I’m salivating over this piece that critically analyzes sustainability. Both of my masters degrees were heavy on the theoretics and history of sustainability. I even taught a class at UMass-Amherst on trends in sustainability research.
The Anthropocene brings into relief a destabilizing ambivalence running through the conceptual and rhetorical registers of sustainability, one that has been there from its initial formulation as “sustainable development.” In one register, the discourse of sustainability seems to offer a sweeping retraction of modern aspirations in light of the Anthropocene and its implications. What needs sustaining is nature’s (and thus also humanity’s) limits. This inflection of sustainability presupposes a background picture of fundamental scarcity and judges claims of abundance to be illusory.
Depending on your point of view, resources are either finite or unlimited. I believe the Earth’s resources are finite, frailly so. I never fully bought into the concept of “sustainable development,” to the continuous frowning of my advisers, who, it must be said, have staked their careers teaching sustainability principles. Never has so much confused hope been placed into one theoretical pot. Never had environmentalism been so distorted and utterly taken over by corporate devils.
From the “resources are finite” point of view, “sustainable development” is an oxymoron, plain and simple. And I cannot think of an historical analog in the liberal arts where an applied theory been such a fantastical failure. Only corporations can practice “sustainable development.” The infrastructure, food and water supply, hospitals and schools, computers and electricity - books - all the world’s resources that make humankind possible are corporate owned. All dollars flow up. Sustainability is an immeasurable impossibility.
The purported age of material surfeit enjoyed by industrialized nations for the past one hundred years, on this view, came through massive exploitation of the world’s poor societies, through extensive externalization of the real costs of industrialization, and through the plundering of the finite reserves of carbon that have been stored up over eons in the depths of the earth. In short, our fabled abundance came about by overrunning critical social and planetary limits for the sake of present gains, to the benefit of only a minority of humans and at the expense of future generations and other species. The Anthropocene, on this view, represents the redlining of our critical life support systems.
What is needed, I’ve argued before, is a new and expanded theory of environmental conservation. We already have a foundation of environmental management, and the best successes are rooted in conservation. We need to expand upon this foundation and duplicate successes. New Conservation, for example, would be tied to civic duty - that is, taking part in law making, attending city meetings, engaging in government decisions, and learning to run for office. I think we need a blending of steady environmentalism and ethical citizenship. (I’m aware that going to city budget meetings are not as sexy as protest, but it’s a new world with tougher laws and smarter authorities. Protest is no longer sustainable [e.g., OWS]).
A New Conservationism would trace the tracks of Teddy Roosevelt’s environmental legacy. And, it would improve upon subsequent environmental theories that have work and continue to function.
This modern concept of sustainability must die. It is capitalism by another name, and capitalism fundamentally depends on massive - massive - extraction of finite resources. It serves only in the efficient extraction or resources for corporate profit. There are no social benefits - none that can be tangibly measured with any clarity (fair trade is a teeny, tiny niche. It, too, is unsustainable. See the Conclusions section of Fairtrade Foundation’s ten-year report). Sustainable development is demonstrably not sustainable.
This is a must read article. It analyzes the history and purpose of sustainability, “Abundance on Trial: The Cultural Significance of “Sustainability””
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