How an obscure Austrian philosopher saw through our empty rhetoric about ‘sustainability’

5 07 2017

Hot Mess

Marc Hudson, University of Manchester

“Sustainability” is, ironically, a growth industry. Ever since the term “sustainable development” burst onto the scene in 1987 with the release of Our Common Future (also known as the Brundtland report), there has been a dizzying increase in rhetoric about humanity’s relationship with our planet’s resources. Glossy reports – often featuring blonde children in front of solar panels or wind turbines – abound, and are slapped down on desks as proof of responsibility and stewardship.

Every few years a new term is thrown into the mix – usually preceded by adjectives like “participatory” or “community-led”. The fashionability of “resilience” as a mot du jour seems to have peaked, while more recently the “circular economy” has become the trendy term to put on grant applications, conference notices and journal special editions. Over time journals are established, careers are built, and library shelves groan.

Meanwhile, the planetary “overshoot”, to borrow the title of a terrifying 1980 book, goes on – exemplified by rising concentrations of atmospheric carbon dioxide, warmer oceans, Arctic melting, and other signs of the times.

With all this ink being spilled (or, more sustainably, electrons being pressed into service), is there anything new to say about sustainability? My colleagues and I think so.

Three of us (lead author Ulrike Ehgartner,
second author Patrick Gould
and myself) recently published an article called “On the obsolescence of human beings in sustainable development”.

In it we explore the big questions of sustainability, drawing on some of the work of an unjustly obscure Austrian political philosopher called Gunther Anders.

Who was Günther Anders?

He was born Günther Siegmund Stern in 1902. While he was working as a journalist in Berlin, an editor wanted to reduce the number of Jewish-sounding bylines. Stern plumped for “Anders” (meaning “other” or “different”) and used that nom de plume for the rest of his life.

Anders knew lots of the big philosophical names of the day. He studied under Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger. He was briefly married to Hannah Arendt, and Walter Benjamin was a cousin.

But despite his stellar list of friends and family, Anders himself was not well known. Harold Marcuse points out that the name “Stern” was pretty apt, writing:

His unsparingly critical pessimism may explain why his pathbreaking works have seldom sparked sustained public discussion.

While Hiroshima and the nuclear threat were the most obvious influences on Anders’ writing, he was also crucially influenced by the events at Auschwitz, the Vietnam War, and his periods in exile in France and the United States. But why should we care, and how can his ideas be applied to modern-day ideas about sustainability?

Space precludes a blow-by-blow account of what my colleagues and I wrote, but two ideas are worth exploring: the “Promethean gap” and “apocalyptic blindness”.

Anders suggested that the societal changes wrought by the industrial age – chief among them the division of labour – opened a gap between individuals’ capability to produce machines, and their capability to imagine and deal with the consequences.

So, riffing on the Greek myth of Prometheus (the chap who stole fire from Mount Olympus and gave it to humans), Anders proposed the existence of a “Promethean gap” which manifests in academic and scientific thinking and leads to the extensive trivialisation of societal issues.

The second idea is that of “apocalyptic blindness” – which is, according to Anders, the mindset of humans in the Age of the Third Industrial Revolution. This, as we write in our paper:

…determines a notion of time and future that renders human beings incapable of facing the possibility of a bad end to their history. The belief in progress, persistently ingrained since the Industrial Revolution, causes the incapability of humans to understand that their existence is threatened, and that this could lead to the end of their history.

Put simply, we don’t want to look an apocalypse in the eye, even if it’s heading straight towards us.

The climate connection

“So what?” you might ask. Why listen to yet another obscure philosopher railing about technology, in the vein of Lewis Mumford and Jacques Ellul? But I think a passing knowledge of Anders and his work reminds us of several important things.

This is nothing new. Recently, the very notion of ‘progress’ has come under renewed assault, with books questioning our assumptions about it. This is not new of course – in a 1967 short story collection about life at the United Nations, Shirley Hazzard had written:

About this development process there appeared to be no half-measures: once a country had admitted its backwardness, it could hope for no quarter in the matter of improvement. It could not accept a box of pills without accepting, in principle, an atomic reactor. Progress was a draught that must be drained to the last bitter drop.

The time – if ever there was one – for tinkering around the edges is over. We need to take stronger action than simply pursuing our feelgood preoccupation with sustainability.

This begs the question of who is supposed to shift us from the current course (or rather, multiple collision courses. That’s a difficult one to answer.

The hope that techno-fixes (including 100% renewable energy) will sort out our problems is a dangerous delusion (please note, I’m not against 100% renewables – I’m just saying that green energy is “necessary but not sufficient” for repairing the planet).

Similarly, the “circular economy” has a rather circular feeling to it – in the sense that we’ve seen all this before. It seems (to me anyway) to be the last gasp of the “ecological modernist” belief that with a bit more efficiency, everything can simply keep on progressing.

The ConversationOur problems go far deeper. We are going to need a rapid and fundamental shift in our values, habits, behaviours, and outlooks. Put in Anders’ terms, we need to stop being blind to the possibility of apocalypse. But then again, people have been saying that for a century or more.

Marc Hudson, PhD Candidate, Sustainable Consumption Institute, University of Manchester

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


15 03 2016

This is Simon Michaux’s follow up to his article on the Implications of Peak Energy

Simon Michaux


Dr Simon Michaux has a Bach App Sc in Physics and Geology and a PhD in mining engineering. He has worked in the mining industry for 18 years in various capacities. He has worked in industry funded mining research, coal exploration and in the commercial sector in an engineering company as a consultant. Areas of technical interest have been: Geometallurgy; mineral processing in comminution, flotation and leaching; blasting; mining geology; geophysics; feasibility studies; mining investment; and industrial sustainability.

