Cassandra has moved. Ugo Bardi publishes now on a new site called "The Seneca Effect."

Monday, June 22, 2015

Sustainability is boring! (or: why Wayne Visser is right)

Results of a "google trends" search of the term "sustainability". Note the 6-month periodic oscillations. People regularly lose interest in sustainability in summer and at Christmas time. A clear evidence that they found the concept boring.

Some days ago, I tried a Google Trends search of the term "sustainability" and I was surprised by the regular oscillations you can see in the search frequency.

It doesn't take much head scratching to understand the reasons for this behavior. When it is vacation time (summer or Christmas) people get into a festive mood and lose their interest in things they evidently find boring; probably dedicating themselves to more active pursuits.

I kept checking, and I found similar oscillations for other terms, both related and unrelated tot he environment. Try "Shakespeare", for instance, and you'll see seasonal oscillations; just as you see them for "environment". Try instead "sex" and you won't see anything like that.

Probably, these oscillations could provide a way to measure how boring people find a certain concept but I think this is enough to conclude that most people find the idea of sustainability boring. That explains a lot of things, I believe.

The reason why I made this search on Google Trends is that Wayne Visser was so kind to send me a review copy of his latest book "Sustainable Frontiers", which I read through during a long wait at the airport of Munich (one good thing about airports is that while waiting hours and hours for your plane to arrive, you can do things you wouldn't even dream to be able to do in your office!)

The book is very interesting for its "positive" approach to a better management of the world's resources and I can recommend it to you, although the most catastrophistic readers of this blog will probably find it too optimistic. At least, however, it provides good food for thought on the fact that we are trying to promote boring concepts (sustainability, for one) and on why we should not be surprised if we are not very successful at that.

I wrote a small review of Wayne Visser's book, here it is.

"In Sustainable Frontiers, Wayne Visser hits the target right away when he says that ‘sustainability is boring’. It is true; decades of promotion of the concept of sustainability have led to no discernible change in the way precious and rare resources are rapaciously overexploited on planet earth. Clearly, we have been doing everything wrong and it is not difficult to understand why. We have been telling people either one of two things: 1) stay in the dark and await death; or 2) it is so easy, just install double paned glass in your window, drive a Prius – and we'll slap a carbon tax on fuels, but make sure that gasoline prices will not increase. That just doesn't work. We need to do more; much more. We need to take an active role in promoting positive changes. We need to tell people to step up and do good things. Change things, or things will change you – probably in ways that you won't like. The book is an exploration of how it is possible to take the lead to promote effective strategies for a better and (yes!) more sustainable world.”


  1. Michael Braungart (h/t Gil Friend) observes:

    In the face of this and so many other challenges, more people are asking: “Is ‘sustainability’ good enough?” It’s not, of course. As Michael Braungart observes: “If somebody asked you how your marriage was doing, and you said, ‘Well, its sustainable,’ they wouldn’t be enthusiastic. They’d say, ‘I’m terribly sorry to hear that.’”

    " The natural world should be better for our efforts and our ingenuity. It’s not too much to ask. ... We should blow right through mere sustainability. We should desire a world of enhancement. That is what should come next. We should want to expand the options of those who will follow us. We don’t need more dead clutter to entomb in landfills. We need more options." -Bruce Sterling

    1. "Beyond Sustainababble"

  2. Comment erased by mistake. Reposting:

    Roger Ebert has left a new comment on your post "Sustainability is boring! (or: why Wayne Visser is...":

    That's why you don't label your blog as a "sustainability" blog, but instead a COLLAPSE blog. ☺

    Nice steady increase in interest in collapse. No sign of Peak Collapse Interest yet.

    China Vidcast now @ 380 Views. ☺


  3. Ugo, I suspect the oscillation represents whether students are studying (in term) or not (vacations). As such it would not be a direct measure of how "boring" the concept of sustainability is. The relative magnitude of the oscillations relative to the mean minimum value of the oscillations might be interpreted as an indication of interest in the general population relative to number of students studying the subject, but I doubt the interpretation would be easy.

    1. Good point. It probably explains the oscillations for "Shakespeare". Still, I am not sure that the concept of "sustainability" is a common subject of study for students. So, I do think the oscillations reflect at least in part the interest of the general population. And, anyway, things taught in school are boring by definition!

  4. Looks like more ☠ than sustainability. ☹


  5. I wonder if the lack of interest in the "boring" concept of sustainability is related to the psychological underpinnings of Garret Hardin's "Tragedy of the Commons". Hardin's idea is based on the notion that people (or, for that matter, communities or nations) by and large are unwilling to sacrifice an opportunity to exploit a resource for personal gain, even if they are aware that if everyone exploited this resource in a similar manner it would lead to the possibly irreversible decline or destruction of the resource.

    Perhaps this amoral individualism implied by Hardin is not dominant in every culture. However, Western industrial civilization might be necessarily accompanied by this sort of exploitative perspective. If so, this is part of the reason why so many people treat the notion of sustainability with such disdain or lack of interest.



Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)