Changing the Subject

insanity As I noted a few days ago, sustainability is in a lot of trouble on two fronts. One is the continuing deterioration of both the social and the environmental pieces of the system that enables us to live. The other is the failure to come to any kind of social agreement on what the problem is and what should we do about it. The second part is grounded in the way people talk about the subject of sustainability.

I have grown increasingly skeptical about almost all initiatives aimed at “sustainability.” It has gotten much clearer that virtually everything being done, under this rubric, is designed to maintain an illusion. The illusion comes in many shapes, but usually has a few important common pieces. Here’s a quick, but incomplete, listing.

The environmental (natural) world is ours to exploit without regard to way we are interconnected to it. Our technological prowess will allow us to remedy any problems that arise from our impacts on it. Next is a belief that the increasing knowledge produced by science and the related innovations spawned by that knowledge are propelling modern humans towards perfection, but without any real picture of what that end is. Both the science and the technology allow human beings to reach their individual potential, expressed eloquently in the idea of the American Dream. One can become whatever her or his dreams reveal. There are always real barriers to realizing one’s dreams, but on the whole our political economy keeps the doors open. The objective knowledge generated by science is a powerful barricade to the forces of dogma and its often dominating power in the hands of those who demand obedience to it.

Achieving our human potential involves the acquisition of material goods. Each individual is driven by an insatiable need to acquire these goods. Our value in society is measured by our wealth. The economic structure in which we are embedded that drives much of our life work is the source of those goods and our wealth. Since more is better by this definition, economic growth is necessary and normal. Our collective place in the world is measured in part by the rate at which we grow. We can make the market work better by offering information about the impact of what we buy with the result that we will make rational choices adding up to the best result overall, but without any idea of whether that result is maintaining of degrading the environment’s capabilities to support us.

I am sure others would add more items to this short list, but this is enough to make the next point. Sustainability is the set of activities aimed at preserving these beliefs and the institutions that have followed them. Thus we find much effort dedicated to eco-efficiency under the assumption that technology will keep nature at bay. We find slogans, like environmentally friendly, aimed at making us feel good. Implicit in this drive is an assumption that we can grow more consistently if we maintain a healthy environment simultaneously. In a few words, sustainability has become the language we use to encompass everything we are doing to maintain the status quo, implicitly referring to the systems of thought and institutions that form the basis of modern life.

This would be a good thing to do if these beliefs and institutions were doing what we want them to do, but they are not. The environment is deteriorating. We will have to adapt to the consequences of climate change as we have waited too long to hold onto the conditions that enabled life to evolve to the state it is now. We have created a new name for this geologic era, the Anthropocene, reflecting the influence of human activity on the Planet.

The ability to realize one’s dreams is more and more an illusion, as the social/economic barriers to upward mobility have become very high. Our vaunted market system has produced record levels of inequality. The already wealthy are quite satisfied with this, but there are a whole lot more of the rest who cannot avoid the suffering of poverty and social stigmatization.

Our political system is divided between those who want to keep doing what we have been doing, but more effectively, and those who want to go back several centuries when dogma ruled the Earth. Continuing to do the same things over and over while expecting different outcomes has been defined as insanity. Going back to the age of dogma would seem to give up whatever progress we have struggled to get. Why then are we focused on sustainability when what we want to sustain is failing us? One answer is that we have been doing sustainability for centuries but never called it that. Only now when we have a sense that our modern world may not survive has sustainability become conscious as a social object.

I have to admit that I thought that it would be possible to change the trajectory of modernity simply by being clear about sustainability. Its dictionary definition suggests that it is about maintaining some output, material or emergent, of a system. Freedom or equality would fit this usage, but that’s not how it has become used. It is focused on keeping the system in place whether or not it is producing what we want it to. I thought by adding a vision, flourishing, of what we could become, the efforts might be diverted to redesign the system to produce a normative end that was no longer an illusion, but something real.

I do believe that this conceit has had some effect, but not enough to clear away the illusion, and I will continue to use the concept of sustainability-as-flourishing. But I also think it is time to adopt a new linguistic framework that better reflects current reality. We no longer can, without biting our collective tongue, talk about the American dream and the belief structure I described earlier. We are missing the normative ends that we aspire to. Our cultural norms have gotten tired over the centuries. I will stick with the idea of flourishing as an appropriate aspirational target for our society. But it makes little sense to associate it with “sustainability” because it is not around to sustain.