There is a macro-scale pattern unfolding under all of us. Every non-renewable natural resource we depend upon is now depleting to the point of peak extraction, or will soon. Industrial systems that are heavily dependent on energy reserves and metal resources are now at serious risk of collapse as production of those raw materials will soon not be able to meet demand, since easy to access reserves will be exhausted, leaving low-grade stocks that are expensive or technically challenging to extract. All living systems on the planet are under stress and are also heavily degrading. Natural systems of all kinds are being depleted in the name of economic development, and the planet’s climate is also undergoing change.

Our culture’s fundamental belief that there are no limits and growth is good, is related to the belief that all resources are infinite. Humans, like all animals on the planet, are biologically driven to consume and expand – it’s a built-in survival mechanism. Yet, as this is a finite planet and our exploitation of these natural resources is exponential in form, there will come a point where severe volatility and resource scarcity will become a reality.

Energy is the rate determining step, which facilitates the continued application of technology with economies of scale. As studies have shown, total world fossil fuel supply is close to peak, driven by peak of oil production. What’s more, putting all energy sources together gives a snapshot of our industrial capability and suggests that peak total energy is projected to be approximately in the year 2017.

energy sources

The industrial systems vital for our society to function are supported by each of these energy sources in quite different ways, and they are not interchangeable easily. A compelling case can be made that that our society and its industrial sector energy supply faces a fundamental problem, that is systemic in nature.

Our industrial requirements will have to be met with a fundamentally different approach to anything we have achieved before. We need to stop depending on non-renewable natural resources and stop the material requirements of the human societal footprint growing exponentially. Mining will continue but according to a radically different business model, and with a very different mandate.


Network theory and systems thinking has some insights to what the required new system of industrialisation could look like. Our human society, its economic and social interactions could be modelled as a system, where each activity could be a connection, for example the transport of goods, or the consumption of electricity. Nodes are where many connections intersect. For example, most activities involve a finance transfer thus will engage the services of a bank. The bank is a node, where many connections are able to function through. Not all nodes are equal though in regard to the number of connections they facilitate. The node of a car manufacturing business, for instance, will have many fewer connections than, say, the European Union Bank.

Image: NASA / Flickr CC BY NC 2.0
Image: NASA / Flickr CC BY NC 2.0

If connections are broken due to circumstance (using a city example, heavy storms and flooding could temporarily interrupt power supply to an individual neighbourhood) then the network is smaller in size but it still functions (power is still being supplied to other parts of the power grid). But if that same storm causes the power station used for electricity generation (a node) to shut down, then every consumer attached to that power station will lose power. The whole grid will crash.

The complexity of a network is supported by and defined by the energy inputs that support it. Our current complex system is supported by cheap abundant high density energy – oil. Complex system networks are not made ‘in situ’, but are grown over time from simple system networks.

What does all this mean for the current industrial grid? Peak total energy means the node of energy supply is about to be disrupted. All links in the network system supported by energy will be logistically traumatized. As it stands, any replacement energy is less dense per unit volume than oil, and requires extensive infrastructure to be built. Think of the amount of energy invested in the creation of our current system over time – without plentiful, easy to access energy, the replacement network system will need to be less complex than the current one, once fully operational. It will also take time for the network to reach full complexity.

The old system cannot function because input energy is sourced from non-renewable natural resources, all of which are depleting or soon will. As energy is the master resource, it defines what happens with all other resource systems. Any replacement system that is a practical option will have to have certain signatures.


Due to energy constraints, all industrial output would have to be sourced from a geographically local area. This would affect everything from raw material consumption, water consumption to waste disposal. Product delivery to market would also be changed. All of this would have to become as close to net zero footprint in terms of source material and waste disposal. Industrial output would have to be simpler. Technology cannot be as complex as it is now. This implies that manufacturing goods will require more effort on our part, which means that we would have to value ‘stuff’ differently. All waste products will also require greater effort to dispose of, meaning that if they could be recycled, reused or repurposed, there would be less strain on the system to function. Maintaining QA/QC material standards and equipment maintenance would all have to be done within a relatively local geographic region. These challenging statements represent practical limits of a low energy future. As this represents quite a paradigm shift from our current state of exponential consumption based on whim, the most difficult but significant task in front of us is a revolution in perception and a restructuring of governance.

Political systems like capitalism, socialism, communism, fascism, etc. are all built in the context of unlimited natural resources. Whatever the new system looks like, it won’t be anything like what has been seen before. We can call it what we like. Planning will have to be projected over 50 to 60 years into the future but be flexible to evolve organically to its environs. The current system is very centralised, whereas the new system would have to be very decentralised due to energy constraints. The flow of information will become very important.

The Great Acceleration indicators, published by IGBP in collaboration with the Stockholm Resilience Centre
The Great Acceleration indicators, published by IGBP in collaboration with the Stockholm Resilience Centre

From a civilisation network systems footprint viewpoint, we must ask ourselves how we can develop an economy that offers enough for everyone, forever. Real world systems and their inputs must reflect this, and the familiar exponential curves of today’s economy must move to flat line or sinusoidal wave functions. We also need to ask what profile human civilisation has amongst the natural environment. Dynamic natural systems must be able to operate unhindered, where natural capital and biodiversity is allowed to recover. The new economic framework must appreciate that inputs and outputs to all systems must be stable over time.

There are two related conceptual ideas which could be a starting point to help us develop the above requirements: the circular economy and the steady state economy. In a future in which peak energy has dramatically changed the rules of the game, these concepts are required to maintain our industrial capacity. It is not a question of choice, as our natural resources are being depleted at an exponential rate. The timing is now. The next 100 years will be very different to the last 100 years.