The ambiguity of sustainability

Here is an interesting article about the term “sustainability,” thoughtfully forwarded by a colleague at College of the Atlantic.

I feel pretty ambivalent about the article. On the one hand, it frames fairly well, and has some great data presentation in it. And it can get one thinking. On the other hand, it kind of creates an intellectual tempest in a teapot. In a lot of ways, the situation surrounding “sustainability” is not that complicated:

  • We used to only think about getting more stuff, but now some of us worry that we’ll run out of stuff, and seriously alter the planet in the process.
  • Others don’t agree. They think we can keep inventing our way out of scarcity, and/or that a messed up planet isn’t so bad, as long as there’s lots of shopping malls. (Those without access to shopping malls will find other ways to adjust.)
  • Words get co-opted. All the disagreement about what we need or don’t need to do contributes to a lot uncertainly about words like “sustainability.”
  • If we are going to do some serious changing regarding our use of the planet’s resources, we’ll probably have to question some cherished “rights,” e.g. to have as many children as we wish, to accumulate as much stuff as we want, etc. (This is probably the best contribution of the article.)

Of course there’s lots of details, and books are written about them, and we won’t be able to cover it all in a one term course in Ecological Economics.

At times I appreciate expressions like “destabilizing ambivalence” and ” the cultural moment to which sustainability gives expression,” but I don’t see them as necessary here (Does “cultural moment” have any meaning?). Students need to be thoughtful about what sustainability means, that it has multiple meanings and is contested.

But think about “the role of government in the economy.” The phrase captures questions and issues that didn’t exist prior to the 1930s. And it remains contested, too; there’s lots of disagreement about it, both normatively (what we “ought to do”) and positively (what actually happens in the economy). Huge books have been written about the issue, and there’s still no agreement. So, informed people ought to know about the debate, and will probably take a position on it. End of story, no big deal. I think “sustainability” is similar. It’s more about being informed about the issues and debates, rather than approaching it as a fundamental problematique. There’s lots of ambiguity and ambivalence about sustainability, but do we need to create ambiguity *about* the ambiguity and ambivalence? I don’t think that’s out there: it’s *clear* that sustainability represents a contested cultural shift, much as did the idea of government intervention in the economy in the 1930s.

Maybe I’ve been studying this stuff too long. I think a lot of the “confusion” about sustainability arises simply from not digging into the topic enough.

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