy consumption is large, but that the use of these technologies of energy production inevitably produces great amounts of waste which will have to be disposed of for many hundreds and thousands of years, is to realize the magnitude of our responsibility.
One hundred ppms of energy from the sun, when measured by the amount of crude oil, is roughly equivalent to 9.5 billion tons per one year. Since the world population is now about 6.4 billion, the equal yearly per person ration of energy consumption amounts to about one 1.5 tons oil equivalent. In reality, the energy consumption per person in US and Canada is over 8 tons and in “advanced” countries like Japan, Korea and many European countries it is about 4 tons, while China uses about 0.7 tons.
Aside from the argument over whether countries should or not have the right to use so much energy or the argument of whether or not we should all have equal right in this matter, let us imagine what the future would hold if we were to freeze energy consumption at its present level.
The primary energy consumption of 1.5 ton per person corresponds, in the case of Japan, to the period around 1967. We had a high-speed train that runs about 500km between Tokyo and Osaka in less than two and half hours. Private cars were not so rare but still the item of envy. Foods and clothes were sufficiently provided for everybody.
It is startling to observe that whenever we ask people if we became happier since these days, few answer yes. What did we achieve then, by increasing energy consumption by almost three times? 

4.Frugal life restores the marginal value of basic commodities. It can be realized in a “viscose” society. 

Now returning to the subject of section 2, we have to examine how to obtain the feeling of happiness without actual growth. If the stress is an important factor for happiness, as stated in section 2, people would look for the increase of growth rate, since the larger the acceleration the larger the stress, as elementary dynamics state.
As the acceleration usually increases the velocity of an object, so is the economy. If the velocity of the economy increases indefinitely catastrophe is inevitable. However, as in the case of the movement of an object in a viscose media, a steady state motion may also need acceleration, or the stress, to a moving body.
For example one can imagine the constant velocity (steady state) sinking of a piece of tablet in a viscose liquid like glycerin where the tablet is receiving the stress from the gravitational acceleration.
Now the point is becoming clear. What we need is to realize the highly viscose state of society in the economic activity. In other words, we have to be forced to live frugal lives. In a society of frugal lives, the marginal value of commodities and human labor must be reasonably high. The restoration of the marginal values of basic commodities will enhance the happiness and dignity of people (4).
The society, where the marginal values exist only in luxury items or extravagant amusements, is not very viscose. Such societies inevitably will, driven by the high stress of greed and the consequent need for the consumption of energy, increase the size of its economy indefinitely. Such society is not sustainable in any sense of the word. Whereas, in highly viscose society, where the marginal values for basic commodities are restored, the driving force of avarice is not enough to accelerate the economy to the materialistic expansion, it is in a limited sense, sustainable and developing.

5. Private vice can be public good. The action of the “invisible hand”.

The problem now is how to recover the society with the frugal lives. For this purpose we have to learn from the examination of the nature of human being stated in the section 2.
It is the well-known doctrine of Adam Smith that private vice can contribute to the public good. Smith proposed that the free market economy based on the driving force of personal avarice could contribute to the national wealth as if guided by the “invisible hand”. The excellent point of Smith’s doctrine is that the purpose, the increase of the wealth of the nation, can be achieved by not doing anything particular, but by the “laissez faire” policy (see Figure 3).

Figure 3

Only by doing nothing, everything can be done.
The central teaching of Tao-ism by Lao Tse.

For the purpose of the present paper, to find out the way to realize simultaneously people’s happiness and a frugal way of life, we can learn from Smith. In short, how we can activate the “invisible hand” which automatically function for the attainment of the purpose.
 We can, following Smith again, utilize a basic feature of human nature, avarice for the profit. In our case, however, the free run of avarice, which is the present state of the world, the pursuit of the modern economy will surely result in a catastrophe. The new strategy which must be added to “laissez faire” is some constraint within which people can enjoy the free run of avarice.
One simple method is to raise the price of energy, gas, electricity and so on, by taxation to a very high level, say, 10 times the present one. If the price of energy is very high, people can save more money by adopting a frugal way of life. The major reason why people waste so much energy now is because frugality does not bring us too much money. The price of energy simply is just too low. If one thinks that energy is too basic a need for human life to raise its price so high, the high taxation policies can be applied only for excess use, say over 50kWh per person a month, or so in the case of electricity.
Another similar strategy is to practice rationing the right of energy usage for every citizen. As stated previously, if absolutely fair distribution of the benefit of energy consumption should be kept, a yearly equivalent of 1.5 ton oil allocation should go to the every person in the world. Many people in the world can live happily with much less energy than 1.5 ton oil equivalent. These people can therefore trade for money the amount of energy they do not need for money with the people who choose to pursue extravagant lives. Such a measure may contribute to the alleviation of poverty simultaneously as enhance the frugal use of energy.
These propositions may sound odd and wild to the ears of many people. However, if one gives even a moment’s notice to the fact that we are not taking any practical measure for dealing with the consequences of energy consumption, such as the waste gases or radioactive wastes, everybody should judge which course of action is odder and wilder.
The wishful, optimistic attitude, the “let it be”, wisdom, which quite often works in our lives, is dangerous in this case because the stakes associated with failure are just too big. Failure in the case of environmental change can wipe out our lives from this planet. Such a risk is not acceptable for anyone.

6. Conclusion

1.People feel happiness in a state of growth. In fact it is the stress associated with growth that is important.
2.The present world’s average yearly primary energy consumption amounts to about 10 billion tons oil equivalent or 1.5 tons oil equivalent per person. Seeking a frugal life style must be given the first priority in policy making.
3.The frugal way of life can restore the marginal value of basic commodities and realize the steady state society. More importantly, it will restore the happiness and dignity of humankind.
4.“Invisible hand” should be utilized for the realization of world wide frugal lives: The frugal life must be made profitable so that every person will exert his or her ability to the full for everyone’s sake, resulting in the promotion of the public good and of sustainable “development”.


1.Adam Smith: The wealth of Nations (1776).
2.Aristotle: Nichomachean Erhics, vol.10, chapters 6.7.
3.R.Clausius : Ueber die Energievorraethe der Natur und Ihre Verwertnung zum Nutzen der Menschheit. Verlag von Max Cohen & Sohn, (1896).
4.P.H.Shingu: Happiness, NHK Books, (1998).

Written by Shingu : May 9, 2005 11:15 AM

Back Home