Synopsis of Demystifying Sustainability: Towards real solutions
by Haydn Washington
Eric Lee, A-SOCIATED PRESS
TOPICS: MAIN POINTS, FROM THE WIRES, OUT OF THE MIST
TUCSON (A-P) — The synopsis is by selected excerpts [with a few comments]:
Foreword by William Rees, University of British Columbia, originator and co-developer of the 'Ecological Footprint' concept.
This book is about... the 'nature of reality' and 'humanity as work-in-progress'.
The facts are that humans have a limited grasp of reality.... We have... agreed to deny reality'.
Three indisputable facts frame the analysis... 1, humanity's... relationship with the rest of the natural world has become increasingly dysfunctional... humanity is now on a collision course with biophysical reality... 2, Homo sapiens [can] avoid catastrophe; 3, ...the global community has failed utterly to take the necessary evasive action.
'Perception' is at the heart of the problem. Humans rarely perceive anything just as it is... Consider how many differing cultural narratives, tribal myths, religious doctrines, political ideologies, disciplinary paradigms, ethical frameworks and other worldviews exist to divide the human family.
... sustainability requires that human societies learn to exist in harmony with the ecosystems that sustain them... to think of the human-nature bond in terms of harmony, balance, reverence, sacredness, respect, custodianship, stewardship, beauty, and even love.
An overriding principle would be the maintenance of biophysical life-support functions
... the global mainstream has fabricated a 'sanitised' (Washington's word) version of sustainability that shifts the focus from harmony, integrity and caring to the cold mechanics of perpetual growth monitored by GDP per capita.
... economists have thus constructed an abstraction of the economy that floats free from both the ecosystems within which the economy is embedded and the human community it purports to serve.
Ironically, the worldview that breathes life into mainstream economics sounds the death knell for ecological integrity.
To be useful in addressing problems in the real world, 'words and concepts must be anchored in external reality'.
...humans remain uniquely capable of logical thought, of reasoning from the evidence and of using the results to plan ahead.
This book describes an alternative way-of-seeing that both celebrates the full spectrum of human potential and clearly represents the biophysical realities within which the human animal must function.
In the final analysis, nothing stands in the way of sustainability but human nature... If, in the crunch, primitive emotions, tribal instincts and culturally-programmed denial succeed in their defense of today's ecologically naive expansionist world-view, then nature's great unfinished experiment with high intelligence may well be shut down.... if modern global society fails to 'demystify sustainability' and act accordingly, it may be just as unceremoniously 'selected out' as were the Sumerians, the Mayans and may societies in between.
Introduction: Sustainability — seeking clarity in the mist
It is time to demystify sustainability... have we made a radical mistake as to what sustainability is? Has it become a meaningless buzz word?
Has the term been co-opted by those who seek to use it for their own purposes, and turn it into mere tokenism, while they continue business-as-usual?
Has it become a plaything of academic discourse (and ideologies) around which academics then develop arcane jargon the layperson cannot understand?
There are well over 300 definitions of sustainability.
At the heart of the concept of sustainability should be a vision of achieving human and ecosystem well-being together .
...many people are at cross-purposes and use the word 'sustainability' to push their own particular agendas.
There has been a trend within academia and society to keep the term 'delightfully vague', as if that vagueness makes 'sustainability' more adaptable.
To return to sustainability's meaning, it is this vision of joint human and ecosystem well-being that I argue is essential, and the lack of which has led to the environmental crisis.
We cannot meaningfully discuss sustainability unless we discuss population and consumption... 'worldview' and ethics..., and about a very human failing: denial.
This book is not a book written for academics, it seeks to demystify 'sustainability' for the 'educated layperson' who wants to delve deeper into what 'sustainability' means, or should mean.
We shall look at... economic sustainability... ecological sustainability... social sustainability.
...we discover that the main thing holding humanity back from reaching a meaningful sustainability is our blind commitment to endless growth.
The key and inescapable conclusion of three decades of environmental science is that endless growth is the cause of unsustainability... a reality that society remarkably rarely acknowledges or discusses.
Sustainability at its core (I shall argue) is the search to find a harmony between human culture and the Nature from which we evolved and of which we are a part.
1 The Old Sustainability: A story of listening and harmony
Almost every book and article on sustainability starts with 'Our Common Future' in 1987... Indeed there is a curious blindness in academia as to the underpinnings that form the foundation for the common parlance of 'sustainability'.
The old sustainability underpins the need to discuss 'worldview' and ethics when one talks about 'sustainability'. How do we see our relationship to Nature, are we part of it or are we its masters?
Many developers argue for 'balance' [as] Nature has 'too much land and resources'.
We have an environmental crisis precisely because we (as a society) have forgotten the old sustainability and the teachings and wisdom of millennia.
Indeed, some anthropologists describe this ancient human worldview as Homo spiritualis, that humanity was centrally focused on its spiritual relationship with Nature. Of course today it could be said we re Homo economicus.
'Modernism' is central to how humans treat Nature today....Modernism continued the humanisation of wild Nature initiated by the early agriculturists, and operated through science, technology and liberal democracy.
