A Lesson in Sustainability from the Makers of Notre Dame

— Dr. Daniel E. Loeb

My writing has been scarce recently because of a family vacation to France for my niece’s Bat Mitzvah. However, an important lesson occurred to me yesterday while cruising down the Seine on a charming bateau mouche.

First, I was reminded that the Cathedral Notre Dame took nearly 200 years to construct (1163-1345 CE). Building such an enormous edifice without modern technology is a monument to the dedication and vision of the people and the church at that time.  Bishop de Sully devoted most of his life and his wealth to a project whose fruition he would never witness. However, the logic of time inspired people to attain immortality by devoting themselves to works of timeless grandeur.

Today, consumers demand immediate satisfaction for their desires. CEOs look no further than the balance sheet on their next quarterly report. And politicians are concerned only with the upcoming election (as well as the quarter-to-quarter fundraising battle and the daily poll tracking numbers associated with it).

More after the jump.
Conservationists warn that the world may already have hit peak oil production, but business interests counter that this problem may still be 30 or 40 years out.  They conclude that we do not have to worry about it. How short-sighted is that? Even if we had enough oil to cope with exponentially growing consumption over the next 200 years, then what? How egotistical would it be for us to conclude that we do not have to prepare for a post-fossil fuel economy.

Those who have faith in the invisible hand as conceived by Adam Smith are doomed to waste our resources and our environment with little concern for future generations. In my article, Every Economic Cloud Has A Silver Lining, I explained how narrow-minded profit maximization leads us to destroy resources unless their sustainable yield is superior to the interest rate. How foolish is it for us to tie fate of our planet’s bounty to the interest rates set by Central Banks!

It is taken as axiomatic that the economy is suffering if our consumption does not increase 5% year upon year. Yet who truly believes that our current level of consumer demand is sustainable? Where will our planet be in 200 years?

Upon returning to the port, we saw the iconic Eiffel Tower and learned that Gustav Eiffel only had a permit for the tower to stand for 20 years. The tower had been built for the 1889 Exposition Universelle (the World’s Fair celebrating the centennial of the French Revolution), and it was intended to be demolished around the turn of the century.  However, those plans were set aside and the building stood as the tallest man-made structure in the world until 1930 when the Chrysler Building was built in New York City. Today, the Eiffel Tower still dominates the Paris skyline. Such a feat in our era of planned negligence is unheard of. Who today would bother designing a structure capable of weathering the elements for over 120 years when he only had a 20-year permit!

According to Annie Leonard:

What percentage of total material flow through our system is still in product or in use six months after being sold in North America? 50 percent? 20 percent? NO. One percent.
One! In other words, 99 percent of the stuff we harvest, mine, process, transport-99 percent of the stuff we run through this
system is trashed within 6 months. Now how can we run a planet with that rate of waste.


Tinkerers and pot-menders are long gone as simple devices make way for more complicated appliances which are no longer designed to be repaired and replaced, but rather to be thrown out and replaced. Replacement is an accomplishment for those who venerate the GDP, but an eye-sore and a health hazard for those concerned by our environment.

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  1. leebarzel says

    Nice to hear from you on vacation, Daniel!  

    From my own observation and reading, food waste is another major item for the landfill.  Quoting from a New York Times article, “Americans waste an astounding amount of food – an estimated 27 percent of the food available for consumption, according to a government study – and it happens at the supermarket, in restaurants and cafeterias and in your very own kitchen. It works out to about a pound of food every day for every American.” [ 5/18/2008]

    And in the article I wrote recently for this publication, “Leiba quoted from Jonathan Blum’s book, American Wasteland, in which the author offers the powerful image of the 90,000-seat Rose Bowl stadium in Pasadena, CA filled to capacity being equivalent to the amount of food being wasted each day in this country.  And scholar Tim Jones has estimated that 40-50% of food being grown is not even harvested from the ground, because it would not be worth the effort by the farmers because of declining prices or changes in consumer demand.”

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