Sustainability is the possibility that humans
and other life will flourish on Earth forever.
Reducing unsustainability, although critical,
will not create sustainability.
Conversations about sustainability often divide into two streams. One revolves mostly about maintaining the conditions on the Planet to support continued human development. To the extent other creatures are considered, it is usually related to some value directly or indirectly tied to their [economic] utility. Whatever normative content is present is folded into the economic framework reflected in individual (wealth) and collective (GDP) measures of well-being. Flourishing is reduced to a quantitative index. There is little in this conversation about the inherent values of life and the inanimate parts of the Earth. Normative policies are based primarily on mathematical representations of the material economy which also are devoid of the stock of these values in essence as taking them as equalling zero.
This formula for shaping collective action in modern industrial economies has worked well for centuries, with periodic hiccups and upsets, such as the Great Depression and the recent economic woes. And every time a significant upset occurs, big enough to catch the attention of those in charge of the polity, they explore the innards of the economic machine and its operating manual looking for the problem and for clues to making the right adjustment to get the machine purring again.
The other conversation about sustainability follows a very different thread. It’s not about making the machine more [eco-]efficient. It’s not about efficiency at all. Efficiency has no value in itself. It is always only about getting more of something, ceteris paribus. But what if that “more” turns out to have little value or worse may even have negative value. It makes no sense to try, then, to maintain the system or in the common use of the term to make it sustainable.
The second conversation starts with asking what should the system produce. That question can focus on outputs from the very small, like the necessaries of life, to the very grandest notions of the good life. I have used the term, flourishing, as the quality most capturing the normative character of what societies should aim to produce for the people, other life, and the inanimate world within its purview. In my book I picture flourishing mainly in psychological terms drawing on people like Erich Fromm or Abraham Maslow, or on the ontological philosophy of Martin Heidegger..
Recently I read a review of my book that pointed to the omission any reference to the Nobel laureate economist Amartya Sen and his focus on human flourishing as the proper normative goal of societies and their governments. He argues that governments should have as their primary aims to assure that all people have the capabilities to function and to flourish. Sen specifically avoids naming the functions and qualities of flourishing because he believes they must be determined by the people and not by some theory or elite. In this sense, I also have avoided trying to define flourishing by naming specific characteristics.
Sen has been joined in his work often by Martha Nussbaum, who also believes the normative goals of a society should be to assure that all the constituents have the capabilities to flourish. Their concepts form a theory of justice, one that is based on access to the the capabilities needed to transform the material and institutional resources into a fully functioning life. She goes beyond Sen and includes all sentient life forms in her arguments. I am struck about how close their theory of justice and the idea of capabilities tracks the way I have been talking about sustainability, although we have gotten to about the same place but by very different paths. Capabilities and possibility are similar in that both speak to being able to realize some vision of the future. Capabilities has a more instrumental connotation where possibility is a more general idea.
Nussbaum also departs from her colleague in making the constituents of flourishing explicit.
I haven’t had much time yet to explore these normative theories in any depth, but I already can see the vestiges of an answer to a question I am often asked, How can you measure sustainability/” I really don’t think one can ever measure sustainability and that this very question pulls one off the right track towards finding it or creating it. Human Being is very complex and has stymied attempts by philosophers, psychologists, economists, legal theorists and many others who have tried to reduce Being to a bundle of somethings or others. I will be reading much more of Sen and Nussbaum, now having discovered a new source for understanding flourishing and thereby continuing to refine the concepts of sustainability and ways to get there.