17 May, 2011
The S-word. It’s become so dominant and overused in green, business and societal discourse that it has become emptied of meaning.
This elusive word is used all the time now, (nearly as much as eco-everything) especially by green-washing corporate PR machines, as well as, disappointedly, the green movement(s). It drives me crazy.
Corporations, with varying degrees of authenticity and intent, aim to incorporate social, economic and environmental matters into their business. Green groups enter into dialogue with business to bring about “sustainability”.
So there seems to be a broad consensus that sustainability, even if the word has multiple, contested and conflicted meanings, is a good thing; good for the planet, good for our grandchildren, good for corporate growth. This broad consensus can be dangerous.
The “sustainability movement” has created an apolitical construct that is seemingly best developed by technical, scientific and managerial elites, who fly at 10,000 metres from conference to conference, exhibiting naïve optimism that they can manage earth’s complex systems.
For many, sustainability is about creating a (mystical?) future in which humans live in harmony with nature. Sounds so simple. As if such there was an old-age, or future-age balance, that can be restored or achieved. Our defence of a so-called “fragile nature” seems to occur mainly through the tortuous (and dare I say largely ineffective) process of national and global policymaking.
Is there something wrong here? I think so.
Sustainability has been dumbed down, in spite (or because) of the abundance of sustainability consultants, reports and conferences. It has been emptied of the hard work and messiness of creating “sustainable” communities on the ground, at a particular place. It has been emptied of the need to understand the politics of how our world became “unsustainable”. It has brushed aside questions of power, hegemony and inequality. It reinforces the notion of nature as a collection of resources for human use and appropriation.
Sustainability is applied as a band-aid, a cure-all, a slogan that can be applied to almost everything. It has become bland, globalising and homogenising and failed to deliver the particulars (the nitty gritty) involved in a transition to a more “sustainable” world.
Sustainability, as a concept, and even as a practice, seems blind to the needs of nature itself. Its human-centredness disappears the crucial support provided by nature and creates the idea that human cleverness can supply all the things we need. Indeed, the idea of natural systems having autonomous rights of existence and their own agency is left almost totally undiscussed.
One reason why mainstream sustainability is so compelling is that it seems to fit well into existing structures of power. It seems obvious to me that without a radical restructuring of our present systems they can never become sustainable, irrespective of the gains from material and energetic efficiencies. Any sustainability movement must, by definition, be a radical challenge to the existing system.
The tragedy continues to unfold as ecological, social and economic systems degrade further and further. Inequality, hunger, dispossession, the degradation of living systems, continues unabated, some 25 years after sustainability entered mainstream thinking.
“The evil that men do lives after them, The good is oft interred with their bones …”
The evil of the age of excess, of empire and domination, and even of “sustainability” will, to the detriment of our descendants and other species, live on.
The good intentions of sustainability will be interred along with all the glossy sustainability reports and conference proceedings.
Et tu, sustainability?
(With apologies to Shakespeare. Quotation from Julius Caesar.)