Emily Rothenberg is working towards a Master's degree in international affairs at The New School in New York City. Her concentration is environmental policy with a focus on waste management and sustainable agriculture.
Essay Question: What does sustainability mean to you?
"Sustainability:" it's gone from a banal word in the finance world to a catchphrase that may or may not be sincere enough to surmount the behemoth challenge of our civilization's future.
In 2002, shortly out of college and inspired to bring about social change, I came across a print version of Mikhail Gorbachev's Green Cross International manifesto—a charter for a new global society based upon the principles of social justice, environmental balance, international cooperation, and intercultural appreciation. Inherent in the proposals of the charter were new systems of trade and production that embodied the spirit of these values. At the time, I was blown away—the fact that a world-class public leader had put his stamp on a plan to build the kind of world I had always wanted to see and thought perhaps I never could brought a burst of enormous hope for my ideals and demonstrated to me that my vision wasn't just fantasy. The Green Cross paper referred to a "sustainability" that resonated with my own early conception I had begun to form: a holistic wellness for all living beings, brought about by the core understanding that supporting the welfare of others best ensures one's own.
The now-famous Brundtland Commission’s "Our Common Future" paper pre-dated the Green Cross Charter by six years, though I hadn't yet heard of the former. The Commission paper offered what became the quintessential definition of sustainable development: "…development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." Avant-garde in its assertion that economic development, human progress, and the environment were intrinsically intertwined, that "development" could be more than just eradicating poverty and expanding economy, and that "environment" could mean more than just the sum of Earth's natural resources, the Commission carved out a critical starting place for dialogue and policy. However, I argue that its definition does not reach far enough to uproot the normative attachments and philosophies that maintain a pattern of unsustainable human existence.
There is an inherent inconsistency in the term "sustainable development," because "development," as understood in our modern society, is a neoclassical process of growth — it means getting bigger, having more, expanding, acquiring, building, cultivating, conforming… Development means more. Our fundamental concept of "development" is upheld by the same economics that have driven our society into resource depletion and emissions that are causing climate change to aggravate natural systems beyond tipping points. What is sustainable about development? Can we really perpetually get bigger? And even more importantly, must we?
"Sustainability" most frequently conjures up ideas of alternative energy, green building, and electric cars; using soy-based take-away containers, switching to organic foods, changing bulbs to CFLs, and perhaps recycling a bit more—all of these actions are positive, but none of them are answers to the heart of our predicament, not even collectively. We've sought as the solution to our problem of over-consumption new forms of consumption. We don't like to consider simply using or having less, stuff or people. The "less" option never seems to make it to the table in the myriad talks about how to address our imminent global crisis.
Yet, every energy analyst tells us that solar and wind can barely provide for a small portion of our energy needs for many years to come; they say natural gas is the way to go to get away from coal, so we're taking big environmental risks and disrupting fragile ecosystems to extract what is available to us.
And rather than tell people that the proliferation of the private vehicle is one of the single greatest contributors to anthropogenic climate change on Earth, we see on television that all one has to do to solve the problem is switch to a hybrid car (not drive less).
And to jump on the bandwagon of "corporate sustainability," chain retail stores now send shoppers home with 100 percent recycled material, reusable bags in lieu of plastic or paper ones, but we rarely hear a retail store that packs its customers' purchases in reusable handle bags say, as it hands over the package, "Please enjoy this same bag again next time for a positive environmental impact," or even pre-empt the process with, "Do you have your own bag?" Meanwhile, how much more fuel does it take to manufacture and transport millions of these more complex and heavier bags, and how do we discard of them when they fall apart? The recycled material, reusable bags from most retail stores are not—to my knowledge—recyclable.
We've developed an understanding of "sustainability" that indicates that we can "switch" to something else and be okay, but the hard truth that no politician and very few environmentalists—for fear of ostracizing themselves into the same corner from which it has taken so long to emerge—want to say is that merely "switching" may not be enough.
In some sense, we are operating under the Cornucopian promise of substitution—that we will perpetually find new materials to replace the old of which we run out. It works for our public leaders, for whom it would be political suicide to ask people to reduce their consumption (we saw the results of Jimmy Carter's honest appeal in 1979); it works for producers, who operate in an economy that does not charge them the full cost of their negative externalities; and it works for us individual consumers, for whom it is difficult to break our habits and change is frightening. Consumers, producers, and the government alike are complicit in promulgating an illusory idea that sustainability can be about substitutes rather than change.
I'm speaking primarily from an American perspective at the moment, very much in general, and there are certainly case studies of better and worse outcomes from our current sustainability efforts. Sometimes, it is better to take incremental change than none at all. However, our current portrayal of "sustainability" as a lifestyle option that asks for a few different choices without any sacrifice may not, in the end, assist in extending the sustainability of the human civilization on this planet.
American population is declining but population in some of the densest cities and countries with the most rapidly growing economies are set to shoot up for a few decades still, and we are faced with the real limits of what this Earth can provide for us. An excellent National Geographic piece in a 2011 series on population hit the point on the head: do we want more people with less, or less people with more?
While the latter option may carry more appeal, the former is perhaps the most realistic to implement, and the fastest—we have immediate choices about what we consume and a personal responsibility for how we shape the marketplace through our behavior.
Beneath our consumptive behavior, though, lie subconscious inspirations that may run beyond even the grasp of logic. Here, "sustainability" becomes not just a matter of poverty and economy, or of resource scarcity and environment, but of the human spirit.
Our civilization has out-evolved our brains, so that despite our culture and wisdom, the same fears and desires that guided are ancestors still anchor our choices today. Essentially, we each possess an innate desire to acquire that which we need to survive and to push away that which could threaten us, including—at times—each other. I believe that it is from these instinctual drives that we find ourselves stuck in the holding pattern of a self-destructive economic paradigm that tells us that we must constantly acquire more to survive, while its very overzealousness threatens our survival.
Taming of the so-called reptilian mind requires conscious effort, but our species' future is worth asking, what would it look like if we could trust that we could survive without always getting bigger, and having more? What would it feel like to not base our sense of security on the economy, but instead on the quality of our relationships with one another and with the world around us? What could a fulfilling definition of abundance look like?
If we assume a paradigm of economic growth as the backdrop of our social operations, then it makes sense—in addressing our current crisis—that we should compulsively seek alternative products rather than an alternative to consumption itself; in such an understanding of how the world works, consumption is existential.
But a new economic paradigm could evaluate "capital" to include human serenity, joy, peace, and happiness, which may or may not be linked to material acquisition (the two often relate inversely), and physical health, which connects directly to our planet's ecosystems.
Most importantly, a successful concept of sustainability must consider a sense of communal identity; when we practice awareness of our connection to every living thing around us, we begin to align our personal interests with a common one. Sustainability then becomes the natural result of living in a state of harmony with our true selves and the whole of nature.