Sustainability of what?

A famous article by Ronald Dworkin asked, ‘Equality of what?’ It isn’t enough to claim that one is an egalitarian: one has to say in respect of WHAT one wants people to be equal.
Now, I’m not _entirely_ convinced of Dworkin’s point. It seems to me that it is pretty clear that there is a reason why we are restrictive in our application of the term ‘egalitarian’. We don’t apply it to people who believe in equality merely in some verbal form (say, ‘equality of opporunity’). The term ‘egalitarian’ has, one might say, a _substantive_ and restrictive meaning: It applies only to a certain range of goals in terms of which we are prepared to regard someone as actually being serious about aiming for equality: perhaps equality of material outcome, equality of welfare, and a few others.
But even if I am right in not outright endorsing Dworkin, the restricted version of his claim, that I have just endorsed, is already enough to license one to conclude that simply saying ‘I’m an egalitarian’ is not enough. One has, at minimum, to distinguish, for instance, between equality of outcome and equality of welfare. To that extent at least, I think it is clear that the question ‘Equality of what?’ must be answered.
A somewhat similar point applies, I believe, to sustainability. And, to my knowledge, this point hasn’t been made before (Please correct me if I’m wrong, readers!). It is not enough to be in favour of sustainability. One _has_ to be clear _what_ one is in favour of sustaining.
And again, only certain meanings, certain specifications of that ‘what’ deserve to be counted as actually amounting to something worth, substantively, calling ‘sustainability’, at all. ‘Sustainable growth’, for instance, is not one of them, for reasons made clear by Herman Daly, and recently, by Tim Jackson. Likewise, ‘sustainable aviation’.
For something to actually count as sustainability at all, we must ask, ‘What are you seeking to sustain?’; and only certain answers to that question will leave it plausible that one is actually someone who takes (anything that is actually going to be actually worth calling) sustainability seriously. Such answers might be: a just and ecologically-viable society, or: an ecologically-viable society; etc. As we might put it: it has actually to be _possible_ (and _plausible_) for something to be indefinitely sustainable, for it to qualify as a candidate for what can be sustainable. This oughtn’t to surprise us…
I am worried that the very term ‘sustainability’ actually tends somewhat to push one away from understanding this point (If you are interested in my reasons, goto and scroll down to ‘Plenary Session’ – the Q & A, as well as my talk here on sustainability, is well worth listening to too. In very brief: I think that the term ‘sustainable’ and its cognates makes us inclined to think that whatever we put as the next word, whatever is the ‘what’ that we are seeking do sustainably, might in principle be sustainable. But this, I’ve suggested, isn’t true.)
But we can’t get away from the fact that the term ‘sustainable’ is an important term in our public lexicon, today. It isn’t going to be overcome or improved upon overnight. And so: part of what is needed in order to reclaim the term ‘sustainable’ by its abuse at the hands of corporates, and in Rio Plus 20, and in the mouths of our Government, and so on, is that, whenever one hears the term, one ought to ask: “But sustainability of _what_?”

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  1. “But sustainability of _what_?”

    Sustainability, whether economic or environmental, has been one of the dominant issues of our time. As The New York Times explained it, sustainability – aka sustainable development, is about “strategies for meshing human activity with the limits of the planet and the needs of future generations”.

  2. Excellent topic, Rupert!

    It has become something of a trope in the literature that “sustainability” has no meaning. For instance, I recently heard a talk at the CPA which alleged this, and people seemed in broad agreement that it was just corporate-speak. This is a depressing pattern.

    As far as I can tell, in the abstract, “sustainable development” seems to mean setting a rate of development in the present so that development may persist at optimal levels in the future. There are multiple ways of cashing this out, obviously, since timescales like “the present” and “the future” can be interpreted in many different ways. This is apt to produce intellectual exhaustion.

    However, that does not render the broad concept of ‘sustainable development’ meaningless. After all, in most conversational contexts, we usually have smaller fish to fry: quite narrowly, we want to know what we have to do now so that we can survive later. So understood, you can operationalize the concept to mean something quite like what philofra suggested. One might also operationalize ‘unsustainability’ in vaguely neoclassic terms, e.g., in terms of increased marginal cost outweighing expected utility.