Modernism arguably underlies the emergence of a profound anthropocentrism still dominant in the world, where Nature is conceived of as 'nothing more than matter-in-motion'.
'Nature' in effect became an object of scientific study, and the idea of Nature as animate and living was replaced with the idea of a cold and lifeless machine.
Consumption and never ending growth were deemed to be good in modernism, which completed 'the intellectual divorce of humankind from nature'.
The Nature writings of Thoreau, Muir, Leopold, Berry and other Nature writers thus re-stated the 'old sustainability' belief in respect for Nature and its harmony and balance.
Academia (and business and governments too) may overlook the broader, older meaning of sustainability (as they busily jump through various academic and ideological hoops).
If the community at large supports 'sustainability', this is largely because of the old broad meaning based on caring for Nature.
2 The 1960s to the Present: Key conferences and statements
Carson was vilified by the the pesticide industry as both hysterical and wrong. Recently, deniers of the environmental crisis have even taken to calling Carson a 'mass murderer', ostensibly because she stopped the use of DDT, which controlled mosquitoes and hence malaria.
Deniers seemed to hope that if Carson was discredited, then perhaps the regulation of business would be abandoned.
A flood of literature on problems in the environment followed in the late 1960s and through the 1970s, which listed the damage of modern society to the environment.
In 1972, the book 'Limits to Growth' pointed out that our population growth and increasing consumption of resources would exceed planetary limits around the middle of the twenty-first century, most likely leading to societal collapse.
This report was strongly criticised by Cornucopians and neoclassical economists seeking to deny the environmental crisis, who predictably labeled the authors 'prophets of doom'. [and febbleminded Chicken Littles with a computer....]
The latest version of 'Limits to Growth' came out in 2004 and confirmed forecasts, but does show a scenario for reaching sustainability, providing we abandon denial and solve key problems (such as our addiction to growth).
The concept of 'Spaceship Earth' (Boulding 1966) further reinforced the popular environmental writings of the time.
The 1972 Stockholm conference:... the first world environmental conference ever held....[setting] a foundation for future development.
The 'North' was mainly concerned about pollution and ecosystem decline, but the 'South'... tended to see economic development [growth] as the solution.
The World Conservation Strategy (1980)... introduced not only the concept of 'sustainable development' but also the term 'sustainable' in relation to human use of the biosphere.
'Our Common Future' The Brundtland Report (1987)... played a key role in achieving world-wide attention for the concept of 'sustainable development'.
Its most quoted definition of 'sustainable development' was : 'Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs'.
The report highlighted three fundamental components to sustainable development: environmental protection, economic growth and social equity.
Meadows et al. (2004),,,,note [the report] did not find it politically opportune to say 'the human world is beyond its limits', much less grapple seriously with the question of what to do.
'Our Common Future' recommended economic growth of 5 per cent in order to alleviate poverty, though it did argue for a change in the 'quality of growth' so that 'sustainability, equity, social justice and security are firmly embedded'. [At 5% growth, consumption of resources doubles every 14 years.]
The Earth Summit, (1992)... was the culmination of the discussions on sustainability placed on the international agenda by 'Our Common Future'.
It was not a legally binding document. It was quite anthropocentric... It was also pro-growth.
The Earth Charter 2000,... increasingly recognised as a global consensus statement on the 'meaning of sustainability'... a truly visionary document that combines compassion for humanity and Nature, and argues for justice for both.
Johannesburg Summit, 2002... has been widely argued that this summit failed to live up to... expectations.
Rio+20 Summit, 2012... certainly made little impact compared to the Earth Summit 20 years previously...the environmental problems addressed [by Earth Summit 1992] were still seen as valid (i.e. had not been solved).
3 Rise of the 'New' Sustainability: The weak and the strong
Many argue that sustainability is the 'ultimate goal' or destination, while 'sustainable development' is the framework and path through which sustainability is achieved.
Others argue that 'sustainable development' is an oxymoron.
In the 1950s and 1960s development was unequivocally economic growth via modernisation and Westernisation.
The 1990s were dominated by a neoliberal 'magic of the market' approach.... all of these approaches equated 'development' with economic growth.... while a questioning of neoliberalism may be occurring in some circles, neoliberal market approaches still remain dominant.
The history and discourse on 'development' and development studies has thus shown a continuous support for economic growth being the key to development.
'Our Common Future' took a techno-centric stance, which would 'make way for a new era of economic growth'.
All of these statements by major international organisations on 'sustainable development' have helped to embed the idea that sustainable development and economic growth must go together,
This trend continues today in modern textbooks on sustainability... [that] doesn't really confront or deal with the issue of endless growth.
A number of writers...argue that a large part of the appeal of 'sustainable development' has been that it seems to bring into harmony the idea of sustaining what is valued (Nature), while still accommodating human aspirations to develop (grow),
So, clearly, there has been a long history of 'sustainable development' going hand in hand [with] (and indeed being seen to require) economic growth.
Many environmental scientists and scholars argue the ideology of 'growthism' or 'evermoreism'... is in fact the 'root cause' of the environmental crisis and not the way to reach sustainability.
