SUSTAINABILITY FORUM: What are the Limitations and Benefits of the Sustainability Approach?
September 7, 2011
As part of its third annual SEPTEMBER SUSTAINABILITY MONTH, the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs presents the first of three roundtables.
Forum Editor, Zach Dorfman
In the last few years, the idea of "sustainability" has become arguably the dominant framework through which issues of environmental concern are viewed. Conservation of our lands and seas, "green" business ventures, urban planning, food production systems, and, paradigmatically, global climate change—all are being discussed, and in some cases policy is being implemented, under the rubric of "sustainability."
But is sustainability the only, or even the most desirable framework for environmental issues? What are the limitations and benefits of the sustainability approach, and what kind of alternative conceptual approaches may be preferable?
Read the roundtable and add your comments:
- What Do We Mean by Sustainability?
- In Defense of Sustainability
- Using Sustainability to Tell Stories
- From Sustainability to a New Materialism
What Do We Mean by Sustainability?
At the recent East-West Philosophers' Conference (2011) in Honolulu a skeptical comparative philosopher from a "developing country" claimed that "sustainability" was a hollow buzzword. I disagreed. First, the adjective "sustainable" can be used to characterize any activity or process. And it means that the activity or process can be carried on for an indefinite amount of time "with no end in sight," as we say. But of course not for an infinite amount of time, for, as we also say, "all good things must come to an end." The temporal reference of the term is relative to the activity or process in question. Long-distance runners, for example, can be said to run at a sustainable pace (or not). Working-class casino regulars may be said to incur gambling losses at a sustainable rate (or not). However, the implied indefinite duration of sustainable running and that of sustainable gambling losses is radically different. A sprint is not sustainable, but neither can a runner sustain any pace, however slow, for a period of time measured in units greater than hours. Weekly gambling losses of thousands of dollars are not sustainable for working-class casino patrons over a period of several years, but weekly gambling losses of dozens of dollars might be.
So to make sense of the contemporary concept of "sustainability," we have clearly to identify what activity or process we have in mind. Are humans threatening to destroy life on Earth? Hardly. Life on Earth has sustained itself for between three and four billion years, nor could we wipe it out, even if we tried our hardest—say by simultaneously setting off all our atomic weapons. However, that might well wipe us out. Which suggests that what we have in mind when we think about sustainability is sustaining the existence of the human species. But short of nuclear holocaust or some similar colossal folly, Homo sapiens will survive, although possibly in much reduced numbers and in a state of abject barbarism. In other words, when we refer to "sustainability" what we really mean is sustaining global human civilization—which is indeed at genuine risk of collapse. We can avoid all the suffering, dieing, and loss of all that is precious to us—science, art, philosophy, architecture, to say nothing of security, mobility, and comfort—only by transitioning to a human economy that does not threaten to disrupt the economy of nature.
The global human economy is embedded in and dependent upon the global economy of nature. The recent Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA) has slyly enabled this way of thinking by expressing the economy of nature in economic terms—in terms of ecosystem "services": provisioning services, regulating services, supporting services, and cultural services. Initiated by the United Nations in 2000, "the objective of the MA was to assess the consequences of ecosystem change for human well-being and the scientific basis for action needed to enhance the conservation and sustainable use of those systems and their contribution to human well-being." Preserving these services provided by the self-sustaining economy of nature—self-sustaining provided we do not disrupt them—are necessary for the sustainability of global human civilization. Seriously disrupting these ecosystem services, and the embedded global human economy within it, will likewise lead to the collapse of human civilization.
In Defense of "Sustainability"
The concept of "sustainability" has taken a good bit of criticism in recent years. It has been charged with being so vague and over-used that it lacks significance and with having been co-opted by the polluter-industrial system. These concerns have some merit. Nevertheless, "sustainability" remains a valuable umbrella framework for environmental issues, because the fundamental cause of our environmental challenges is that our capacity to deplete resources, despoil places, and disrupt ecological systems far outstrips their regenerative and restorative capacities. Moreover, we do not have adequate personal, cultural, and political controls or institutions in place to moderate ourselves. This has led to biodiversity loss, widespread pollution, natural resource (including agricultural) insecurities, and global climate change. We are destroying habitat faster than it is regenerated; we are emitting greenhouse gases faster than they are broken down or sequestered; we are consuming water faster than it can be replenished; and we are polluting places faster than they can be cleaned up.
An overarching conceptual framework for environmental responsibility must therefore emphasize living in ways and developing systems that do not diminish, disrupt, or destroy ecological resources, places, and processes. "Sustainability" is just such a concept. It may not be the only one, but the idea of "sustaining" that is explicit in the term makes it particularly well suited to the task. "Sustainable" conveys the sense that a type of system or activity should not undermine its ecological base or have significant external ecological impacts. Sustainable agriculture does not use up topsoil, deplete aquifers, or pollute waterways. Sustainable manufacturing does not release toxics into the environment. Sustainable energy production does not depend on increasingly scarce natural resources or result in large climatic changes. Sustainable development does not compromise the living conditions of future people and nonhuman species. And so on.
The strengths of "sustainability" as an umbrella concept for environmental responsibility are that it responds to the cause of environmental problems in general and that it can be attached to almost any type of system or activity. Because of this, it must always be substantively specified and operationalized in particular applications and contexts: What (in this particular context) needs to be sustained? At what level and in what ways? How is it to be measured and monitored? The "sustainable" in sustainable agriculture will differ from that in sustainable architecture, and it will be different in the United States than it is in the Netherlands or in Malawi. This does not imply that there is anything wrong with the concept. It shows, rather, that a commitment to sustainability as such marks the beginning of the difficult work that needs to be done to flesh out what that it amounts to in practice. That is how things are with overarching framework concepts, be it "sustainability," "justice," or "rights."
