I know unsustainable development when I see it

People frequently ask "What is sustainable development?"  That's a hard question to answer well at a cocktail party.  But the reverse is much easier to handle: "What is unsustainable development?"  Stealing from Justice Potter Stewart's definition of pornography, I can confidently say "I know it when I see it."  Here are two interesting examples that I recently found in the literature.

Buffalo Hunt: International Trade and the Virtual Extinction of the North American Bison
M. Scott Taylor
Abstract: In the sixteenth century, North America contained 25 to 30 million buffalo; by the late nineteenth century fewer than 100 remained. While removing the buffalo east of the Mississippi took over 100 years, the remaining 10 to 15 million buffalo on the Great Plains were killed in a punctuated slaughter lasting little more than ten years. I employ theory, international trade statistics, and first-per- son accounts to argue the slaughter was initiated by a foreign-made innovation and fueled by a foreign demand for industrial leather. European demand and American policy failure are jointly responsible for the “Slaughter on the Plains.”
(h/t Ram)

To explain the collapse of historical civilizations, scholars typically point to suboptimal behaviors including misunderstanding the natural environment, shortsightedness, or a lack of institutions. We examine the collapse of four historical societies with a model of endogenous population growth and renewable resources employing components of optimal resource management, economic growth theory, and the moral philosophy of social welfare function choice. We find that these collapses may have been socially optimal. Further, we show that the transient behavior of the system is more sensitive to assumptions than the equilibrium behavior and that focusing solely on equilibria may miss key insights.
[a related but different view is here]

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