Dislike another person's economic or political view, tire of wrangling with him on his position, label him a Nazi or a fascist. It's the easy mic-drop. We are conditioned to reflexively recoil from anything associated with a Nazi or a fascist. Never mind that so few people actually know what either is. Indeed, you might well be one of the two, or both, and fail to recognize what you see in the mirror. (A Nazi is a socialist, a fascist is an authoritarian who employs corporatism and coercion to meet his demands.)
Now, for the other end, when you lean in and smile approvingly, certain words spring to mind to curry favor. In politics, democracy curries the most favor. Democracy is aligned with everything good, wholesome, and just. Label a regime "democratic", you label it holy as thou. The imprinting of democracy as good has been exploited to great benefit by those considerably less holy than thou. Do you think it only happenstance when the Khmer Rouge conquered Cambodia and re-labeled its prize Democratic Kampuchea or that the North Korea of today is officially the Democratic People's Republic of Korea? I don't.
In the contemporary context, Nazi, fascism, democracy have no meaning. They are simply sounds uttered to elicit a response favorable to those who utter them. The tactic differs little from the one Pavlov used to elicit the desired response from his dog.
What sound in the financial lexicon is uttered more frequently than most to elicit a favorable response? I venture to say "sustainable." Work these four syllables into your investment thesis, you elevate yourself to a higher moral plane. Like with Nazism, fascism, democracy, the charm resides in the ethereal.
No need to prove sustainability, because sustainability is predicated on belief. Sustainable investing is kin to the Rorschach inkblot: the mind of the beholder conjures the meaning. What's more, the task of selling the thesis is streamlined when the beholder has already been conditioned to buy. Drug dealers understand the marketing. Simply assert what it is, and the consumer, already sold because of his addiction, takes him at his word.
I will concede imagery. "Sustainable" conjures blue sky, snow-capped mountains, crystal-clear streams, forests of towering oaks, anything of this earth before being defiled by human intervention. The word implies that only economic activity that extracts little or nothing from the earth or that emits nothing into the atmosphere is sustainable. Sustainability advocates view the earth as a living organism constrained, like all living organisms, by its physical dimensions. They view human beings as parasites on our host planet. Yes, the host is able to support the parasite, but only if the parasite limits its extractions.
The sustainability advocates fail to concede that many of us human "parasites" possess preternatural intelligence, determination, creativity, attentiveness, and efficiency. The earth is limited by physical boundaries, to be sure, but many of the "parasites" possess limitless ingenuity. Thankfully, the limitless ingenuity solves problems. It overcomes limitation through adaptation and ever-increasing efficiency in our extractions.
The ingenuous among us make two ears of corn grow where only one grew before. They extract two barrels of oil where only one was extracted before; two tons of chromium, iron ore, nickel, tungsten, and on and on. As Jonathan Swift deftly noted in Gulliver's Travels, these ingenious innovators "deserve better of mankind, and do more essential service to his country, than the whole race of politicians put together.” The promise of the next generation ensures a limitless supply of ingenuity, and thank goodness for that.
I have a request: Please tell me which of the earth's elements is on the verge of depletion. I do not know, perhaps you do. But what I do know is that before depletion occurs and the element truly is "unsustainable" its unsustainability will be reflected in its market price long before it hints at extinct depletion, even if the "unsustainability" proves transitory and manufactured, the case with oil in the 1970s.
Should genuine unsustainability occur, the ingenious minority is sure to act, through will and free-market guidance, to fill the void. What is on the verge of unsustainability will be either economized, extracted with more efficient production, or simply laid to waste and supplanted by another element.
It become all so apparent three decades ago when Professor Julian Simon laid waste to the intractable catastrophist Professor Paul Ehrlich in a famous wager. Simon understood that human beings, if given the freedom and requisite property rights, will innovate their way out of scarcity by increasing the supply of natural resources or developing substitutes for diminishing resources. Ehrlich thought otherwise. Simon won the wager hands down.
I see unsustainability where most see sustainability. I see endless intervention and manipulation through tax credits, privilege, subsidies, waste, redundancy, and inefficiency as unsustainable.
Can any sane person see sustainability in recurring acts of profligacy: to spend $1 million for that labeled "sustainable" compared to the conventional counterpart that costs a quarter the amount, that is measurably more efficient at performing the task, that has a usable life four times that of the "sustainable" option. I think not, you might think otherwise. Some Philadelphia taxpayers might agree with me given their recent run-in with "sustainability" and government-subsidized transportation.
The internal combustion engine is so laughably more efficient and cleaner in so many applications compared to electric engines, and yet sustainability advocates demand we use the latter for the most inefficient applications, and then they advocate that we invest accordingly. Worse, they demand we legislate the ICE out of existence. They think if they push an air-filled balloon on one side it will fail to bulge on the other. To channel Frederic Bastiat, they fail to see the unseen. They fail to see the true costs of their folly because they seek first to assuage emotional discomfort and satisfy vanity.
Yes, I realize I have tiptoed around Dumbo within the tight confides of this missive. That would be climate change, of course. The United Nations' latest report on climate change cries "code red." It's now or never. I shrug. Life is is short, but my life has been relatively long within what is truly unstainable. I have occupied the earth as a decidedly carbon-positive entity for the past six decades. I can recall a continual flow of apocalyptical claims, backed by a copious supply of science-backed research, that the end was much more near than far. Every one of the claims has been proven wrong.
This time is different, you say? I beg to differ, and the empirical evidence has proven me right time and again. The history of capitalism further buttresses my contention. It is replete with continual improvements in material well-being. We continually improve, at least in capitalist-receptive cultures, and we continually clean up the joint along the way. (But no need to fret, I will one day be truly carbon neutral, and, therefore, sustainable to the earth. But then again, so will you. Will you be content then?)
I understand this post wonders off the ranch of financial analysis, but I read more and more CFA Institute articles that wonder as far: ESG, sustainability, climate change, carbon neutrality. And then there is Morningstar with its horrid ESG rating.
This "sustainability" theme or meme, or even political movement, you can argue, puts me on guard against what Dutch psychoanalyst Joost Meerloo labeled "menticide" -- a killing of the mind. The killing occurs, according to Meerloo, by imprinting those who desire to control through fear and anxiety, which, Meerloo observed, is fomented through monotonously repeated nonsense, which has more emotional appeal than logic and reason.
Perhaps when a plurality of scientists, those outside the realm of empirical physics, confess that life impresses most by its appalling complexity and that the constant interaction of diversified individuals performing uncountable tasks upon a fluid environment produces a series of outcomes and unintended consequences that is beyond all ordering and ticketing, will I listen to the modeling scientists so in vogue today. I question such a plurality of humility is forthcoming.
In the meantime, the spread of a mass "sustainability" psychosis offers a remunerative marketing opportunity for the investment industry. Good for some of us.