There is a strong difference between beating your spouse only on weekends, and not beating your spouse at all. Sure, in a quantitative sense they’re both less bad than beating your spouse every day, but in a qualitative sense one is bad (you beat your spouse) and the other is at least neutral (you don’t beat your spouse at all). The important distinction here is binary: either you beat your spouse or you do not. It is not a matter of degree.
The same distinction applies to “sustainability”, or whatever other related term one might wish to use. We are either able to maintain a reasonable way of life into the forseeable future, or we are not. Speaking of an action being “more sustainable” or “less sustainable” makes no sense.
This consideration is important for examining individual actions (e.g., recycling, to installing a low-flow toilet, or buying a hybrid car). How meaningful are individual actions? Clearly, individual actions in isolation are too trivial to solve global problems (climate change, for example). However, meaningful change can result from a coordinated collection of individual acts. The test, then, for individual action is whether it inspires further action that can eventually scale up to make a meaningful dent in a problem that really needs solving.
This article proposes no answer to the question of recycling, toilets, or hybrids. Rather, the suggestion is that brutal honesty is called for when examining our actions. How bad do we really think things are? If we think they are pretty bad, do our actions really lead to large-scale changes or do they lead to meaningless incremental changes that are only good for alleviating our guilt and improving our self-image?
This author suspects that most of our actions (the author’s included) are of the meaningless type. We beat our spouse, but we feel better about ourselves because we only do it on weekends.