    I attended a talk by the Waterloo Institute for Complexity and Innovation not too long ago. From what I can tell in my notes, one of the speakers (possibly Steve Mock), argued that some measure of economic growth was in and of itself a sine qua non for the survival of a relatively cosmopolitan society (i.e., with meritocratic liberal ideals based around social mobility). It was estimated that the global GDP grows at around 3% per year, and something like 2% of GDP growth is based on improvements in efficiency (i.e., is not necessarily tied with planetary evils like deforestation, etc). In that case, we might think the 2% growth is sustainable, and worry about the extra percent which is based on material growth.

    Of course, that’s shorthand, and based on my chicken-scratch note-taking. So: grain of salt.

    Also, I may have missed some fantastic arguments about the rhetoric of sustainability. But I haven’t seen any of those yet.

  3. Thanks BLS.
    But, as implied in my piece, growth is precisely one of the things that isn’t indefinitely sustainable. Check out (e.g.) Herman Daly’s BEYOND GROWTH, for why.

  4. Stephen Cowley

    People who discuss sustainability in the corporate world tend to cite the Bruntland Commission report (1987). What it is aimed to sustain is the economic activity under consideration.

  5. Good question. I’ve wondered what ‘sustainability’ means too, and I had the chance to ask a lot of philosophers what they mean by it in a report I wrote a while ago for the HEA. Here’s part of it (the whole thing is on my website under philosophy):

    The survey tried to get a backhanded grip on how philosophers understand sustainability by asking how they introduce the notion to students. Here are some replies:

    „I usually characterise it as a way of living sustainably with the environment, managing and conserving environments as opposed to a resource-driven approach.‟

    „Activities and processes are sustainable that can be continued or sustained indefinitely, and thus satisfy the needs of every succeeding generation. Not everything sustainable is thereby desirable, but there is a strong contingent connection between sustainability and justice.‟

    „[I] introduce this in terms of questions about human attitudes to the environment and the effects of our actions. It‟s ultimately a question of how we live and live well – how to live in harmony with ourselves and all other living beings.‟

    Others took issue with the very notion of ESD. You can spot it already in the response above: „not everything sustainable is thereby desirable‟. The concept is „slippery‟, one said. Many point out that „sustainable‟ does not always mean environmentally friendly. The word „greenwashing‟ came up a number of times – exclusively in replies from those working in the United States. „If “sustainability” meant what it should,‟ one said, „it would follow Derrick Jensen‟s definition: an activity is sustainable if it does not damage the capacity of the land base to support its members.‟

    There is the further thought that sustainability is something other than sustainable development. Perhaps the worry is that talk of meeting the developmental needs of the present sneaks something under the radar, something not sustainable at all in some other, better sense. Some environmentalists, anyway, say that we‟ve had quite enough development. I did worry that some philosophers thought there was something sinister behind this survey. I said to one respondent that I was only asked to find out who‟s doing what, rather than support the infiltration of „a sustainable development agenda‟ in UK higher education. I‟m not sure he believed me.

    Another philosopher pointed me to work in which he argues that the concept of sustainable development is „structurally unable to distinguish between on the one hand preparing to meet our obligations to the future, and on the other construing the future as putting us under obligations we are prepared to meet. As such the concept itself is radically anti-educational, encouraging forms of bad faith in policy and practice which are the negation of any social or individual learning.‟

  6. Back in 1996 the environmental writer Bill McKibben wrote an OP-ED piece in the NYT calling sustainability a “buzzless buzzword”, mere jargon. He found the idea repulsive and a waste of time; a hollow sentiment. He thought the philosophy behind it wouldn’t necessary discourage anyone from consuming more or from further exploiting the Earth’s limited resources. He disdained the terminology because it was usually coupled with the imperatives of ‘growth’ and ‘development’, such as ‘sustainable growth’ or ‘sustainable development’. For McKibben growth and development were incompatible with sustainability, a contradiction in terms. He wrote, “Sustainability is doomed, because it does not refer to anything familiar.” To his way of thinking adopting the idea would lead to the opposite – unsustainability.

    Well, the idea of sustainability is not dead but alive and well, judging by its constant mention and usage. The idea of sustainability (adopted as policy by the UN in the mid 1980s) didn’t implode as McKibben imagined. That’s because there is something about it that captures the human imagination. There is something inherent and practical about the idea. It captures and articulates the complex, dual situation we find ourselves in today, in a world that is pulling in two different direction, of expansion so as to maintain a life style while trying to protect the environment for the future. And it does sound familiar, contrary to what Mckibben said, because humans have been involved in it for a long time, just not that aware of it.

