December 21, 2012
Rethinking Sustainable Development, ELC Essay #15: The Story with Sustainability
Sustainability is the most influential environmental idea of the last thirty years. Yet, what sustainability is, what it looks like, is hard to define. One can read through all 50 pages of “The Future We Want,” the outcome document from last summer’s Rio+20 conference, and still not know what, exactly, the term means. I suggest that we can more completely understand sustainability if we recognize it is not only an idea or a policy goal, but also a particular kind of environmental story: the pastoral utopia. And we can understand what sustainability means in the age of climate change if we recognize that this utopian vision has come into conflict with a competing story: the environmental apocalypse.
The differences between sustainability and climate change, utopia and apocalypse, are stark. Sustainability promises that humanity—operating on scales from global civilization to local enclaves—can achieve simultaneous economic development, environmental protection, and social equity, a kind of holistic harmony that requires hard labor but no sacrifice. Climate change, in contrast, reveals that existing patterns of economic development have led to massive environmental disruption and potentially gross inequities that fundamentally threaten the world as we know it. Sustainability focuses on humanity’s technical ingenuity and imaginative potential. Climate change focuses on crisis and catastrophe. Sustainability promises we can thrive. Climate change demands we figure out how we can survive. Sustainability is a comedy, showing us how despite and because of our foibles we can overcome serious obstacles to find a new, happy equilibrium. Climate change is an epic drama, pitching forces of good against evil, creation versus destruction, and calling on heroes to aid in the fight.
Accepting, as I do, that climate change poses a real crisis, the question arises: How does sustainability figure into contemporary environmental discourse? Here, I propose three possible answers:
Sustainability is Bad: Sustainability emerged as an inclusionary, reform-oriented storyline, promoted by and within the context of institutional actors like the United Nations Environment Program, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the World Bank, the environmental sciences community, and the highly professionalized environmental non-government organizations. Serious problems have emerged from these origins. Most importantly, sustainability has failed (and was designed to fail) to compel the radical transformation at the core of the countercultural social movement that invented modern environmental politics. Rather than inspire changes in the way we live necessary to actually redress the environmental crisis, the sustainability story brackets big-ticket items like capitalism and consumerism, reifies existing actors and hierarchies, and affirms basic patterns of social organization, production, and consumption. In short, it is a deceptive story that perpetuates existing power dynamics that are in many respects the causes of climate change.
Sustainability is Mostly Harmless: Sustainability’s utopian vision has had little impact on actual decision making, yet nonetheless represents a maturation of environmental discourse, rather than a selling-out of environmentalist ideals. Perhaps it over-relies on the capacity of markets and market actors to find solutions to problems made by the demands of markets and market actors, and perhaps it has become something of a placebo, a green Band-Aid on a life-threatening wound, but it has the benefit of providing a powerful ideal and an aspirational goal that, if honestly adhered to and pursued, could substantially improve our world. Sustainability has always sought to re-frame humanity’s role, placing the reconciliation of environmental management and economic growth at the center of our own story. Arguably, there is sufficient evidence that with enough technological savvy, political commitment, and hard work a sustainable ecology and economy can coexist.
Sustainability is Good: Sustainability is a vital and necessary story for achieving real improvements in our overall environmental and social health. However, it has become subsidiary to the twin challenges of climate change mitigation and adaptation, and now must complement these less inspiring storylines—mitigation is irredeemably technocratic, adaptation is potentially paralyzing—by offering a positive vision for environmental change. Sustainability’s narrative and rhetorical force should be harnessed not to promote sustainable development but to motivate us to innovate for greater energy efficiency, to transition to a renewable energy economy, to reduce and alter consumption habits, to move roads and fortify infrastructure to account for sea-level rise, to translocate populations of humans, animals and plants from places that are no longer habitable, or even existent, and to take on the myriad other demands of climate change mitigation and adaptation.
Can the conflicting stories of sustainability and climate change be reconciled, without surrendering something essential about one or the other? Can we have both comedy and epic drama at the same time? And how do these stories interact with the law? Neither sustainability law nor climate change law is, at this point, well-settled; both are in relatively early stages of development. As legislation, regulation, and litigation in these areas proceed, it will be worth keeping tabs on the narrative pitch.-- Michael Burger
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