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December 17, 2012
Rethinking Sustainable Development, ELC Essay #11: Sustainability is the Answer--Now What was the Question?
On September 16, 2012, the National Ice and Snow Center announced a record-breaking loss of Arctic sea ice. That day also happened to be my 47th birthday. In my relatively short life, the Arctic has changed beyond imagination—and more change is coming. We have a growing litany of climate ills—wildfires, heat-waves, droughts, floods—each perhaps not directly attributable to climate change, but collectively harbingers of the emerging Anthropocene. Yet, rather than prompting any urgent response, each new climate disaster leaves us, in the words of Bill McKibben, “in the same position we’ve been in for a quarter-century: scientific warning followed by political inaction.” The explanations for our impotence in the face of overwhelming evidence that human activities are destroying the very fabric of life on Earth tend to focus on economics—too many powerful actors are making too much money from business as usual and therefore use their power to prevent change.
Without really challenging this basic outline, this essay suggests that this power-based narrative is incomplete. It leaves out the role that law and legal systems play in obscuring this power dynamic. The system by which we structure our decisions in a democratic society—the rule of law itself—actually prevents us from perceiving or confronting this more fundamental power conflict.
It is all too easy to dismiss sustainability as a contentless marketing label lost in a fog of meaningless verbiage. The marketplace of “sustainable” practices, technologies, and gadgets contains far too many gimmicks intended to maintain the cherished illusion that sustainability will just somehow “happen.” As a marketing ploy, sustainability encapsulates our fantasy a sudden technological breakthrough that will allow 7 billion, or 10 billion humans to live the typical American consumption-based lifestyle, only without destroying the Earth in the process. This belief that an external, game-changing solution will save the day is a dangerous fiction. There can be no sustainability when we start with the existing economy and then try to graft change onto its margins. If we needed proof that this approach has failed, is failing and will continue to fail, we need look no further than the rate of melting sea ice—which continues to accelerate despite decades of high-level international climate negotiations.
If we heed climate change’s call, we might begin to rethink sustainability—to take seriously its mandate to maintain, support, and hold. If so, sustainability can offer us a set of organizing principles by which to restructure the core, yet largely invisible, functions of production and transportation that precede the consumption on which so much current sustainability rhetoric focuses. To change these less visible aspects of society, we need to mobilize the power of the law as a framing institution. We can, if we choose, arrange our infrastructure and define our markets to cause sustainable outcomes. Embracing sustainability as our primary framing narrative would create space for new thinking about the ways to balance the power of the state, the market, and civil society.
Getting from here to there may be daunting, and sustainability may seem a slender reed on which to pin our hopes. Yet, the fundamental choices about balance that are sustainability’s essential feature have the capacity to offer us a new vision of the basic social contract—one that could transform human life on planet Earth. To make that happen, we do not need perfect conceptual clarity about sustainability—core indeterminacy is, after all, a definitional part of post-modern existence. Instead, we need to embrace sustainability’s potential for multiple, independent generation of ideas. A range of social, cultural, and political forces seek to frame sustainability through multiple disciplinary lenses. Each frame offers a different conception of the problem and its component parts. From this base, each approach proposes an alternative array of solutions along with the tools by which those solutions might be implemented.
This contest between alternative frames for sustainability has both declarative and constitutive significance. Framing does more than shape how we analyze the sustainability of any particular choice—which variables must be assessed, weighted, and evaluated; and which can safely be ignored. Framing also shapes the process by which we define what constitutes a choice (or a variable) in the first place. Once we acknowledge that framing matters—that disciplines have blind spots and path dependencies—it becomes clear that the very articulation of sustainability is itself a consequence of inevitable disciplinary limitations.
This insight is as liberating as it is daunting. It means that by posing our questions differently we might begin the process of uncovering hidden possibilities, thereby paving the way for a new understanding of the sustainability challenge and opening space for new responses. Perhaps a good beginning would be to shift from a conception of “the environment” to “Mother Earth”—which might help us rediscover a deeper, more profound relationship with the world we are rapidly recreating than the consumption-focused conception that currently predominates.
The future of our children, our species, and our planet hinges in the balance. The window for change is narrow—and closing. Unless we transition away from our consumptive, single-use society into a sustainable one, we will doom our children (as well as our future selves) to life in an increasingly impoverished, depleted, and inhospitable planet.
-- Rebecca M. Bratspies
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