Sustainability is the possibility that humans
and other life will flourish on Earth forever.
Reducing unsustainability, although critical,
will not create sustainability.
As anyone that follows my blog would notice, I am slowing down again. I have been busy on other things, many of which are simply the wonderful “distractions” of summer. At this stage of life more than in earlier years, these so-called distractions are the essence, rather than the activities that pull one away from connecting with the whole world, not just a small piece of it at a time. I am working hard to organize a course on pragmatism I will be leading at my geezers Institute for Learning in Retirement in the fall. Much of the early writings contained arguments as to why pragmatism was distinct from other ways of thinking. I think I have begun to understand that feature and see its importance in practice, particularly in the constellation of beliefs and their consequent practices (habits) necessary to create the conditions in which flourishing can emerge.
From this snippet of thinking, I began to visualize a whole list of concepts that formed two opposing or contradictory places in a cultural paradigm. Acting on the basis of the Unsustainability World column representing current cultural beliefs and norms, all we can do is tinker at the edges of our lives because we are continually reinforcing these as we act. If we shift to the antipodal set of the Sustainability World, we can, conversely, begin to change our routine behaviors towards producing the possibility of flourishing. The items in the two columns are not all direct opposites, but connote opposite senses. Sustainability and unsustainability are opposed in a normative sense, but come from different categories of meaning. Sustainability is a possibility that flourishing will come forth; unsustainability is a set of real phenomena, each signaling that something is going wrong with the world with respect to our human aspirations.
|Sustainability World||Unsustainability World|
|Creating Sustainability||Reducing Unsustainability|
|Intrinsic values||Extrinsic values|
|Bio- or eco-centric||Anthropocentric|
|Technological skepticism||Technological optimism|
I would like to make this list as inclusive as possible and welcome any additions or comments. My blog email address is at the bottom right-hand column of this page. I will work my way through the list in my posts to the blog. (I cleaned up the table and made a few minor changes to reflect the comments I received. The last pair are not opposing concepts, but are opposed in practice in the neo-classical economics policy world)
Today, I’ll start with the distinctions, authentic and inauthentic. This pair is on my mind because I am winding up a course on consumption at Marlboro. The students have been going through a reader on “sustainable consumption,” edited by Tim Jackson. It’s a good source for about a dozen or so different theories on what drives consumption and whether consuming is good or bad for both the world and us. I am also a member of a growing network of sustainability researchers, connected through a network called SCORAI, The Sustainable Consumption Research and Action Initiative. Members of this group, and many others, were present at the Rio+20 conference advocating for changes in the way we run the world.
I am as unhappy with the phrase, sustainable consumption, as I am with the way sustainability is used or the parent term, sustainable development. If one were to interpret the phrase based only on the text, the meaning would be some sort of ongoing consumption pattern that fits our normative desires. One of the problems at Rio+20 is that the cultural worlds represented there have very different senses of what kind of consumption they are seeking to sustain. I have no idea of what form of consumption is consistent with either the Earth’s capacity to provide the needed or the normative objectives of nations, and find this definition no more helpful than its parent term, sustainable development. Neither is related to sustainability as I define it. In fact both are being used in ways that would undermine the possibility of flourishing.
Instead, I suggest the pair, authentic vs. inauthentic consumption, and argue that the former is essential to attaining sustainability. Consumption refers to any act in which resources of the Earth are consumed. Hugging a friend does not fit this but sending candy to another friend on Valentine’s Day does. Authentic consumption entails acts motivated or coming from an intention to take care in any of the several categories of care--subsistence, transcendence, family, aesthetics, etc. Some might describe these actions as coming from an inner calling or spirit. What matters is that they are not driven by some external voice.
Inauthentic consumption entails acts driven by cultural pressures, of which there are many, many these days. It’s not just the ads that bombard us everywhere, it’s a cultural sense of neediness, wanting to be like celebrities, finding identity in material goods, and more that is pervasive and lies underneath the patterns of consumption. Inauthentic consumption is insatiable; there is no finality or completion to any act of consumption. As population and wealth--the means to consume--grow, the levels of materiality entailed in consumption grow in parallel reaching levels that stretch the Earth’s capacity to or beyond a breaking point.
Tim Kasser, in his book, The High Price of Materialism, offers up some suggestions for changing the system. He focuses on family and society. His thoughts for family are all directed at children. I guess he has given up on the present generation. For example, one thought is to “Talk to your children about materialism.” His suggestions for society agree with those of many others, for example, “Regulate advertisements.”
I believe that any shift away from inauthentic to authentic consumption will bring us closer to sustainability. Given the complexity of the world, it is impossible to measure how big a shift is needed to reverse the present unsustainable conditions. Waiting for some expert to compute that magnitude is folly, and is often a delaying tactic by those who like the world just as it is. I also believe that language matters. Talking about sustainable consumption inevitably leads to just such a situation as this; it revolves about managing the world on the basis of some number or other measure. Focusing on the authenticity of our acts gets much closer to the underlying causes of the problems we see today, and also addresses the more fundamental issue of our errors in understanding what it is to be human. I’ll get to these in further posts.