Sustaining what? How we frame sustainability and envision the future

02015-10-08

We’re immersed in talk of sustainability: to ensure the long-term viability of systems that support human life. But ‘sustainability’ is not a clearly defined or self-evident concept. Instead, it’s a complex collection of notions that are being used and continually redefined in different ways. As a result, there are many sustainabilities. What we consider to be sustainable—and by extension, ‘green’, ‘benign’, ‘just’, and so on—reflects a range of visions about what society should be like, how people should relate to nature, and what functions and effects technology should have. In this post I’d like to bring to attention how we frame this seemingly all-encompassing concept.

In broad brushstrokes, I’ll discuss a few key aspects that differentiate common and often contradictory ideas of sustainability. I don’t know if they’re the most important aspects or the best chosen examples, but these (in no particular order) are considerations that I find helpful in understanding sustainability issues.

Limits and growth

Does sustainability mean accepting that we are subject to limits? Earth is materially finite, and its planetary systems have a finite capacity to adjust to change while also remaining habitable. [1] What would it mean to sustain an economic system that is fueled by ever-increasing rates of growth, resource throughput, and environmental disturbance?

One way to frame the work of creating a sustainable world is to see it as finding ways to sustain economic growth without the environmental impacts. How? In a word, technology. The prospect for economic growth looks a lot better if the design of technical systems can make the difference between a world of scarcity and one of bounty. We need ‘good growth’ or green growth: the right ways of producing and consuming. I consider the book Cradle to Cradle a touchstone for this way of thinking, as applied to design and industrial ecology. [2] Recent efforts toward a circular economy expand the concept to large economic systems, while a number of analogous ideas populate other fields like sustainable development and urban planning.

The idea of ‘decoupling’ growth from resource throughput is well-established. It’s not only the realm of design visionaries, but also of pragmatists. Ecomodernism provides a not-quite-utopian vision [3]: restraining growth is antithetical to modernity, and there is no such thing as ‘harmony’ with natural systems; instead of living within limits, we need to transcend those limits by becoming less dependent on nature. In other words, we must reshape and engineer the parts of the world that we need to survive, and simply coexist with whatever is left of nature. In effect, we break through the limits by changing the world. In a way, this is something that life on Earth has done since the beginning (just much more slowly). [4]

But a starkly different way to see the problem is that we’re coming up against hard limits to growth, and it cannot be sustained. Decoupling may not be possible—even our best efforts have resulted in shifting environmental harms from one impact area to another, or from one part of the world to another (case in point: the U.S. and China). So, to offer a different framing: sustainability must involve reshaping economic systems and rethinking ideas of prosperity, to unlink them from the requirement of steady growth. [5]

We find a limit-oriented framing in ideas such as degrowth and sufficiency. [6] Calls for humanity to adapt to living within limits are often accompanied by an ethos of restraint, of living more simply. On this view, the current economic paradigm that privileges steady growth will become an anachronism, a broken model that served well “under conditions unique to the resource and waste-sink availabilities of the last 300 years” but which needs to be replaced in a new reality where critical environmental limits are in sight. [7]

Graph showing how economic activity might change over time differently in the scenarios of degrowth and decoupling

Two ‘sustainable’ trajectories of economic activity.

The issues of limits and growth come up again and again in thinking about sustainability. Yet, in any given problem space, people seem to answer this question first, and then use ideas like degrowth or decoupling to define the solution space moving forward. That’s what makes it a central framing assumption. Of course, many of us remain open and critical of these assumptions. But just as often, I think, people become committed and find it tiresome to reopen the debate. The other questions that follow are similar in this respect.

Social structure

We can see the challenge of sustainability as a matter of how we organize as a society to use resources to support ourselves. The social order is something that we can choose to question when we frame sustainability: Is it necessary to remake society before it can be ‘sustained’? And if so, into what?

