Thoughts on Sustainability

One of the most interesting concepts in the field of environmental policy is called maximum sustainable yield. MSY basically describes the fact that there is an optimal amount of pretty much any organism that can be taken from the environment without causing the organism’s population to diminish in size (In the long run).

Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) graph illustrating MSY in the context of fisheries:


A decrease in the size of a population will increase the amount of resources available to its remaining members. Therefore, these remaining members will tend to reproduce at higher rates. This heightened reproduction will create a negative feedback loop that keeps the size of the population in a state of equilibrium. However, this is true only to a certain extent. After a population is depleted past a critical quantity, it becomes very difficult for the growth to occur and make up for the yearly extraction.

I’m increasingly coming to realize that maximum sustainable yield applies to more than just population ecology. In virtually every aspect of our lives, there is a key point at which activities become unsustainable, and we begin to experience diminishing marginal returns from effort.

You might be practicing a musical instrument, and your figurative “catch” is the amount of skill you gain from practice periods. Or you might be going to the gym, in which case your “catch” is the amount of muscle you’re attempting to put on. Whatever the case, there is an optimal amount of effort that you should be putting into your endeavor. If you put in less, you won’t be making as much progress as you could be. If you put in more, you’ll begin to experience diminishing marginal returns.

Closely related to the topic of MSY and diminishing marginal returns is a phenomenon I call “quick fix vs slow lasting solution” (Working title). Often, we end up going with a risky solution, that might pay off in the short term, but ends up causing damage in the long term. The burning of fossil fuels, trying to quickly cook food on too high a heat setting, deriving motivation from emotions such as anger and envy, and the use of intoxicants to avoid sadness or social anxiety, are all prime examples of this tendency. While they might yield a significant “catch” early on, they are all unsustainable in the long run.

In general, sustainable solutions and growth involve putting in a moderate amount of effort over a consistent period of time, and not looking for a quick fix.