Sustainability is the possibility that humans
and other life will flourish on Earth forever.
Reducing unsustainability, although critical,
will not create sustainability.
Today I am off to my 60th college reunion. It’s hard to believe, but there it is. And tomorrow Andy Hoffman and I are throwing a book party to celebrate our combined efforts in writing, Flourishing: A Frank Conversation about Sustainability. With a few hitches here and there, I can say I am flourishing in real life. Without being smug, I can say, that at any moment, I feel complete and satisfied that I am taking care of myself, others, and the world. A little shy in the spiritual domain, but I will be spending more time on the water where I do get a sense of connection and care.
But I can hardly say the same for the world out there. People do not even know what they mean by sustainability, as I judge not only in their words but, more importantly, in their actions. Sustainability always carries a sense of continuing to create or maintain something. Without specifically naming the something as I do in calling out flourishing as the goal, the cry for sustainability is a cry for maintaining the status quo. Two questions naturally then arise. What characteristics of today’s world? Who decides which ones?
Let’s start with business. What would business want to sustain? Very simple question in this domain: growth. Growth both in the overall economy and for each firm. Growth drives strategy. Virtually any initiative taken by a company is aimed at producing growth. Eco-efficiency or CSR are only means to that end.
How about global planners. The same thing. Sustainable development is a growth strategy, like business. The same means are to be employed: eco-efficiency and wealth redistribution, that is, CSR on the global scale. On the national scale, Political leaders and their advisors want, guess what, growth. They are less concerned with eco-efficiency than with political efficiency, exploring policies that will grow their share of the electorate along with enlarging the economy. How about individuals. Their call is for more. Poor people need more wealth to compete for sustenance in the economic zero-sum game. They are less concerned about growth than getting a bigger share of what there is now.
Other institutions? Entertainment: growth. Stars want to be bigger stars. Sports is at least as much a pure business looking to grow as it is a form of diversion. Universities: growth to pay the ever increasing salaries of presidents and faculty. Bigger and bigger research budgets to support ambitious faculty and businesses looking to exploit that research. Science has become “big” science where the conversation has become grow or die. NGOs are, perhaps a little less driven by growth, but they too want to grow their programs and to pay their presidents and directors more. I get 10 to 20 solicitations a day for donations. And on and on. There are certainly exceptions of organizations looking for more quality then quantity, but they are hard to spot.
This should not be a surprise. Organizations are nothing but people doing their things. As I just noted, people want more, and to get more for everybody the pie must grow. It doesn’t usually work out that. Some grow disproportionately as the pie grows. As we all have heard repeatedly “The richer get richer; the poor get poorer.” Power always gets in the way of fairness in the game of sharing. So if individuals want more, collectively that become translated into calls for collective growth.
Whats wrong with this basic idea, other than the unfairness that it breeds? If the source of growth was an infinite pot of goodies, nothing in theory. But this simple economic model has several serious, probably fatal, flaws. One is, of course, that the world, the ultimate source of goods, is finite. Eventually we will exhaust the resources necessary to support human (and other) life. In some areas, we are already doing that. But there is another flaw that keeps getting ignored or denied. The metabolism of living or economic activities produce toxins that eventually stop growth and even life. If yeast cells are placed into a sugar solution, a seeming infinite source of nutrients, they will growth exponentially for a while, but, at some point, growth will stop and they will come to a steady-state. Good so far, but after a while the entire colony of cells dies, not because the food is exhausted, but because they have been producing toxic wastes that accumulate to a point where life cannot continue.
Now, humans have more smarts and tools available to them to cope with a finite world than do yeast cells, but even these have limits, too often ignored in the hubristic behavior of modern societies. Climate change is the most evident sign of this. The greenhouse effect is a fact of physics, not an invention of political liberals. While questions about the details of the effects of increasing greenhouse gases remain in the eyes of the skeptics, there is no question about the direction we are going and the ultimate effects of our activities. We have recently passed 400 ppm of carbon dioxide, a level that has already begun to affect the planet.
Growth is not the right thing to sustain, certainly in those parts of the world that have already benefitted from this modern notion. Since the affluent countries are the big consumers of global resources, their demands for growth exacerbate the situation. Anyway, sustaining growth is not the same as sustaining something or some quality; this form of sustainability is process oriented. Calls for sustainability aim at maintaining the context for growth, keeping the world available to us as a source of growth, but without much concern for that world beyond it’s ability to support growth. I suggest we keep the yeast example in sight. Some economists, most notably, Herman Daly, have already called for a move to a steady-state condition, where we begin to live on the income from the world rather than from its capital as we are doing now. Just as policies create growth, they can create the institutions for a steady-state, but power gets in the way. Steady-state means no more bigger and bigger pies along with the implicit notion of redistribution if any measure of fairness is to be built into the societal conscience. That’s a big no no.
We are caught in a vicious cycle. Our basic beliefs about what humans are and thus need have led us to this state that is impossible to maintain. Are we, then, at the the end of history? I do not believe so primarily because I do not believe that the model of human being that calls always for more is correct. It certainly dominates modern cultures, but that does not make it true. While humans have always needed to protect themselves against the exigencies of life, including those caused by both nature and by human actions, such requirements are not infinite and can be satisfied without growing for ever. There is also no need for the insatiable drive for more of everything else. I believe that part of the persistence of our economistic model of human being is that we have lost our original understanding of what makes our species work.
We evolved as a species that cared about itself and the world. Our unique powers of consciousness enabled such care. If an organism is not aware of its existence, it is unable to take intentional action toward itself. It can and does survive, but it does not do that through caring actions. Care entails intentional acts that require consciousness. We have continued to incorporate actions coming from our evolutionary past; we share certain emotions with other life. But care is what makes us both different and special. Care is measured by its quality and state of completion. Care is not about more, except when it has become perverted by our cultural blinders. Flourishing is the term I have used as a measure of both the quality and completeness of one’s actions. Actions are, after all, what makes us human Beings. Be is a verb. Our existence is constituted by what we do or, bending language a bit, how we be. Sustainability should be about maintaining flourishing, as I have written.
We are far from there. Before we can sustain flourishing, we first have to work to let it begin to come forth. Flourishing is locked up in the cage of modernity. The broadest manifestation of care is love, always acting out of the context of the legitimacy of the other to exist. Somehow, once an infant leaves the loving nest of parents, love starts to become reified and quantified. We fall in love as if some mysterious force has invaded our bodies. We speak of how much we love. We ask that our love be matched. I pick on love as the most obvious example of care, but care needs to manifest itself in all domains of life. Care means acting in a context of connectedness, legitimacy, authenticity, and responsibility for one’s actions. We all know how to care, but find ourselves stuck in the inauthenticity of our culture and the incessant pressure of its institutions. I can think of no better way to start to free us from these constraints that by learning this extraordinary poem by Elizabeth Barrett Browning. No one has spoken more eloquently about love. Note the absence of any sense of quantity or growth.
How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of being and ideal grace.
I love thee to the level of every day’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
I love thee freely, as men strive for right.
I love thee purely, as they turn from praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints. I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life; and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.
(Image: Elizabeth Barrett Browning)