On a finite world endless physical growth cannot be sustainable. Sustainability now arguably means no more growth and possibly 'degrowth'. [If we are in 'overshoot', then by definition degrowth follows.]
'Sustainable development' thus seems often to be based on the ideological view of continual 'progress' and endless growth... the cause of escalating degradation of the biosphere.
If we are to demystify 'sustainability' then our focus must (first and foremost) center on being sustainable, not on endless growth on a finite planet, which is an unsustainable delusion.
Sustainability should not be allowed to be subverted and hijacked to justify further 'business-as-usual' growth.
...there is simply not enough natural capital to sustain the policies of conventional growth, and without better management of it, there is no chance of meeting the basic needs of today's population, much less an increasing population.
By using terms such as 'natural resources' and 'natural capital'...we are effectively reducing the wondrous diversity of life (in all its beauty) down to just a 'resource' and a natural form of 'capital' for neoclassical economics to consider.
Environmental degradation or damage to natural capital has traditionally been seen as an 'externality' by economists. Under this view, you could substitute wealth for destroyed natural capital. In other words if you made enough money, damage to (or destruction of) ecosystems did not matter.
Thus many economists still believe 'weak sustainability' is good enough.
In the 'weak sustainability' view, it is deemed acceptable to pass on a degraded biosphere to the future — as long as we also hand over a lot of money and human assets to them. From an ecological viewpoint, weak sustainability is actually fundamentally unsustainable.
Liberal democracy also typically promotes weak sustainability.
'Strong sustainability' by contrast recognises the unaccounted (by economists) ecological services and life support functions of natural capital. It requires that natural capital stocks be 'held constant' independently of human-made capital.
No matter how much money you make, it is not acceptable in strong sustainability degrade natural capital.
Clearly, weak sustainability ignores the fact that humans are dependent on Nature for survival.
The economic mantra of substituting money for ecosystem services has been a major contributor to the environmental crisis, and demonstrates the ecological ignorance that permeates our society and mainstream neoclassical economics.
While strong sustainability may appear too 'radical' for neoclassical economists, it is still anthropocentric and narrowly functional. It looks at the minimum biophysical requirements for human survival, without regard to other species.
From an ecocentric perspective, one can validly ask whether other species have a right to natural capital also, or is everything just for us?
So perhaps we actually need a 'strongest sustainability' that accepts the intrinsic value of Nature and is ecocentric?
Such a 'strongest' sustainability would in fact most clearly reflect the older, broader meaning of 'sustainability' in terms of harmony and maintaining the balance of Nature.
We will not reach an ecologically sustainable future in the long-term, I believe, unless we actually move to a 'strongest' sustainability.
We need now to focus on sustainability, not a 'sustainable development' underpinned by endless growth.
4 Economic Sustainability: Coming to grips with endless growth
'A person who knows that enough is enough will always have enough.' (Lao Tzu)
Modern economics is fraught with issues of worldview, ideology, assumptions, ignorance of ecological reality, and denial. Denying the problems of the 'growth economy' is also arguably the largest 'elephant in the room' that most of us refuse to see.
To talk about 'economic sustainability' one must confront the issue that our current economy is fundamentally broken.
The growth economy has become the 'given truth' of our times.
More than anything else in our society, the 'growth economy' remains taboo to question, and the silence of co-denial concerning it remains almost supreme. This is true even in many academic, media and environmental circles. This fact is crucial to our times, central to whether we reach a truly sustainable future.
Total US debt is now $50 trillion, and our relentless pursuit of debt-driven growth has contributed to the global economic crisis.
Eventually, the exponentially increasing debt must exceed the value of current real and future potential wealth, and the system collapses.
There are assumptions that neoclassical economics makes about how the world works...Strong anthropocentrism... The idea that the free market will control all that is needed... The idea that the economy can grow forever in terms of continually rising GDP... The refusal to accept any biophysical limits to growth... A circular theory of production causing consumption that causes production in a never-ending cycle... Neoclassical economics ignores the Second Law of Thermodynamics and fails to consider 'entropy' as a key feature of economics and reality... Environmental damage is merely an 'externality'... All forms of capital can be substituted...These assumptions show the fundamental challenge we face to reach any conception of 'economic sustainability' that functions within ecological and social realities.... The above assumptions deserved to be challenged, and some economists and scientists have been doing so for over 40 years. [Ecolate message.]
If humanity's behavior should be governed by values of 'enoughness', stewardship, humility and holism, then it follows that attitudes of 'more forever', technical arrogance and aggressive analytical reductionism should be rejected.
Given that Western economies have already grown too large (in terms of being ecologically sustainable), some scholars point out we also need 'degrowth'.
Perhaps nothing stands in the way of sustainability so much as the notion that we can spend our way out of unsustainability. World leaders seek growth above all else.
Edward Abbey observed that 'endless growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.'
Economic growth is cannibalistic, it feeds on both Nature and communities and shifts unpaid costs back onto them as well. The shiny side of development is often accompanied by a dark side of displacement and dispossession, this is why economic growth has time and again produced impoverishment next to enrichment.