Although it is another mouthful, I think we will be clearer about our intentions if we start to talk about attainability, the possibility of the system to produce flourishing. They word itself suggests that we have to change how we think and act, something sustainability fails to do. But it, like sustainability, lacks meaning without a specific reference to what is to be attained. So, I will start thinking and writing about the attainability-of-flourishing. This usage is more consistent with the notion of possibility than is sustainability. The vision remains the same, but the actions to be taken are clearly different. As I have so often written, I do not believe we can get there, as Einstein said, using the same way of thinking that got us this far, but with a lot of unsolved, and I believe insoluble, problems showing up.

In any case, it is the system that will produce flourishing and, no matter what we call our work, the system has to be changed. We need new cultural habits and that, in turn, means we need new cultural beliefs. I have outlined a set of candidates in both of my books. Without new beliefs, we are stuck and will continue to act about the same way and continue to design our institutions using the same rules. It would be insane to expect any other outcome than the same old same old. C. S. Pierce, the founder of pragmatism said in the late 1800’s,

And what then is belief? First, it is something we are aware of; Second, it appeases the irritation of doubt; and Third, it involves the establishment in our nature of a rule of action, or, say for short, a habit.”

Current cognitive science is telling us the same thing. Our habits are driven by what we take from our experience to be “true.” It is exceeding difficult to change habits, especially when they have become addictions. And that’s what we are: cultural addicts, following the same old patterns even when they no longer work so well, and producing deleterious unintended consequences at the same time.

The first thing to do to change cultural habits is to change the language we use to coordinate our lives. I am going to make a change from now on, talking about attainability paired with flourishing. If nothing else, I’ll have to write a new book about it.

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3 Comments

Jan said:

Looks like you've found new hope: "Attainability of Flourishing". I like very much the positive connotation that comes with it, something I also found in your work "sustainability by design" but it grew more negatively over time (understandable if one looks around). I'm curious to read more about your new direction in which the focus is "the building of" more than "the maintenance of"!

Boudewijn Boon said:

Hello John,

Thanks for your post. It reminds me of your article of which the title said: "Sustainability needs to be attained, not managed". Here sustainability seems like the quality of a system that can be attained, like equality and beauty can be described as qualities of a system. In your definition of sustainability, however, it becomes the 'possibility' of flourishing. Now flourishing becomes the quality of the system, and sustainability refers to the possibility of 'attaining' this quality.

You seem now to integrate 'possibility' and 'attaining' into one word, 'attainability'. And you seem to want to replace 'sustainability' with this new 'attainability'(?). It is confusing me a little, something language often does to me. For instance, you cannot replace the term sustainable as it is currently being used with attainable: 'Attainable living' doesn't make much sense. As you say, it has to be connected to flourishing. So 'living that makes flourishing attainable'. The same goes for 'attainable design', 'attainable systems', etc. They don't make sense. 'Design that makes flourishing attainable' and 'Systems that promote the attainability of flourishing' make more sense.

I'm looking forward to your thoughts about how we can actually use the term 'attainability' in everyday communication.

Best,

Boudewijn

Jason Jay said:

I am intrigued by this direction. When I read the phrase attainability-of-flourishing the first words that pop to my mind are "Amartya Sen." If you read Development as Freedom, he is after a similar territory - that development in a society is about increasing the attainability of flourishing, with freedom (both freedoms from and freedoms to) as an essential prerequisite. He is particularly attuned to questions of inequality, and the degree to which different kinds of people have that freedom, particularly the freedoms from starvation, disease, violence, etc. that we tend to ignore in the American ideology focused on freedoms to (e.g. own guns).

I think what we lose in an emphasis on the words attainability and flourishing over the word sustainability is the temporal and intergenerational context. Perhaps we create a context for maximum attainability-of-flourishing across social classes, but exploit all the natural resources and spend down all the national accounts after a generation. We can get around this a bit if we define flourishing as being about all live, and earth, but imagine if we figured out a high-tech low impact way to mine natural gas and then sequester the carbon - it would still not be sustainable because the gas would run out.

So I think the most complete phrase would be attainability-of-sustained-flourishing. Talk about a mouthful. But it feels at least complete. Then we can talk about actions and innovations (in ways of living and working) that increase attainability-of-sustained-flourishing. How does this sound?