“Constraints to Human Capital”: More Unpacking of “Sustainability Unpacked”

When I came across the book Sustainability Unpacked at my local library, I was thrilled by the book’s sexy title.  I was personally hoping to discover the global sustainability discourse critically unpacked… but instead, this book does little to unpack claims of “sustainability.”  It is fairly traditional in its interpretation of “sustainability”–that “sustainability” means figuring out how many humans, and in what configurations, can we fit on planet Earth, indefinitely.  What it “unpacks” is a whole lot of aggregated data about the planet and humans.  The word “unpacked” seem misleading to me… the title suggests a bold claim of critical inquiry, but it delivers authoritative scientific information within a mainstream “sustainability” framework, as though “sustainability” needed no unpacking at all, apart from being defined by four interlocking ecological necessities (for human survival): water, forests, food, and energy.

In my last post, I “unpacked” some of the implicit assumptions buried in the authors’ problem statement around which their book orbits.  Here, I am going to delve further into the book’s preface, in which they set up their interpretation of the sustainability “problem,” which the data in their book will address.

Still from Preface:
“These unavoidable constraints control the globe’s productive capacity and set the boundaries for how much the human capital can be developed.”

That the fairly static, material quantities of organic molecules, water, soil, and sun, control the planet’s capacity to produce material goods–this seems like an intuitively solid claim.

… but that they also “set the boundaries for how much the human capital can be developed”?

What on Earth do they mean by “human capital”?  Well, I sure hope they don’t actually mean how much cash money humans can generate in the world–which seems like it could be implied, by a scheme to account for all the world’s resources and convert them all into commodities for our human economic marketplaces–but which would be a laughably absurd measure for the book’s grand claims of universal significance.  Does “human capital,” then, mean the number of existing human living bodies?  In that sense, yes, increasing the number of living human bodies does require soil, water, sun and other inputs, and thus does have a “material constraints” component.  But why not say “number of humans,” then, than “human capital”? Continue reading