Our experience of diminished well-being will be blamed on 'product scarcity'. The orthodox neoclassical response will then be to advocate increased growth to fix this. In the real world of ecological limits, this will make us even less well off, and will lead to advocacy for 'even more growth'.
As long as neoclassical economics continues to ignore the absolute dimension of scarcity, then it has 'uncoupled itself from the world and become irrelevant'.
We humans are being led to a dead end, we are living be an ideology of death and accordingly we are destroying our own humanity and killing the planet.
The green economy thus seems to ignore the laws of physics and ecological reality. It does not break free of the assumptions of neoclassical economics, and indeed portrays itself as a 'new engine of growth'.
Future human well-being depends on slowing economic growth, not accelerating it. Economic sustainability has to be about creating an economy that is sustainable over the truly long-term.
Economic sustainability thus cannot mean continuing 'business-as-usual' along the neoclassical model. It requires returning the economy to being a 'servant' of society rather than its master. It means questioning and abandoning most of the assumptions that underlie the neoclassical economic synthesis in control today. It means discarding our addiction to 'evermoreism'.
Moving to a steady state economy is actually the way to avoid a failed growth economy and another Great Depression. However, tackling the two key issues we deny — overpopulation and overconsumption — is a daunting task, and many feel overwhelmed.
An ecologically sustainable biosphere has to be ranked higher than an endlessly increasing GDP. True economic sustainability will live within limits.
The 'political impossibility' of a steady state economy may be less impossible than it previously appeared. If we succeed in demystifying 'economic sustainability', then the economy, 'the management of the home', will protect 'ecology', the 'study of the home'. As it should and must.
5 Ecological Sustainability: Essential but overlooked
During the twentieth century:
Human population increased fourfold,
Industrial pollution went up 40-fold.
Energy use increased 16-fold and CO2
Fish catches went up 35-fold.
Water use increased ninefold.
Mining of ores and minerals grew 27-fold.
One-quarter of coral reefs were destroyed.
35 per cent of mangroves were lost in just two decades.
At least half of all wetlands were lost to dredging, filling, draining and ditching.
Extinction is at least 1,000-fold above the normal levels in the fossil record.
Humans use 75 per cent of the Earth's land mass. Some 30 million ha of tropical forest are cleared each year. Half the world's people live in countries where water tables are falling.... All of the above shows us that we are bankrupting Nature.
Sustainability requires that our emphasis shift from 'managing resources' to managing ourselves that we learn again to live as part of Nature.
A key part of thinking sustainably is to acknowledge our dependence on Nature.
Ecosystem collapse: Ultimately, human existence depends on maintaining the rich web of life within which we evolved. The rapidity of current environmental change is unique in human history.
Any academic teaching of theory that trivialises the current crisis (and supports its ongoing causes) needs to be examined closely.
Rachel Carson brought ecological sustainability back to social consciousness in 1962 with 'Silent Spring'. Environmental scientists and environmentalists have been fighting a silence about (and denial of) the environmental crisis ever since. So the first and foremost part of reaching ecological sustainability is to acknowledge that we must talk about it, and acknowledge we are dependent on Nature. We must acknowledge that a sustainable biosphere is the absolute non-negotiable necessity that underlies sustainability in general.
Humanity can stumble on without 'utopia', and has so far stumbled on with a flawed economic system. However, we cannot continue without an ecologically sustainable biosphere. We can no longer take Nature for granted. Ignore it and it will indeed go away.
Ecological sustainability must be about healing and restoring this wondrous jewel of a planet. The world has ecological limits we must live within.
6 Social Sustainability: Utopian dream or practical path to change?
Many societies were stable up to the point of collapse, so this doesn't mean a society can continue indefinitely. [an overview.]
It may seem a paradox that at the pinnacle of human material and technical achievement, we now have little or no 'community life'. We in the West find ourselves anxiety-ridden, prone to depression, worried about how others see us, and driven to consume.
Social sustainability is often equated with justice and equity. These are indeed part of it, but social sustainability should be larger than these.
Justice, fairness and compassion are part of my own personal ethics. However, for the last 200 years, humanity has become solipsistic and self-obsessed. Anthropocentrism or 'human-centeredness' has become the hallmark of Western society.
In mainstream Western society (now globalised around most of the world), we rarely apply justice and compassion outside our species.
We in the West have turned Nature just into a 'thing'. That means that much of society (even the intelligentsia) focus only on human society and justice for humans..
The modern world has not brought greater fairness as promised, quite the opposite: 16 per cent of people live in the developed world, yet account for 78 per cent of global consumption expenditure.
The average member of the top 1 per cent of the world's population is almost 2,000 times richer than someone from the poorer half.
Too often consumerism is regarded as if it reflected a 'fundamental human nature' of material self-interest and possessiveness. This could hardly be further from the truth.
A final point to consider is about how far one extends the idea of 'fairness'? Is this limited just to 'our group', is it to the whole of society, or should we extend the idea of fairness to future generations, and to all of Nature also?