  7. Philofra,
    Certainly the Bruntland Commission consciously preferred the term “sustainable development” rather than sustainability as such. They gave reasons for this though, that preventing change rather than managing it isn’t practical – e.g. for reasons of demography, equity and the desire for improvement. The aim was to place sustainability issues on the agenda alongside other legitimate concerns, not to supplant them. From what you say, they were wise in the line they took.

  8. Thanks for the comments, all!
    James G – fascinating. I certainly agree that ‘sustainable development’ in fact smuggles something in. Thus I am not convinced by Stephen C’s comment.
    Meanwhile, Philofra, I beg to differ with you because I am, as you will perhaps have guessed, very sympathetic with McKibben’s longstanding objection.
    As I explained in the Bournemouth talk linked to above, one reason I am very suspicious of ‘sustainability’ is that I think it is actually rather uninspiring and open-to-abuse techno-speak. See or for the kinds of approaches or language that I prefer.

  9. According to Helen Sword Sustainability is a Zombie Noun:

  10. Stephen,

    Whether it is Sustainability or Sustainable Development, isn’t it just semantics?

    At least I see it thus.

  11. Rupert, IIRC, the talk singled out Daly for the potentially state-centric or anti-cosmopolitan consequences of his view. Anyway, I’m sure it’s worth reading.

    Nevertheless, I don’t see any reasons presented here to believe that sustainable development is an unclear idea. You may think it is an idea that is impossible to practice while preserving anything like the modern social order, or you might think it’s an ethically wrongheaded notion, but these are different issues.

  12. And, isn’t philosophy about sustainability, about maintaining life and improving on it. Without philosophy we would not have developed the social skills and methods that sustain Civilization, such as in medicine, psychology and economics. The philosophy we do today will walk and talk tomorrow.

    Karl Popper was a philosopher of sustainability but didn’t know it. He was a fierce anti-totalitarian and advocate for open societies, which are prerequisite and essential for developing sustainable systems.

    Totalitarian regimes, as we’ve seen, have not faired well in Civilization. That is because their lack of openness has been the very thing that did them in. The totalitarianism of the Soviet Union forbad questioning authority and the exploration of alternatives. And as a closed society the Soviets thwarted the political and economic changes that could have fostered the development of sustainable systems like those that have risen in the West.

  13. Thanks BLS.
    The underlying problem vis a vis SD is the unclarity regarding the meaning of ‘development’. Daly is optimistic regarding having ‘development’ mean ‘cultural etc development’, rather than something like ‘growth’. I am less optimistic. I think that the problem begins with the mad ‘common-sense’ / linguistically-settled hubris that we are living in a ‘developed’ country.

  14. I’m sure there will be a semantic component and an element of corporate-speak, but there is also a practical interest. It is a selling point to investors if a business is “sustainable”, that is, will still be there in x number of years, will not be fined or get into expensive legal or reputational difficulties over environmental degradation. Hence corporates make public statements on the issue. There is a limited use in focusing on the meaning of the term “sustainable” if that is in abstraction from the real processes at stake that will bend the term in this direction or that.

  15. Norman Hanscombe

    Surely, Rupert,before you say, ”WHAT one wants people to be equal”, it’s essential to define precisely what sort of ‘equality’you mean — e.g. equality of outcomes, equality of opportunities? Either of these involves restrictions on individuals’ freedoms. It’s not as simple an issue as some assume.
    Re your actual topic, Sustainability of what, before discussing what one, ”is in favour of sustaining”, we need to spell out what is meant by ‘sustainability’.
    Very few (if any) aspects of our economic activities are sustainable, including the aviation you mention. What’s available is finite and (in most cases at least) must run out no matter how carefully it’s treated. Sadly economic history and economic geography are rarely taught, and when taught tend to be treated rather superficially.
    Of course, as you say, “the term ‘sustainable’ is an important term in our public lexicon”; but sadly, in our postmodernist world, being “important” doesn’t mean there’s much analysis of how we use/misuse/abuse the term.
    More than 60 years ago Eric Blair warned about the sorts of degradation language faced. Looking back, I have to say that bleak as the picture he painted may have been, Blair was an optimist.

