Sustainability Is Growing Warts


I have been harping about the decline of the meaning of sustainability for some time. Today, the Boston Globe carried an interview with Jeremy L. Caradonna, author of the recently published book, Sustainability: A History. In the interview Caradonna makes many of the same points I so often do. Here are a few extracts.

In recent years, “sustainability” has become an inescapable buzzword. Companies launch sustainability initiatives; virtually every major American university now has an office of sustainability; and the word is a staple of United Nations commissions and conferences.

Like “diversity” and “social justice,” sustainability is easy to embrace and, not coincidentally, hard to define: It nods to a belief in the wise use of resources while remaining vague about what that actually entails. The term can refer to an initiative as limited as, say, stocking a school’s printers with recycled paper. At the other extreme, it can encompass a nearly utopian vision that extends well beyond the environment.

The author has joined a growing group of former sustainability champions who share the same concerns: the response to a critical deterioration of environmental and social conditions has become effete and toothless. I am certainly one of those. I also agree with his claim that sustainability can refer to a utopian vision, but here one must be very careful about what vision. I haven’t read the book yet (I have requested it from the town library), so I do not know what utopia he is referring to. He’s a historian and may have some previous use of the word in mind, but I see no utopia whatsoever in the way the word is used today. Later in the column, he suggests what utopia he might be writing about.

IDEAS: Was this a radical development?

CARADONNA: I would not say that the sustainability movement and its origins were radical. I would say in many ways they’re critical. They’re critical of deforestation, later on they’re critical of unchecked economic growth and deregulation, and they’re critical of pollution and social inequality. But in many ways, it’s quite conventional. I mean, one of the things I’ve noticed is that some of the early advocates for what we could call sustainable living were aristocratic bureaucrats, or imperialistic bureaucrats who are stationed on islands in the West Indies or the East Indies. Or someone like Hans Carl von Carlowitz, who’s part of the Saxon Dynasty, he’s part of the monarchy there. None of these people, as far as I can tell, are interested in the natural world, in and of itself. None of them. They’re interested in natural resources because they have an impact on the economy and they have an impact on the human realm, in one way or another….Perhaps counterintuitively, the sustainability movement has roots in good old-fashioned economic and monarchical self-interest.

He could omit the word “perhaps” because, clearly, sustainability has come to mean continued growth. Growth is nothing but some process presumed to lead us to the utopia promised by the Enlightenment thinkers, human perfection, in the eyes of God. In our secular world today, the idea of perfection remains without the theological banner. But it is no clearer today than in Hobbes and Mills time. No utopia, only more or better. The unfortunate truth is that sustainability, as it is being used, is dystopic. Growth, itself is exacerbating the devastation of the environment and contributing to the growing societal inequality. The latter is ironic in that “good old-fashioned economic and monarchical self-interest” is supposed to bring us whatever utopia is envisioned.

Utopian ideas have been around for quite a while as expressions of some world very different from the existing conditions. The word itself is full of irony. Thomas More coined the word from two Greek words meaning “no” and “place.” Literally, it means a vision of no place. Another way to look at it is to imagine it stands for a plea to be anywhere else than where one is. Given this etymology, I find it exceeding difficult to attribute utopian ideas to sustainability.

Caradonna may have included reference to sustainable development in his book. There is no utopia implicit in this definition, only continuing economic development; only means to some undefined end or no end at all. However the word is taken, the results are perverse. It is being used to deny the state we are in. It is used to disguise actions that are clearly detrimental to social and environmental health. It is used to justify acts that are nothing but business-as-usual in both the public and private sectors. I believe it has become dangerous and needs to be stricken from the vernacular, unless and until its true meaning takes over.

It is important to begin to form a utopian vision for our country and others like it. For me that vision comes forth from the word, flourish. Linguistically it is possible to make a connection between flourish and either vision or utopia, but not with sustainability unless a vision is made explicit. As Caradonna notes, that is not so when a word becomes a buzzword. Like any other fashion, it is ephemeral and devoid of intrinsic meaning. That’s enough, but I found it encouraging to see an article about sustainability in the Ideas section, especially one that shows its warts. The column ends with this interchange.

IDEAS: The concept of sustainability leaves a lot of room for interpretation. Do you think that’s a blessing or a curse?

CARADONNA: It facilitates greenwashing for sure, because it’s a term that can be used and abused….What I think is fascinating is that it’s a really flexible discourse and allows for a lot of people to get into the tent together. And I think from a kind of political science-y point of view, it is useful and helpful to get everyone in the tent together.

Great to think about gathering many people under a tent to take up a big problem and thrash out their differences. But, unless they stop and give themselves a vocabulary lesson first, the best they will be able to do is erect a Tower of Babel.