Much work is being done to advance sustainable production and consumption within a social order that’s heavily structured by the power of centralized, hierarchical institutions—e.g., national governments and trans-national corporations. If we take this as a fixed frame of reference, then certain ways of becoming sustainable seem to follow naturally: private-sector innovation spurred by the competitive advantages of sustainable business, and by incentive structures instituted through legal and political power. By this logic, people are experimenting with socio-technical systems: alternative market economies that reconceptualize products as services, closed-loop material cycles, and alternative forms of governance that bring multiple stakeholders into policy-making. Generally, though, these approaches don’t deeply challenge the social order.

But this isn’t the only possible frame of reference. People have envisioned very different sustainable futures that might be brought about by change at the level of social structure. For example, transitions of localization and decentralization could lead to resilient networks of regional economies. [8] Lifestyles could shift toward producing and consuming less (but still enough), working fewer hours on a greater variety of things, and participating in smaller economies tied to local resources, with deep investments in local welfare. Rather than market optimizations or top-down policy programs, these transitions could be social movements that establish participatory democratic institutions. All this is really just to hint at the wide range of possible visions for sustainable societies.

Rebuilding economic and political systems is not usually high on the agenda of professionals who have global market-oriented ideas of sustainability in mind. But there are compelling reasons to be critical and think outside of the predominant social order.

Consumption

The issue of consumption illustrates clashes of framing assumptions. As with the production side of economic growth, decoupling consumption from environmental (and social) impacts has been the mainstream approach to making consumption ‘sustainable’, ‘green’, and ‘ethical’. Dominant ideologies reinforce an understanding of consumer behaviours as rationally motivated personal choices in line with accepted social roles, and this has spurred approaches to encourage consumers to choose more sustainable goods. Key word: more. Encouraging people to still be consumers, but to consume less, has remained a fringe effort.

But consumerism also operates at the level of social and economic structure, and it’s becoming increasingly clear that these macro-structures have a major role in the unsustainability of consumption. [9] To what extent is behaviour change necessary for sustainability? And whose behaviour needs changing? This is a thorny question, because consumers, manufacturers, investors, and other actors are linked in self-reinforcing feedbacks. Consumer demand is not an independent force, but both a cause and a consequence of economic and political systems. [10] Consumption sits at a nexus of contradictory frames: individual autonomy versus collective action, market-based decoupling versus systemic restructuring.

Justice

Systems of production and consumption are not morally or politically neutral. They’re entangled with inequalities and injustices, giving rise not only to environmental problems but complex social-environmental ones. Framing sustainability involves taking ethical positions about which problems matter, and whose responsibility it is to change things.

One problem is the unequal distribution of environmental risks. Workers in the global south bear a disproportionate share of the environmental and health burdens of consumption in the north. Even within developed urban areas, pollution and a variety of other health stressors disproportionately impact socially and economically vulnerable people, for example, in the U.S. [11] These inequalities along lines of race, class, occupation, and geography are outcomes of social, technical, and economic systems. They are sites of struggle for environmental justice and labour movements.

Another problem is inequality in power relations. Forgive me for repeating that sustainability is not a universal or self-evident concept. Through disparities in political and economic power, it’s inevitable that some visions of a sustainable future will be realized at the cost of others being erased. This could happen through any number of policy decisions, e.g., land use. Local circumstances and values—e.g. of indigenous peoples and marginalized communities—are too frequently overshadowed by coercive forces such as international trade. If what really matters to people is sovereignty and autonomy to sustain traditional life ways, then dominant framings of sustainability which exclude those values can be threatening.

Without explicit attention to these issues, environmental solutions risk perpetuating social inequalities or even creating new ones. Leaving justice out of the sustainability discourse is tantamount to advocating that we sustain unjust systems as they currently stand. Yet it’s often all but left out, or delegated: presumed to be adequately addressed through some other aspect of ‘sustainability’.

Technology

Technology, society, and the environment are deeply intertwined. To understand the gaps and rifts between different sustainabilities, we have to examine embedded ideas about the roles of technology in sustainable transformations of the world.