One of the most striking characteristics of today is the 'triviality, narrowness and factual inaccuracy of our political conversations'.
Many scholars agree that the key problem in reaching sustainability is lack of political will.
Governments endlessly talk about sustainability and 'knowing the road', but much of it is window-dressing.
Civil unrest and revolution are not conducive to solving sustainability issues. Rather than unify society they fragment it, they destroy the very social cohesion we need to solve key problems. People are then 'too busy fighting the war' to think about the bigger picture, even if that might be the cause of the war.
Modernism and consumerism operate from the worldview of Homo economicus, seeing humanity primarily as consumers. It operates on the idea of 'more and more', there is never enough, and there never can be 'enough'. It idolises the greedy who have hoarded more and more resources just for them.
If something gets in the way of growth, then it must be repressed, as it has been; hence the ignoring of ethics and the attack by modern society on a spiritual connection to Nature.
Social sustainability in the end is not the search for utopia, it's the adoption of a workable social structure to solve the environmental crisis, and to teach true sustainability.
We need social sustainability, but not on its own. We simply cannot have it without ecological sustainability, and we cannot have it unless we also reach an economic sustainability where economy serves society, within the ecological limits of the Earth.
Many from the political Right ignore sustainability in general, while many from the Left continue to focus only on social issues. However, social sustainability must be built on the foundation of ecological sustainability, as a sustainable biosphere is non-negotiable.
7 Overpopulation and Overconsumption
We cannot meaningfully discuss 'sustainability' unless we grapple with overpopulation and overconsumption. They are the key causes of our current unsustainability. They are also issues that society (and even much of academia!) fervently seek to ignore. We must take the bull by the horns and discuss why action on both is essential, indeed why it is a 'prerequisite' for sustainability.
Apart from daring to question the growth economy, nothing else seems to raise such passion as suggesting we should 'limit our numbers'.
The sheer number of consumers matters as much as the fact that many are now consuming more.
We need to target all three components of I=PAR if we seek to reduce human impact: containing population, limiting affluence and cleaning technology.
'More people' as a concept until the last 100 years has always been seen as a 'good thing' for society. Clearly people love babies, so it goes against the grain to say we should have fewer.
Conservatives are often against sex education, contraception and abortion and they like growth — both in population and the economy. Liberals usually support individual human rights above all else and fear the coercive label and therefore avoid discussion of population growth and stabilisation. The combination is a tragic stalemate that leads to more population growth.
Environmentalists and the political Left have both blundered badly in failing to face up to population growth.
Another problem has been a common (if not universal) trend in feminism and the political Left to argue against population control as coercive.
Population exacerbates all other environmental problems... both climate change and extinction crisis are merely symptoms of ecological overshoot by an obese humanity.
So controversial is the subject that it has become the 'Cinderella' of the great sustainability debate — rarely visible in public, or even in private.
If everybody on Earth shared a modest standard of living, midway between the richest and poorest, [a sustainable population] would be around three billion.
The world is already overpopulated. We cannot live in harmony with Nature when our numbers are degrading the world's life support systems.
'More people' is no longer 'better', but far worse. It keeps us from reaching a truly sustainable future.
For some people today, consumption has become the meaning of life, the 'chief scared', the 'mystery before which one bows'. Yet the same consumption that has lately become the 'meaning of life' is now revealed as the greatest hazard to life.
While we promote endless growth on a finite planet, mainstream society doesn't think about whether this is fair to future generations, or indeed fair to the rest of life we share this planet with.
The consumer ethic, seen as 'natural' by consumers, is actually a cultural teaching, a purposeful social construct.
In fact, people resisted the throwaway society when it was first promulgated, as they believed in thriftiness.
The notion of 'perpetual growth' is thus a social construct vastly escalated as a transition strategy to reboot the economy after the Second World War.
Consumer cultures will have to be reengineered into a culture of sustainability, so that living sustainably as a 'citizen' feels as natural as living as a consumer does today.
We will need to engage the public in a conversation about the growing and unsustainable costs of the consumer society.
We also need to ask what drives today's unsustainable consumption?
A key part of dematerialisation [of economy] is the realisation that we can use much less energy and materials and still have a similar quality of life.
Dematerialisation of our society has the potential to reduce environmental impact, but only if we also stop endless growth in population and resource use and our current increasing consumption.
'The rhetoric of ecological modernisation tends to downplay the essentially insatiable appetites of an increasingly global consumer class'.
There is a vigorous debate about whether 'greening' our daily individual actions really does actually lead people to deeper engagement where they make meaningful changes, or instead lulls them into false security and accomplishment.
The end of the consumer culture will come, willingly or unwillingly, and sooner than we would like to believe. The only question is whether we greet it with a series of alternative ways of orienting our lives and cultures to maintain a good life, even as we consume much less.
Dealing with overpopulation will be hard...Dealing with consumerism will be even harder as it is actually easier to change family size than patterns of consumption. This may be partly because the advertising industry spends $500 billion a year urging us to consume more.
Sadly, 'time' is one of the things we don't have 'more' of, but the least of.
