The concept of „sustainability“ has to do with whether or not a technology can continue to exist for years, decades and centuries to come (and/or whether or not market forces will sustain the technology or not). For example, while the oil-based economy may continue to exist for many years to come, it is not clear when and/or how it will function in one, two, three or more centuries out.
Traditionally, introductory economics textbooks used to simplify economic resources into capital and labor. At that point, energy was not even mentioned as part of the equation (E.F. Schumacher, by the way, treated oil and similar natural resources as „capital“ – he often noted that an „oil based“ economy was unsustainable because we thereby simply do little or nothing more than to destroy the capital).
I noticed several decades ago that information is, in a way, a substitute for energy: You can either do something by applying huge amounts of brute force, or you may be able to achieve the same goal by refining your technique (with the help of information) in order to use less energy. There are many examples of this over history. For example: traveling by bicycle instead of by foot (though note how the establishment of smooth road surfaces also plays a role here), or various newer (and more energy-efficient) technologies have replaced – via market forces – the incandescent light bulb.
Nonetheless: One is very hard-pressed to refer to the 20th Century as anything other than extremely energy-inefficient. On the whole, the 20th Century was, in contrast, quite energy intensive, and increasingly human-resource saving. As a result, because we have witnessed a rather enormous growth in so-called „human resources“ for several centuries now, we now have a very large supply of humans and also very little demand. What is more, advances in information technology have further exacerbated these trends, such that we now face rapidly increasing unemployment for the foreseeable future.
There is great irony in the widespread failure to recognize that more machinery is being used to do more work, and the widespread surprize that ever fewer „employment“ opportunities for humans are seen as a catastrophy (even though there has been widespread propaganda for many decades which push the idea that human labor „ought to“ be replaced by the increased employment of more and more machines).
Yet only a very foolish person would not pay attention to a wider time horizon.
There is no doubt that the consumption of non-renewable resources will come to an end at some point in time – this is tautologically true (by definition), so there is no doubt whatsoever. At some point, people will realize that there is an oversupply of human resources and an undersupply of non-renewable resources (compared to the current rates of consumption). Presently, however, the high growth rates of information resources due to the introduction of vastly more efficient information technologies apparently will continue to blind the masses. While the growth of information resources inputs are to some extent a substitute for energy resources, it is quite astonishing to note how little such substitution has taken place over the past several decades.
Indeed: This last observation puzzles me greatly.
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