There are many possible roles for technology as both ‘problem’ and ‘solution’. On one level, people assume a range of positions on the virtues or dangers of technology, and these can easily dominate the framing. The prospect that technologies can provide ways out of big sustainability dilemmas can make it tempting to delegate all other issues—growth, human behaviour and consumption, poverty, inequality, and so on—to the transformative potential of technology. An equal but opposite tendency is to attribute social and environmental ills to technologies themselves, since they undoubtedly bring environmental and social risks that are difficult to foresee. As a result, there are many debates about which technologies to blame, and which to pin our hopes on.

On another level, though, these politically divergent views share a common underlying pattern of thought: the idea that technology is a primary force that determines the fate of society and the environment. In other words, many framings of sustainability—ranging from the techno-utopian to the neo-luddite—involve forms of technological determinism. It’s important to recognize this mode of thinking when we see it, and to ask what’s behind it.

A serious flaw in technological determinism is that it ignores the multi-directional relationships between technology, society, and environment. Take, for example, the idea of efficiency. [12] As technologies become more advanced, they often become steadily more resource-efficient. We might see this as ‘saving’ energy, fuel, trees, land, and so on, eventually decoupling economic growth from resource depletion. It’s fiercely debated whether or not this kind of decoupling is actually occurring. That debate may never be settled, but my overarching point is this: the ‘efficient’ quality of technology does’t predetermine the outcome, and indeed efficiency could result in either decoupling (doing the same with fewer resources) or simply more growth (using the same, or more, resources to do even more). It doesn’t depend only on the technology: business models, economic systems, and material cultures have a lot to do with the functions and effects of technology in production/consumption.

If we envision sustainability with too narrow a focus on technical factors, we not only oversimplify the reality of technology, we also risk ignoring political and ethical values that are submerged in strategies for technical change. To continue with the example of efficiency, this ‘technical’ concept is commonly used in ways that follow particular political lines, such as: devaluing skilled work; promoting centralization, surveillance, and control; promoting the privatization of public services; or affirming the priority of growth and consumption. These politics are too often unspoken in visions of a sustainable world transformed through technology. In turn, determinist arguments for more ‘efficient’ systems can appear to justify the social and political arrangements linked to particular technologies. (Fuel efficiency, automobile ownership, and privatized transportation systems come to mind.)

More to the point, the kinds of large technical systems that are proposed as ‘sustainable’—solar power, biofuels, agricultural biotechnology, carbon capture, closed-loop manufacturing, etc.—no matter how truly promising they might be, none of them can be considered apolitical or globally value-neutral. Advocating for any of these technologies—which come with particular business models, distributional arrangements, etc.—means advocating for an attendant set of value preferences. Virtually any technical intervention will involve making trade-offs among competing values. That’s not fundamentally bad (or good), it’s just important to be aware of.

Another way of considering the role of technology in sustainability is to see it not just as an agent of transformation, but also as part of what is transformed. This way of seeing technology gives us freedom to imagine alternative techno-social orders, a freedom of thought that we don’t exercise enough, I think. We could perhaps step back and begin with our values, then envision sustainable social & technical systems on that basis. For example, the idea of appropriate technology: technology should benefit people and the environment, but should not unilaterally dictate social affairs, nor undermine core values like self-sufficiency, self-proficiency, and self-rule. Or perhaps, to be truly sustainable and just, technical systems need to evolve in altogether different ways, through participatory forms of design and social governance.

The topic of democratizing technology has a fascinating intersection with issues of sustainability. But for now, I think I’m out of things to write about framing sustainability.

Sustainability: an idea that never ends

Can we say anything about what framing assumptions are right? Not without actually taking a position, I think. These are questions of value preferences, underpinned (I would hope) by ethical reasoning. There's helpful knowledge to be found in science, but don’t expect conclusive scientific answers to value-based disputes. [13] Likewise, there is no single ‘rational’ way to conclude what is right at the level of framing assumptions, because rationality—or the ideological commitments that ‘bound’ it [14]—may be part of what is in question. For instance, Thomas Princen points out irreconcilable differences between economistic and ecological rationalities.

