Do you recycle? Cool, me too. Do you turn off your lights when you leave the room? Good idea. Do you only buy produce that’s in season? Nice! Way to support your local farmer. Are you worried about the future of the planet? Politically active in some way around conservation of resources or green energy? Awesome, politics is really important.
If you’ve answered ‘yes’ to any of the above questions, you’re probably concerned about sustainability in some way.
But I’ve got some news. “Sustainability” is a dangerously flawed way to think about the world.
What does “sustainability” mean? Something is sustainable if you can sustain it—if you can keep doing it forever.
The world as it currently exists is deeply unequal and violent; the political and economic structures that shape the way that most of us live our lives depend on exploitation. The question is not one of future downfall, but of present injustice. Framing “sustainability” as the organizing philosophy of a political movement means perpetuating a morally repugnant status quo. It’s definitely true that sometimes an agenda of sustainability or sustainable development includes provisions for the social good, but many institutional definitions of sustainability hew close to what I’m talking about, including those of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the International Institute for Sustainable Development.
Most modern economic production depends the extraction of finite resources like fossil fuels, metal ores, and minerals, or the use of renewable resources like trees at a rate that’s faster than these resources grow back. These are unsustainable relationships because eventually, something about the relationship will change. Eventually, the forest will be gone. The mines will be abandoned. The well will run dry. The topsoil will all wash away.
This narrative animates a lot of the current environmental movement: “We as a society are overstepping our limits. Resources that we depend on for our well-being are going to run out soon, and if we let things get to that point, it will be a catastrophe.” This narrative is collective and future-oriented, and makes up the logic behind many environmental discussions. If we continue to use this resource, eventually something bad will happen.
The be-all, end-all of this narrative is that of climate change. Treatments of climate change range from the catastrophic to the apocalyptic. Basically: “If we continue to use fossil fuels the way we do now, we’ll eventually face a world with vastly more infectious disease, where wars become more common, where weather becomes more unpredictable and extreme. Where the vast majority of humanity, as well as probably a lot of the other species on the planet, will go extinct.”
…Shit. Pretty grim, huh. So what’s the issue with this way of thinking about things and framing issues? Well, let’s take a step back and look at the world that this type of discourse warns of.
It’s like the environmental apocalypse already happened! What sustainability seeks to avoid happens to be the type of shit that billions of people already deal with every day. The pictures above are all from the so-called “developing world,” but don’t be fooled—there’s very real existing oppression and exploitation right here at home, where children in inner cities have PTSD at similar rates to veterans, there’s a 10-14 year gap in life expectancy between rich and poor, and more people are currently incarcerated in the United States than were enslaved in the nineteenth century.
Environmental problems are real and demand urgent and sustained action. They’ll certainly make life worse. Climate change is indeed a crisis, as is peak oil, peak phosphorus, peak everything. But these political and economic changes that are being predicted won’t happen in a vacuum. They’ll be filtered through the existing social structures. Who was hit hardest by Katrina? Who went hungry when food prices spiked in 2008? Whose livelihoods will be most affected by the coming years of drought in the American West? You know the answer by now.
Some groups get this. The movements for climate justice and environmental justice place existing systems of oppression front and center. They’re led by, and conducted in solidarity with, people from affected communities with an immediate stake in the issue. Rather than treating “humanity” or “civilization” or “society” as a monolithic entity which will weather a coming environmental storm collectively, these movements think of society as it is: deeply unequal, and characterized by intersecting systems of oppression.
But huge swathes of the environmental movement—activists, citizens, writers, academics, policymakers—don’t seem to understand (or care). It’s one of the reasons why, despite widespread support for the goals of the environmental movement, its participants are so goddamn white. Environmentalism has a long history of maintaining oppressive power structures, from the displacement of Native Americans in the creation of national parks to the unequal enforcement of environmental law by the EPA to the contemporary appropriation of the agricultural techniques of people of color in sustainable agriculture.
So calls for sustainability, as the latest iteration of the mainstream environmental movement, ought to be watched warily. Sustainability is about keeping things going, but without explicitly confronting the ways that people are currently getting fucked over. “Sustainability” is tacit approval of the current state of affairs. The world as it currently exists perpetuates the poverty and exploitation of millions and millions of people to sustain (see what I did there?) the well-being of a lucky few. This may not be sustainable from an ecological standpoint—but unfortunately, it’s a tried and tested method of human social organization. You don’t need to wait for the apocalypse—its horsemen are already here, and have been for a awhile.
Sustainability guards against an intolerable future. What about the intolerable present?