  16. Rupert, that may be. But if you are right, then the ambiguity would be in the word ‘development’, not specifically ‘sustainable development’. And if our hope is to identify problems with the term ‘sustainability’, then presumably our critique has to have a narrower scope.

  17. Norman Hanscombe

    Socrates suggested that the beginning of wisdom is the definition of terms. On this topic, BLS, he might have added that we start with the more ambiguously used of the two terms, i. e. ‘sustainability’?

  18. Gimme a sustainable universe in which entropy is cancelled, and I’ll show you a sustainable…anything else.

    BBB we used to say, Bullshit Baffles Brains – and it appears it has.

    These are marketing concepts designed to flesh out a roseate emotionally satisfying picture of events that really really are much better*, if immensely expensive and profitable.

    Like all good marketing dialectic, the key is in the assumptive close.

    We don’t get the chance to argue whether sustainability is in fact a feature of the Universe, once we have stopped beating our wives we are enjoined to consider whether or not existing policies are ‘sustainable’. Clearly they are not. The universe is not. But the agenda has been shifted onto the ground where we must confirm that this new policy/product which is called sustainable is ipso facto as much better as New improved Daz was over Daz That Washed Whiter than White.***

    All building on the back of the emotional narrative that is Killing The Planet and Destroying The Future For Our Children.

    Perhaps if philosophers instead of getting PhDs and remaining glued to their academic seats in their ivory towers, went and had dealings with the filthy world of commerce, political double dealing and marketing, they might have to hand a more real-world suite of concepts and a worldview more appropriate to inform on such uses of words as the current vogue for ‘sustainable’ …’renewable’ etc etc.

    So Rupert, nice try but no cigar. It doesn’t matter what is sustainable. Nothing is sustainable. That’s the first quick truthful answer.

    The more interesting point to ponder – and I have provided the hints, here and elsewhere, is why anyone would claim that it was…

    *Honest: why would I lie you you?**
    **for profit power and position, obviously.
    *** That didn’t go down to well with multiculturalism, so it’s been abandoned.These days of course its “Greener than Green”.

  19. Norman Hanscombe

    Leo Smith’s “Killing The Planet and Destroying The Future For Our Children” is an overstatement. Current economic activities are merely speeding up the arrival of disaster, and our children will face far less horrendous scenes than later generations.
    Far more worrying, however, is his suggestion of “philosophers (having) dealings with the real (sic) world”. That “real world” he mentions has emasculated high level language and analysis even more savagely than most philosophers.
    Leo tells us, “Nothing is sustainable.” In doing so he displays an inability to distinguish the concept from eternal. The two words do have different meanings, and I’m sure he’ll work out the distinction should he decide to apply his mind to it. After he’s done that he might think about the difference between truthful and correct?

  20. I’m inclined to agree with Norman against Leo. Of course Leo is correct that in the end we are all dead. But that is hardly news. Meanwhile, there are real distinctions to be made. What I try to do, btw, as a philosopher who IS politically active is to bring a little of the clarity one can get from philosophy into politics.

  21. BLS: But look, the point of my piece is that when we are talking about ‘sustainability’ we HAVE to talk about of what. In relation to development, then: My suggestion is that ‘sustainable development’ in the end doesn’t add up as an objective, unless we RADICALLY reconceive development away from what it currently means.

  22. Norman, I don’t think that that is the ambiguous term, though. I think it’s relatively clearcut. Put simply: when we talk about sustainability, we want to know what we have to do now so that we can survive later.

    Rupert, yes, but that’s the odd thing. We all already know that the ‘what’ is development. And you haven’t shown that anyone has a defensible case for thinking that “sustainability” has any other potential meanings. The only other substantial example you give is “sustainable aviation”, which I’ve never heard of.

    Anyway, I don’t want to tarry on that point, because I don’t think it devalues your post. After all, I’m inclined to agree with you that development is an ambiguous term. Indeed, I’m inclined to agree with you on this much, despite the fact that this is actually quite a radical thesis. For economists would say they have a reasonable notion of what development consists in. Like you, I’m open to the interpretation of ‘development’ in many different ways, possibly including cultural development (whatever that is).