Using Sustainability to Tell Stories
Establishing an ethical framework for the environment is a challenging task that must integrate diverse concerns. The general nature of many proposed sustainability ethics can make it difficult to establish specific ethical guidance. Ethical frameworks or principles that account for endangered species, inanimate nature, and individual organisms (not to mention systems, landscapes, humans, and domesticated spaces) are contested and only partially developed. There are many conceptions of sustainability and all of them have weaknesses.
Any conception of sustainability must incorporate a time horizon. For example, sustainability may require that what is sustained last forever. However, this would imply that any use of nonrenewable resources is unsustainable. But if lasting forever is not the correct benchmark for sustainability, what is? It is clear that immediately gobbling all the cupcakes in the world is not a sustainable use of cupcakes, but it is far from clear what counts as sustainably consuming cupcakes.
Any conception of sustainability must also incorporate an account of what is to be sustained. Should we sustain "natural capital" such as ecosystems (as "strong sustainability" suggests), well-being (as suggested by "weak sustainability"), or something else entirely such as resources or capabilities?
Despite these difficulties, people who have different conceptions and values can share the idea of sustainability, and that is why the concept can be useful. The language of sustainability, in part due to its breadth and indeterminacy, invites people into the discussion. If the term "sustainability" were disciplined, regimented, and transformed into a precise notion, it would lose its power to enable and structure broad, diverse conversations.
The concept of sustainability can also encourage people to think about the long-term consequences of their actions and the welfare of future generations. We experience the world holistically; we don't think of ourselves as first facing a business question, then an environmental question, and then an ethical question. Decisions often have multiple dimensions, and sustainability ethics attempts to account for how ethical choices actually appear in people’s lives. A good life must integrate a variety of concerns, and not compartmentalize them.
Establishing a coherent, consistent and practical ethic of sustainability is an ambitious endeavor, especially given the social and environmental challenges we face. For sustainability ethics to deliver on its promise of guiding real-world decision-making, it must directly tie ethical principles to their applications, and account for a diversity of values. What the idea of sustainability offers, more than anything, is an opportunity to tell rich and compelling stories about for example what our university, community, or nation could be if we build a co-generation plant, aggressively recycle, or create green jobs. The language of sustainability invites us to embellish the story, to write the next chapter, to participate practically in creating the future, and to engage in ongoing dialogue with others about how our everyday actions help to produce global realities. Articulating these stories is not the job of philosophers, scientists, or academics alone, but requires the participation of writers, artists, and everyone who is engaged in trying to create a new world through practical action. Rather than being a final destination, sustainability marks the journey which we have just begun.
From Sustainability to a New Materialism
There is a long, complex, and power-infused history of the meaning of sustainability and sustainable development, from discourses of radical environmentalism and resistance to neoliberal development models, to the more greenwashed and substantively vacuous versions we often hear from the corporate and political realms. But no matter the intentions of various purveyors of the idea, sustainability as a discourse has permeated civil society, influencing a generation raised with environmental ideas and postmaterial values.
One problem with this ongoing discourse, however, has been a serious implementation deficit. Yes, there has been growth in the availability of individualized and consumptive options—trips to Whole Foods or the Patagonia store. But there has also been ongoing frustration with the limits of traditional political action to deliver on the promise of more broad sustainable ends. In response, many individuals and movements have started to address the unsustainable institutions and practices in which their lives are immersed. No longer willing to either take part in unsustainable practices and institutions, and not satisfied with a purely individualistic and consumer response, these activist groups focus increasingly on building institutions around everyday practices—for example, on sustainable food, renewable energy, and crafting and making. These are not simply movements for sustainability, or for post-material values, but instead represent the development of a new materialism.
On university campuses and in many local communities, a growing focus is on resisting, rethinking, and redesigning basic institutions that embody problematic practices connected to our basic material needs. So rather than just buying organic veggies at a natural foods megamart, people are getting more involved in growing and sharing food in community-supported agriculture, collective gardening, urban farms, farmers markets, and sustainable cafes—transforming our relationship with food, its production, transportation, and consumption. Rather than simply cutting their own energy use to respond to the unsustainable nature of fossil fuels, more communities are organizing around the development of community-wide local generation and networking of solar and wind, and the institutionalization of commuting plans that include more mass transit, biking, and walking. And rather than just protesting sweatshops, the increasing disposability of fashion, and the alienation of many tech products, activist groups are involved in crafting, making, and mending. This idea of sustainability recognizes the material relationships we have with the resources we use, and works toward transforming both dominating and unsustainable practices of production and consumption.
These trends and movements can be framed in at least two important ways. First, they embody the institutionalization of a new materialism, the direct involvement of groups in sustainable practices and the development of institutions focused on materials flows and collective practices that re-imagine our relationship with the natural world. Second, such practices are clearly a Foucauldian form of resistance to the relations that contribute to the continued reproduction of unsustainable practices.
Is sustainability another way to frame these movements? Only if your conception of it includes notions of justice and empowerment, along with a thorough engagement in everyday material life—the things that pass through our bodies, the practices we use to transform the natural world, and the institutions we can shape collectively. Yet it is precisely because sustainability has become so infused in the discursive realm, while much of everyday life remains unsustainable, and politics unresponsive, that new materialist movements have turned their focus to such concerns.