When is Forever Not Forever?

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I have defined sustainability as the possibility that all life will flourish on the planet forever. Each word is carefully chosen, but it is the whole definition that is important. The expression is designed to evoke an image of a positive future, but not one where everything is defined and clear. It is designed to contrast starkly with the concepts of sustainable development or greening, both of which dominate the scene and both of which are approaches to reduce unsustainability. These last two concepts are inherently tied to the past and present, but not to the future. The future is to be like the present, but without certain threats like global warming, fisheries collapse, poverty, and so on. I don’t think we can create the world we want and that provides the good life we seek by fixing up the present. We have to start from scratch at the level of the cultural beliefs and values that drive societal action. Alfred Schutz wrote that such action “transforms the world from the future perfect to the present.” Interesting how the word perfect is applies to a grammatical tense.

My definition implies and requires such a new approach; it is full of metaphors and is evocative rather than deterministic, on purpose. Let’s look at the key pieces. First the word sustainability. The earliest use of the word in regard to the concerns we all are coming from may be by Paul Ekins and Les Newby who wrote, sustainability is “the capacity for continuance more or less indefinitely into the future. (Paul Ekins and Les Newby, “Sustainable Wealth Creation at the Local Level in an Age of Globalization,” Regional Studies 32, no. 9 (December 1998): 865. I missed this article in writing my book. It would have made my arguments much stronger.) The word does not imply what that something should be.

Again, sustainability is simply a property (capacity) of a system to continue to produce something we want for a long time. I used forever rather than “indefinitely” because it emphasizes the importance of thinking far into the future. I recently read a paper that criticizes this usage. as reflecting a “fallacy recurring in the work of many environmentalists that we might call the finitude fallacy.” (The paper is “Is Sustainability Sustainable?”, by Daniel Bonevac, Academic Questions, published online January 21, 2010. I apologize that the article itself is available only to the journal subscribers.)

I beg to differ. The fallacy is normally applied to resources or, as Bonevac quotes, “material things.” It is flourishing that is the “something” that emerges from the system in my definition. But flourishing is not a material substance. We are pretty sure that life on Earth will end no later than when the sun explodes, but that’s pretty close to forever in the way that both many poets and ordinary people use the word. The two senses of forever are like the images of a parallel set of lines (going to infinity) and their vanishing point (finitude) where they appear to end to an observer.

Further, I use the idea of possibility rather than capacity to go on and on. Possibilty involves some real capacity for production, but is not the same. Possibility uncouples the future from the past. It does imply some capacity to produce, but one we cannot imagine or design with what we know today.

There is no fallacy involved in this usage. Life may indeed flourish forever, but the meaning of flourishing will surely change as things start running out. Again, there is no contradiction or oxymoronic sense here. Bonevac misses the distinction between sustainability and sustainable. The adjectival form always modifies a noun and it is the noun that makes sustainable X as in sustainable growth oxymoronic.

Flourishing can be and has been criticized as being too squishy. Again, its use is on purpose. Flourishing, like beauty or security or freedom, is an emergent property of a system and shows up only when the whole system is working properly. It has been associated with the good life for a very long time and shows up in all cultures and eras in one form or another. The moment one tries to put a dimension to flourishing, it is transformed into a thing and instantly loses its power to make life meaningful. I grant that this characteristic makes sustainability daunting to those who are at work “managing” society through business or government or whatever. These institutions still have yet to understand the distinction between sustainability and sustainable X and the importance of following separate paths towards each end. Until they do, we will see little progress.

I am often criticized as being too academic, theoretic, or philosophical. I accept this criticism, but respond by saying that the subject of sustainability demands new ways of thinking and acting that are not present in our individual or collective consciousness. I don’t see any possibility (intentional use of the word) other than asking a lot of new and difficult questions.