Straight Talk about Sustainability

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If you follow this blog, you know that I am skeptical or downright critical of almost all claims made about green this or that or sustainable this or that. It’s not that I believe that most claims are a form of greenwashing. Many are, but I do believe that most organizations making such claims intend to improve the state of the world. The problem all have, whether serious or manipulative, is that they do not know what sustainability really is, and don’t know how to talk about it. All action follows languaging, so if the words send a confusing message, the results will go astray. As Burns said, “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft a-gley.”

I used the unfamiliar word, languaging, intentionally. Human actions are coordinated through our use of language. Requests and promises create the future. Assertions establish the facts that actors use to assess choices for getting there. The transparency of action, that is, the ability of the actors to arrive at a commonly held result depends on their interpretation of the words used. When the words are part of the deeply embedded “standard” vocabulary, actions generally go smoothly, But when the words have not yet been added to the stockpile, the outcomes are less reliable.

Sustainability is clearly one of these not yet universally understood words. It is important to keep pushing for a definition that puts everyone on the same page. The primary meaning of sustainability is the likelihood that some system will continue to produce some desired outcome over time. Sustainability by itself tells you nothing about what is to be produced. It’s a meta-property of a system. To have meaning for actors concerned about the continued flow of whatever is being desired (the stakeholders), some specific set of outputs must be specified. Further, we use sustainability mostly referring to complex systems like the environment or a culture. If we want to point to a system that is merely complicated like an airplane or power plant, we tend to use words like “reliable.” We would rarely talk about the sustainability of a power plant, although, given the Chernobyl or Three Mile Island experiences, we might use it when we speak of nuclear facilities.

With this preface, it is meaningless to talk about sustainability without specifying what is to be sustained. This failing is what gets most people in trouble, and contributes to accusations of green washing. I don’t know what others mean except in a very few cases. Sustainability sort of floats in the air. My own intentions are, I hope, clear. I use sustainability to refer to the possibility that the global system will produce flourishing for all life on Earth. It's only a possibility because the present system fails to do this. For human beings, flourishing includes the ability to continue along our species’ biological evolutionary path, and to enjoy culturally produced qualities of freedom, dignity, and other normative qualities of living. For other forms of life, it suffices that they be able to continue along their evolutionary trajectories. When used in the vernacular of the moment, most people seem to be referring to preventing the collapse of the ecosystem. There are many other issues of equal importance. What about equality and justice for all? What about security? It’s an error to look for sustainability in any system that is failing to produce such qualities. Something about these systems has to be changed before we can think about its sustainability. Do we really want to keep the global cultural systems as it is now?

This linguistic construction rules out the meaningful use of the adjectival form, sustainable. When used as a modifier, as in sustainable development, sustainable business, or sustainable buildings, for example, the word refers to maintaining whatever it modifies. Those that use “sustainable anything” are banking that the word will come to mean something good is happening without any further assessments bring made. In truth, all that is happening is that less bad outcomes may result. There is danger in this usage. The stakeholders may become complacent and fail to act positively to make the present system produce what is currently missing.

Do we feel safer as an outcome of the global war on terror? Do we have more confidence and security as a result of efforts to restore the financial system? Does our political economy produce equality for all? Are we in the US healthier because we spend more for our medical care than any other society? Should we worry about and act toward the sustainability of the Earth’s environment because life itself is an emergent property of that system. If we push its limits too far, we flirt with the danger of a change to a regime where life as we know it may no longer exist. Partly because we use the word sustainability imprecisely, our discussions about what to do are incoherent. If we start to talk clearly, we can make better choices and take more effective actions. Whatever future comes depends on these choices.

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2 Comments

Scott Gast said:

John,

I'm with you. For a long time, I think we've had a very impercise and awkward means for talking about our relationship with the natural world-- almost as if we don't have a language for it.

You point out that we haven't agreed on what sustainability means, or that a good many of us simply don't know what it means but use the term anyway to express some vague notion of care for the lingering effects of our actions. I think that's right. I wonder if we'd be better off agreeing on a very simple definition of sustainability that everybody can get on board with easily, and that can't be mistaken for anything it isn't.

When you say it is "meaningless to talk about sustainability without specifying what is to be sustained," do you mean we should decide whether that thing is good or bad? Like sustainable health food vs. sustainable junk food? How do we make that distinction, and how do we decide what ought to stay and what ought to go without trampling people's freedom to choose? I struggle alot with the question of personal freedom, because our culture is built so firmly on that value set (and that is mostly a positive thing, I think), but at times seems to contribute to the degradation of the world around us in a number of ways. But maybe I'm misunderstanding what you meant. Would be interested to hear your thoughts.

Your post inspired a post of my own on the importance and failings of language around sustainability. I'll suggest "respectful" as a descriptor to take the place of "green" or "sustainable", as it lends a rangier, more human meaning to whatever thing it's applied to. What do you think?

Whatever the case, I think you're right in pointing out that we need shore up our language and definitions.

Thanks for the inspiration!

-Scott

John Ehrenfeld Author Profile Page said:

Thanks for your comment. I would not leave the decision of what to sustain up in the air, especially at the level of choice you name--healthy or junk food. I picked a broad quality--flourishing--to be the desideratum of sustainability. It is clear enough to focus discussion and action, but soft enough to permit differences. Flourishing is, like equality, an essentially contested concept. We will never agree exactly on the meaning, but, even so, such concepts enable consensual collective action. They require constant debate and adjustment. In essence, that is the purpose of our Supreme Court works. Your word, respectful, is certainly part of flourishing. It is hard to imagine flourishing without respect for others and the environment.

Individual choices are neither good or bad in an absolute sense. They either contribute to flourishing or not. We already identify many practices that most of us would consider bad in a pragmatic, not doctrinaire, sense. We first must change our cultural beliefs and values before changing our ordering of choices. As long as we continue to be addicted to consumption, flourishing will be out of hand. Only if people regain the lost sense of caring, including responsibility for the well-being of the Planet and its inhabitants, will we, collectively, start to learn what works and what doesn't.