January 25, 2012
What is sustainability? We have a lot of lofty definitions, hyperbole and weighty normative responsibilities tied to this concept, but what does it mean? In honour of Rio+20, coming in June 2012, the Risk-Monger thought this word should be more deeply analysed. Some people might not be happy with his conclusions.
Back in September, I spoke at a risk conference at the University of Michigan Risk Science Center (for those who are morbidly curious, you can watch my presentation here). The event had the term “sustainable” in the title. Normally I glance over that word in my search for linguistic meaning, but given the circumstances, I thought it merited a little attention (as I was also sitting on a panel with experts and authors on the subject).
But what does sustainability mean? The more I looked at it, the harder it became to put my finger (or footprint) on it.
In my search for a definition, I went to the Rio+20 website where I found lots of nice graphics, flash presentations and reports about other UN reports coming from other conferences that seemed to be well researched, but nothing that spoke to me beyond the Brundtland Report (1987). But besides achieving little, it looked like everyone had a good time at their events. The Brundtland definition states that: “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” It seems like basic common sense until you ask: What is this about?
Sustainability seems to be about progress, but progress towards what? Towards solving society’s problems and advancing humankind to a better place? Progress in returning man to a better balance with nature (eg, undoing the destruction of the fossil fuel-based world economy and proving, finally, that Malthus was right)? Progress towards being able to feed a growing population with increasing water scarcity? Progress towards supplying our growing need for energy while reducing CO2 emissions and fighting the war against global warming? So, would biofuels then be sustainable? Not yet, but with progress … Sadly most of Brundtland’s focus (alleviating world poverty and correcting the injustice between North and South) was lost in the excitement of the environmental activists who saw many campaign opportunities and have much bigger PR budgets than aid and relief agencies.
Clearly, sustainability is better left as an empty concept – a container that can be filled with what we determine to be important. Environmental activists like Greenpeace and WWF have done a good job lobbying to convince many that sustainability is about shifting to renewable energy (and the price we’ll pay through energy shortages is a sacrifice we need to make for future generations). Scientists working on seed technologies agree that the present agricultural practices are unsustainable, and therefore we need more GMOs as soon as possible. Energy experts see the increasing demand for energy and realise it is completely unsustainable to decommission the present generation of nuclear reactors. The Risk-Monger believes we need more investment in chemicals to find solutions to our growing developmental problems (but he seems to be a lone nutter on that one). Sustainability is a cup that we can fill with whatever ails us.
If sustainability were not a vacuous concept, we would never all be able to gather at the UN for Rio+20 and agree on anything. But why should we bother?
Is sustainability a virtue?
The most attractive element of sustainability is its normative value. By thinking of future generations, we are being ethically upright – even virtuous. It fits our eco-religious rituals to reward ourselves with an ethically enhanced character … whether we get it from sorting our rubbish, riding our bicycle in the rain, eating organic … virtue suggests a sacrifice. We all recognise that our rampant consumption (original sin) must be controlled – we must live more sustainably (in harmony with nature). Integrity, harmony, natural – all emotive, value-laden terms. Sacrificing today for future generations is presented as the ultimate goodness (to mix religions, it is Christ-like) and the paradigm of virtue.
Of course virtues are not easily defined, but rather recognised in stories (parables) and contextualised within a battle against vices. In the case of the virtue of sustainability, the stories are about avoiding bad consumption (coal, nuclear, palm oil, APP …) – that onerous temptation of industry, which leads to pollution, corruption and environmental degradation. Those who follow the Risk-Monger’s blogs recognise that he does not sing in this choir on Sundays. Treating sustainability as a virtue is a cornerstone of the attempt to establish and codify environmental ethics – a potentially catastrophic environmentalist strategy that would result in the end of much positive scientific research and some very unsustainable behaviour (see my interpretation from an earlier blog).
As Rio+20 is coming up, I think we have to be vigilant to prevent sustainability from being hijacked by the green eco-religious agenda. Sadly, they have already written the Rio+20 outcome report six months in advance, inspirationally entitled: The Future We Want (who needs consultation or engagement?). But we can still discuss “their future we fear” (I sense it will be a busy year).
In my next blog, I will offer what I think: that sustainability must be, by definition, anecdotal.David Zaruk