'Sustainability' (if it is to mean more than tokenism) has to mean dealing with overpopulation and overconsumption... Without tackling these, any purported 'sustainabililty strategies' will remain pure tokenism.
8 Worldview and ethics in 'Sustainability'
Worldview and ethics are central, for if society does not question and address these, then it simply won't change and hence will not reach sustainability.
'Despite forty years of organised environmentalism, two world summits on environment and development, repeated warnings be scientists and the emergence of 'sustainable development' as a mainstream mantra, global society continues its drive toward ecological disaster and geopolitical chaos.'
[If we] will not remove the Cornucopian cataracts from our eyes, ... we will remain blind to the underlying real causes of our failure to reach sustainability. The alternative is to adopt an ecocentric approach.
Anthropocentrism regards humanity as the central element in the Universe, ecocentrism is instead focused on a Nature-centered system of values, and accepts that humanity is part of Nature and must treat it with responsibility and respect.
A central assumption of modernist Western moral thought is that value can be ascribed to the non-human world only in so far as it is good 'for the sake of humans'. The Western modernist attitude toward Nature thus has a decidedly anthropocentric bias.
Western culture has become ingrained with a 'doctrine of inherent human superiority', and this has become 'an unfounded dogma of our culture'.
If we continue the delusion of human supremacy it will extinguish the possibility of 'yet-to-be-imagined (sane, harmonious, beautiful) ways of being on Earth'.
Humanism has arguably helped us to lose touch with ourselves as beings that are also natural, and have their roots in the Earth.
In a study of pre-school teachers' comprehension of sustainable development... the teachers thought sustainable development focused on human rights, democracy, gender equality, morals and ethics. Environment came as an afterthought... an inherent anthropocentric bias.
The real [philosophical] problem is that Nature has been mapped philosophically as a moral blank space, as 'value-free' in and of itself.
Deep ecology has been one academic stream that has championed intrinsic value [of Nature]... supports wilderness protection, understands that human population must decrease, that the economy and technology must change - and that this is urgent.
Instead of espousing clarity and certitude, postmodernism commits itself to ambiguity and relativity.
'The pluralistic, liberal or emancipatory approach of education for sustainable development signals a 'scholarly departure from "real-world" dilemmas concerned with environmental degradation'.
The postmodern approach within 'sustainable development' is thus largely still anthropocentric and tends to ignore ecocentric values and shy away from finding real solutions to real problems.
Indeed, its focus on relativism tends to mean postmodernism will argue that all solutions are equally valid, rather than focus on the key areas needed. Hence society (and much of academia) continues to fiddle as Rome burns.
The questioning of 'the real' serves merely to distance humanity even more from Nature.
Nature is real, our ecological dependency on Nature is real, and human actions really are degrading the ecosystems that support real human societies.
Some argue that because humans influence Nature, it thus somehow 'becomes human'.
We thus need a conception of Nature that allows humans to be essentially cultural beings, while still seeing them as part of (and within) Nature.
Does the fact that only 20 per cent or so of people (in Western society) get interested in environmental issues mean that only that percentage can feel the sense of wonder?
It is clear that Nature in Western society is no longer sacred, no longer the 'Earth Mother' as it was in the 'old sustainability'. It has become just a 'resource' for human use.
The underlying worldview of Western society is thus at great pains to suppress a sense of wonder and a spiritual connection with Nature. This is something that desperately needs to change if we are to reach any meaningful sustainability.
If education for sustainable development remains anthropocentric, the chances of us solving the environmental crisis are poor.
We need to be liberated from our egoism, from humanism, into a transcending overview that sees the Earth as a blessed land, exuberant with life, filled with beauty and storied history.
When enough of us change our worldview, then governments, business and the education system will follow.
To quote Gandhi: 'We must become the change we want to see in the world'
9 An Unsustainable Denial
Not only do we deny the environmental crisis, we deny that we deny it.
As a society, we continue to act as if there is no environmental crisis, no matter what the science says.
'Modern society has been paralysed by deep-seated cognitive dissonance, collective denial, and political inertia in dealing with the unsustainability conundrum'.
More recently, we seem to speak of becoming 'sustainable', while at the same time denying the need to change. Hence it remains common for many to speak of a 'sustainable development' that is actually based on endless growth — the key driver of the environmental crisis.
Denial is arguably the major barrier to us solving the environmental crisis and reaching a sustainable future. If we could abandon the belief in... delusional things, then the path to sustainability would become immensely easier.
It is... important to understand the difference between scepticism and denial. Refusing to accept the overwhelming 'preponderance of evidence' is not scepticism, it is 'denial' and should be called by its true name.
One key academic silence is that about the issue that on a finite planet, a meaningful 'sustainability' cannot be equated with 'sustainable development' based on endless growth.
People often get upset when confronted with information challenging their self-delusional view of the world. Many people prefer illusions to painful realities, and thus cherish their 'right to be an ostrich'.
'I will look at any additional evidence to confirm the opinion to which I have already come'. [sayest Homo denialensis]
The longer we ignore 'elephants' the larger they loom in our minds, as each avoidance triggers an even greater spiral of denial.