    But I’m not inclined to agree that the economist’s conception of sustainable development is somehow unclear. As I said above, unsustainability might be understood in terms of increased marginal cost outweighing expected utility. As a general concept, that makes sense. It is possible to apply, along some time-horizon.

    You’ll notice that I leave the idea of a “time horizon” as an unfilled variable. One might conceivably put any number of years in there: a decade, a hundred years, a thousand, eternity. And you seem to have opted for an indefinite time horizon, stretching on into the aeons. “As we might put it: it has actually to be _possible_ (and _plausible_) for something to be indefinitely sustainable, for it to qualify as a candidate for what can be sustainable. This oughtn’t to surprise us…”

    Unfortunately, there are two problems. First, your choice of the qualifier ‘indefinitely’ has not been backing by any explicit argument, even in summary form. Second, and (to my mind) far worse, the reference to the indefinite future sets an impossibly high standard on what counts as “sustainable”. As a result, it results in the kind of pessimism which Leo captures evocatively in his post above, and which was perhaps best phrased by the character of Tyler Durden from Fight Club: “On a long enough time line the survival rate for everyone drops to zero.” You cannot distance yourself from Leo’s remarks without distancing yourself from your original post.

    In sum, it is not that you’ve found a way to radically re-conceive sustainability; rather, you’ve found a way to reduce all human effort to insignificance. So — if you really force a battle between your view and that of the economist, then it seems that there is no contest. The economist wins, hands down.

  23. Thanks BLS.
    I didn’t just make up the thing about ‘sustainable aviation’. There was a seminar on it here at UEA: Davd Howarth (Essex University) & Stephen Griggs (De Montfort University) ‘How do losers become winners? Heathrow’s ‘Third Runway’ and the politics of ‘sustainable aviation’ in the UK’.

    You are right that I need to more carefully distinguish myself from Leo, and that the term ‘indefinitely’ doesn’t help me to do so, without being filled out in more detail. I should have been clearer: I didn’t mean ‘infinitely’ by ‘indefinitely’. I simply meant: for a long time, biologically speaking, as opposed to for a short time (as in ‘short-term’). So, to rephrase what I said, this is what I meant: Aviation, economic growth, are just simply going to be sustainable in the long term (over tens or hundreds or thousands of years).

  24. Oh, I didn’t mean to suggest you were making it up! I only meant to point out that it is highly unusual, and won’t be the source of any confusion.

    It’s quite true that much of talk about sustainability needs to establish a timeline. So — if you’ll overlook the terrible grammar — perhaps the question is not, “Sustainability of what?”, but rather, “Sustainability of when?”

    In our previous exchanges, I proposed that we ought to concentrate on bettering the lives and potential of a limited range of future people. My suggestion was that I ought to concentrate on making life better for those who shall live during the next 170 years or so. That figure is arrived at by thinking about the present maximum life expectancy (say, 100 years), doubling it, and subtracting my present age (almost 30). The idea is that we cannot pretend to act on behalf of future people with whom it would be physically impossible to have any acquaintance. So, under the assumption that we shall live long lives, and under the assumption that even on my deathbed I could potentially meet a newborn who will go on to live a similarly long life, it is entirely plausible to think that I might have minimal duties to the health and wellbeing of that child. By contrast, it is not altogether plausible to think that I have any duties to the people 1000 years from now. I don’t even know what it would mean to be a person in the year 3012.

    It is an open question as to whether or not this proposal has any merit. (For one thing, if there were such a thing as time travel, then I suppose it would be rendered absurd, collapsing into your proposal for all intents and purposes.) But on the face of it, and for ordinary purposes, it at least looks to be in better shape than simply talking about the indefinite future.

  25. Thanks BLS! Once again, a helpful comment.
    I quite agree that it isn’t enough to talk about ‘the indefinite future’. As I’ve sought to explain, that expression was a place-holder.
    So, again, I basically agree with you, barring some nuances. We do indeed need to talk about sustainability of when – but this is ADDITIONAL to the need to talk about sustainability of what, not instead of it.
    As for what the when should be: that will vary. 7 generations is a good marker, but not sufficient in all contexts. As I argue in , the time period will vary, and will be a lot longer for some questions (e.g. nuclear power). We need to be led by ours powers of envisioning and by the nature of the technology or issue in question.

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