There’s nothing wrong with taking a position, though. And rather than asking what is correct from a scientific perspective, we can instead focus on understanding what particular visions of sustainable society are being proposed, because these often have social and political ramifications that are even clearer than the scientific ones. We can also ask what leads us (and others) to take the positions we do, affirming some values and not others. For example, why is the technology-focused, global market-oriented circular economy idea ‘missing’ a component of localization, and why does ecomodernism lack any critique of consumption or equity?

I’ve definitely left some important things out of this over-ambitious yet non-exhaustive meta-framing of sustainability, which is inevitably biased by my own perspective. Or maybe you think my whole take on this issue is wrong. Either way, I’d like to know about it, so please send me your thoughts.

Further reading: critical sustainabilities

I can’t conclude this post without mentioning the work of sociologist Miriam Greenberg and the program on critical sustainabilities that she initiated. Her research asks the question of what sustainability means, in the context of urban environments in California. This gets to some of the same questions and issues that I’ve brought up, but in a much more focused, deeper, and more historically conscious way. In an article entitled “What on Earth Is Sustainable?”, she highlights four competing strands of urban sustainability discourse, which differ in the values they emphasize. [15]

Since I’ve effectively lifted the title of this post from Dr Greenberg, [16] I’ll follow through and close with a passage from her article:

As urgent as our current situation is, and as pressing as our desire is to push for a sustainable future now, if we are to overcome these dilemmas we first need to step back and ask some very basic questions about the nature of our goal. Namely, what is to be sustained and what is not? And who gets to choose and who does not?

Upon trying to answer these simple questions, one soon realizes the inherently political nature of the pursuit of sustainability… one sees that in fact sustainability is neither simple nor singular. Rather, multiple sustainabilities are in circulation, and in competition. What’s more, these different versions reflect the particular values of the individuals, communities, industries, cities, nations, and so on, that are in position to define the term. Hence, the sustainable future we seek to build depends entirely upon whose sustainability we are talking about.


  1. Rockström, J. W., et al. (2009). A safe operating space for humanity. Nature, 461(7263), 472–475. doi:10.1038/461472a  ↩

  2. McDonough, W., & Braungart, M. (2002). Cradle to cradle: Remaking the way we make things. New York: North Point Press.  ↩

  3. Ecomodernism has its own manifesto. It has attracted criticism from the degrowth movement and beyond.  ↩

  4. For example, by introducing oxygen into the atmosphere over the course of billions of years of cellular metabolism.  ↩

  5. Jackson, T. (2011). Prosperity without growth: Economics for a finite planet. London; Washington, DC: Earthscan.  ↩

  6. Princen, T. (2005). The logic of sufficiency. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.  ↩

  7. Princen, T. (2005). p. 19.  ↩

  8. De Young, R., & Princen, T. (Eds.). (2012). The localization reader: Adapting to the coming downshift. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.  ↩

  9. O’Rourke, D., & Lollo, N. (2015). Transforming consumption: From decoupling, to behavior change, to system changes for sustainable consumption. Annual Review of Environment and Resources, 40(1). doi:10.1146/annurev-environ–102014–021224  ↩

  10. Princen, T., Maniates, M., & Conca, K. (Eds.). (2002). Confronting consumption. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.  ↩

  11. Morello-Frosch, R., Zuk, M., Jerrett, M., Shamasunder, B., & Kyle, A. D. (2011). Understanding the cumulative impacts of inequalities in environmental health: implications for policy. Health Affairs, 30(5), 879–887. doi:10.1377/hlthaff.2011.0153  ↩

  12. There’s a fascinating history and critique of the concept of efficiency in Princen’s The logic of sufficiency.  ↩

  13. Sarewitz, D. (2004). How science makes environmental controversies worse. Environmental Science & Policy, 7(5), 385–403. doi:10.1016/j.envsci.2004.06.001  ↩

  14. Meadows, D. H. (2008). Thinking in systems: A primer. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green.  ↩

  15. Greenberg, M. (2013). What on earth is sustainable? Toward critical sustainability studies. Boom: A Journal of California, 3(4), 54–66. doi:10.1525/boom.2013.3.4.54  ↩

  16. Unwittingly—I was naïve and oblivious to Greenberg’s research while writing most of this.  ↩