There is the sense that 'if people only knew' they would act differently,... and put pressure on government. However, many scholars now believe this explanation is no longer tenable.
The 'anti-science' denial movement promotes seemingly 'authoritative' opinions in books and the media that 'greatly distort what is on isn't known by environmental scientists'... [to produce] a body of 'anti-science' that is a 'twisting of the findings of empirical science — to bolster a predetermined worldview and to support a political agenda'.
There also exists 'greenscamming', where groups are formed that masquerade about being concerned over the environment, but actually work against the interests implied in their names... 'front organisations'... 'astroturf' groups.
Denial emerges when scientific method provides information that challenges the status quo and confronts people with uncomfortable facts about the state of status quo and confronts people with uncomfortable facts about the state of the Earth's environment.
Denial anti-science (with few exceptions) does not proceed through the usual peer-review process. In fact it is not science at all, merely unsupported statements without proven scientific evidence.
Public relation companies have long been involved in 'spin', in seeking to modify the public's view of reality.
There will always be 'someone' with a science degree somewhere who will champion almost any cause, and sometimes they will have PhDs and can even be professors.
Having a degree (or several degrees) in another field of science does not make one an expert in (for example) climate change.
'''Elephants" rarely go away just because we pretend not to notice them.'
The reason it is so difficult to talk about the elephant in the room is that 'not only does no one want to listen, but no one wants to talk abut not listening'. We thus deny our denial.
In times of stress the brain's 'reptilian brain stem' (amygdala) will override the rational cortex, so we do stupid things... 'Intelligence and reason may not be the primary determinants of human behaviour at any social scale'.
The fear of change is related to denial, and is a strong trait in humanity.
Many conservatives just don't 'trust' scientists (and certainly not environmentalists) as they think they are too 'liberal' (and hence suspect).
The intelligentsia in our society has mainly focused on social justice, and 'eco-justice' is rarely given equal time or prominence.
Another reason why people don't feel an urgency to act is our inability to really understand 'exponential growth'.
Many environmental problems are worsening exponentially. Failure to understand exponential growth leads to a failure to act urgently on environmental problems, and aids denial.
Another aspect that assists denial to prosper is the media,... a 'disinformation service'. The media poorly communicates environmental science.
The media [including social] rarely checks factual accuracy [especially social media].
There is also denial in 'we the people'. We let ourselves be duped and conned, we let our consciences be massaged, and we let our desire for the 'safe and easy life' blot out unpleasant realities. We delude ourselves. It is time to wake up, and break the denial dam.
The key part of that dam regarding 'sustainability' is to understand that any meaningful 'sustainability' cannot be based on endless growth, even though the 'sustainable development' of 'Our Common Future' was based on this. [5% growth doubling consumption every 14 years.]
Denial and sustainability are mutually exclusive, if you have one then you don't have the other.
10 Appropriate Technology for Sustainability
The techno-centrists and Cornucopians see technology as a god that will solve all problems.
Others... see technology as the cause of the environmental crisis.
'Technology' is generally lumped together as just one thing, when in fact it has many parts and strands.
We need an environmental revolution, but unlike the Industrial Revolution, this one must use appropriate technology, but will also be driven by our need to 'make peace with Nature'.
The environmental crisis is not an irrevocable 'Decree of Fate' to which we must submit. It is a human-caused problem and has human-invented solutions, provided we act.
There are many 'myths' about renewable energy.
In reality, world energy demand cannot keep on growing. World energy use has grown exponentially be around 3 per cent a year for the past two centuries.
Our current profligate energy use has already caused the environmental crisis. Overall we don't need 'more' energy (as claimed by techoncentrists and nuclear advocates), we need less.
No energy technology is entirely benign. Nevertheless, energy efficiency and most renewable energy sources (that are sited sensibly) are essentially everlasting and safe, have very low environmental and health impacts, can create many local jobs and have rapid energy payback periods.
However, unless we reduce rampant consumerism, the sheer scale of renewables required to supply an increasingly affluent world in the time required would be mind-boggling.
Some inappropriate technologies need brief discussion. The first is nuclear power.
Another inappropriate technology to discuss briefly is geo-engineering.
A final inappropriate... technology... is Carbon Capture and Storage... that if it worked it would allow 'business-as-usual' to continue. It too is actually part of denial.
'Sustainability' means using appropriate technologies to live respectfully with the rest of life on Earth, within the ecological limits of the Earth.
To demystify sustainability, we need to accept that technology must be guided by an ecocentric worldview and an Earth ethics. Then it can aid sustainability and be truly appropriate.
11 Solutions for Sustainability
This chapter is about 'solutions for sustainability'. However, there are different views on how to undertake solutions.
One approach is about pluralism and comes from a postmodern perspective. This argues that there are many different visions, approaches and pathways... often portrayed as 'equally valid'.
On the face of it the claim that there are many different paths and visions sounds great. It means that everyone's approach is correct, so you don't have to push for any particular key strategies.
I unashamedly argue here for a framework of specific solutions. In regard to sustainability, for almost three decades society has fiddled while Rome burned around us.
It seems also that many in academia have been playing along in the string section. The dominance of postmodernism within academia has led to arguments for pluralistic approaches, and to a belief that any over-arching 'grand narrative' was wrong and should be opposed.
It [one's grand narrative] cannot remain one of refusing to accept ecological limits and physical laws. It cannot remain one of ignoring the centrality of worldview and ethics.
Hence I believe there is a single vision of sustainability, which is accepting reality, accepting that society is now hugely unsustainable, and undertaking the 'Great Work' of moving to a truly sustainable (ecologically, socially and economically in the long-term) future.
My conclusion will clearly be unpalatable to some in academia. However, I write here for the educated layperson and seek to demystify sustainability. I seek to provide real solutions to real problems, rather than theorise (under the current latest theory), procrastinate, or deny.
What sustainability cannot be:
It cannot be sustainababble.
It cannot be a denial of reality.
It cannot ignore the ecological limits of the Earth.
Accordingly, it cannot be about endless physical growth.
Hence, if we mean growth be 'development' (and most people do), then sustainability cannot be the same as 'sustainable development'.
Sustainability cannot be about a 'weak sustainability' that believes we can substitute money for ecosystem services.
Sustainability cannot be ethics-free.
'Sustainability' — first and foremost — must be about solving the environmental crisis, which is now rapidly worsening.
To do this, sustainability must be about realism.
'We are the first generation with tools to understand the changes in the Earth's systems caused by human activity and the last with the opportunity to influence the course of many of the changes now rapidly under way'.
It is time to 'grow up' and drop our delusions of being 'masters of Nature'.
We stole fossil energy from the past, and (due to the consequent impacts) we are now robbing the future, making it unsustainable for those who follow us.
It is time to stop being a 'seriously dumb species' if we are going to reach meaningful sustainability.
No generation has faced a challenge of the complexity, scale and urgency we now face.
We face a huge problem, but it is also a major 'opportunity' to build a truly sustainable future.
Many books have been written about our predicament. Some notable ones:
Cantton (1982) Overshoot
Ehrlich & Ehrlich (1991) Healling the Planet
Berry (1999) The Great Work
Soskolne (2008) Sustaining Life on Earth
Brown (2011) World on the Edge
Note: Tucson public library system serves about one million citizens. None of the above, except the last, are available. Lester Brown, a well-known public intellectual, is the only author having some works (World on the Edge, Plan B and Taking Sides) available for the reading. The list of the marginalized includes Washington and Daly, though Daly of 'steady-state economics' makes an appearance as author of the foreword to 'Enough is Enough', a popularization of his work. Back in the day (1970s) a citizen such as myself could spend six years as an autodidact wandering the open stacks of a nine story university library twelve hours a day (and I did with summers off 'on the road'). The UofA library has Demystifying Sustainability, Daly's works, et al., but only as ebooks accessible only by professors and their card carrying students. Today's autodidacts have the Internet, which contains more misinformation and disinformation than information, and products of the post-truth society have little ability to sift and sieve the content looking for babies in the overused bath water that anyone who can type or take selfies can take a dump in. To any would-be autodidacts with a reality preference—how are you going to make the Internet cesspool, the only source beyond the public library system you may have (unless you can afford to buy hundreds of books) work for you? Clever apes should be able to figure out how to open-source all information that matters.
It is notable how much agreement there is in such books as to both the problems and the solutions. It's not like the solutions have not been pointed out, it is that they have not been acted on.
Optimism and pessimism are equal distractions from what we need: realism, a commitment to Nature and to each other, and a determination not to waste more time.
Seeds sown today may take root when humanity reaches for solutions to rebuild, as systems unravel under the unbearable burden of sustaining a global consumer economy.
Given the urgency involved in our predicament, the grand narrative, this 'Great Work' of repairing the Earth is precisely the dream we need, precisely what we need to move forward to an ecologically sustainable future.
It is time to wake up, to accept that Nature has intrinsic value, to accept we have come close to a disaster that would impoverish the Earth and future generations. In fact, this disaster is underway.
If someone erects a tombstone for our civilisation, it cannot say we did not understand, for we do. It cannot say we did not have the resources, for we do. It could only say we were too slow to act, and that time ran out.
We either choose to act for an ecologically sustainable future, or we contribute to a growing environmental disaster.
Sustainability can be an exciting challenge. It won't be simple or easy, but if we can face and conquer our denial, then our future is exciting as we make a truly sustainable and better world.
Our first hope must be that we prevent collapse by following a new set of philosophical, ethical and cultural norms that bring about a 'life-sustaining' civilisation.
I write this final section on my bit of land on the edge of the half a million ha Wollemi National Park in NSW, Australia. I write from a stone house I built myself from local broken rock and recycled timber. My computer and everything else is powered by the Sun. Outside, a red-neck wallaby grazes in the shade under gum trees. An hour ago, a 1.5m long goanna (lizard) walked trustingly right past me (and my dog!) as I sat reading in my doorway.
We can demystify sustainability and act on real solutions. We can live in harmony with Nature into the future, we can solve the environmental crisis. And we should.
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