Sustainability is perhaps the most common norm guiding environmental policy and behavior today. But sustainability can mean many different things. Maybe by focusing on its underlying ideas we can use the word more clearly. Below you’ll find an overview suggesting theme relevance, sample related axes, and an opportunity to take sides on this topic.
The predominant guiding concept we hear in the context of environmental issues today is sustainability. People are often told that we need sustainable solutions to environmental problems. But what does this really mean? One quick answer goes back to a classic definition of sustainable development as articulated in the late 1980s via Our Common Future, where sustainable development is defined as intergenerational equity, or “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” There are other definitions of sustainability as well. These definitions don’t, however, necessarily capture the full flavor of sustainability as it has been practiced (sustainable surfing, anyone?), nor how these practices relate to fundamental environmental ideas. Some have thus dismissed sustainability as an empty concept. But given how important it is in contemporary environmental discourse, let’s take a closer look.
Let’s consider sustainability’s relationship to the three EcoTypes themes. For starters, Place seems like an obvious fit for sustainability, as the question “What world do we want?” appears to be readily answered: a sustainable world, of course! But what we learned via the Place theme leads us to ask: sustainable as approached via the nonhuman or the human pole? The question may be unfair, as sustainability addresses both nonhumans and humans—yet from a particular point of departure. The classic definition noted above is embedded in the human pole of Place, and even when organizations such as The Natural Step put emphasis on the nonhuman pole as a necessary basis for sustainable human flourishing, the ultimate priority and justification is on humans. So, sustainability typically mixes the nonhuman and human poles of Place, with the human pole as its point of departure. (One exception would be the Earth Charter’s approach to sustainability, with a strong emphasis on nonhumans.)
And how does sustainability answer the Knowledge theme question, “What old vs. new ways of knowing do we need to build the world we want?” A great deal of contemporary sustainability involves new knowledge from science and technology (think, for instance, solar energy). Yet a deeper analysis suggests that the notion of sustainability is rooted in conserving and holding on to—sustaining—what we have inherited from the past, including both natural resources and the wisdom of more harmonious interactions with the earth. Though there are some connections between sustainability and innovation, critiques of sustainability such as the resilience argument (Position Two below) suggest that sustainability knowledge may not fully embrace newer ways of knowing. Ultimately, then, sustainability may mix old and new approaches to Knowledge, with the old pole as its point of departure.
Finally, the Action theme is highly relevant, as many people interpret sustainability as a lifestyle (small) mandate, and sustainability is often practiced at smaller scales such as the college campus. Yet others argue that our global economic system is inherently unsustainable and must be changed (big!). Indeed, critiques of sustainability such as the neoliberalism argument (Position Three below) charge that common uses of the word sustainability/sustainable today approach action from the small pole point of departure. (See the default position, Position One, as one possible defense of this small pole approach to Action.)
These possible leanings—toward human Place, old Knowledge, and small Action—are ironic relative to the scope of sustainability. They are also debatable, and at best comprise only the most common uses of the word. But they give us some basis for critical reflection, and suggest that, as much as it tries to be all-encompassing, sustainability plays on particular EcoTypes axis and theme poles just like any other guiding concept.
Different takes on environmental topics may reflect differing takes on more fundamental environmental ideas. Below are a few of the EcoTypes axes related to this topic; these and other axes contribute to the larger theme-based patterns summarized above.
Though not commonly discussed, many sustainability-related actions build on important assumptions concerning incremental vs. radical change. The campus sustainability movement, for instance, arguably embodies an incremental view of change, where improvements take place on one higher education institution at a time. The radical response, however, would be that these incremental actions have little overall effect.
The EcoTypes Ecosystems axis implies a broader sustainability lesson: do we sustain ecosystems and other features of the Earth’s surface by limiting change, or by working with change? Indeed, resilience arose as an improvement on sustainability in the field of ecology, where ecosystem dynamism is widely accepted.
From its origins as sustainable development, sustainability has primarily considered the nonhuman world from the perspective of human well-being, an anthropocentric ethics. Recent UN sustainable development goals likewise maintain this anthropocentric focus. Yet other sustainability-related efforts take a more biocentric approach: one example is the Earth Charter, whose first principle is “Respect Earth and life in all its diversity.”
Sustainability practices tend not to rock the political boat; they are often designed to get as many people on board as possible. This presumes a consensus view of society, which assumes the possibility of agreement. Yet sustainable development also builds on a conflict view of society: Our Common Future, which launched the movement, put key emphasis on global inequities, and some commentators argue for the integration of sustainability with justice.
Many people approach sustainability as a balance between economic, ecological, and social well being. But thinking this way often leads to a veneration of the past, when greater harmony and balance between humans and the Earth supposedly existed. This is why critiques of sustainability such as resilience theory assume a more dynamic notion of systems over time, an approach that is inherently future-oriented in its embrace of inevitable change.
Take sides on this topic! It’s best if you are randomly assigned to a side, or pick a side you disagree with, as the point here is to try on a different approach than you may have, and to consider how differing takes on EcoTypes axes and themes may result in differing positions on environmental topics.
Following this tab are three positions—by no means comprehensive, but this gets us beyond the back-and-forth of a pro/con two-position debate. The first position is the default one, in some ways supporting what those interested in environmental issues have learned as the best way to approach this topic. Then there are two more positions that challenge this default position and/or each other. In each case you’ll find some details to get you started, and guidance on how each position may relate to EcoTypes axes and themes (do review the general material above, and feel free to explore other connections not noted here). The last tab lists all publications cited in the position summaries.
You could approach these three positions as a traditional debate, with each side attempting to win. Or, you could approach these three positions as starting points for environmental engagement around their creative tensions, hopefully to get to deeper, more meaningful, possibly complementary disagreement.
Have fun! Remember to fully try on your position, whether or not you personally agree with it. It is easy to say “Each has a point,” and indeed each position presented here is worth serious consideration. But as you’ll discover there are important differences, and you have the opportunity and responsibility to make up your own mind in light of these differences.
Position One: We All Need to Do Our Part to Build a Sustainable World
The default position is supportive of the concept of sustainability, and urges everyone to do their part. This position embraces the huge popularity of sustainability, alongside its popular—if not rigorous—interpretation that each of us can little things to help. The positive tone of many Google links (over 500 million results!) should be noted by advocates of this position—its strength in large part is precisely this popularity. Or, one could go to sustainability-friendly journals like Sustainability: The Journal of Record to find related support. It is probably best, in supporting sustainability, to keep the concept deliberately broad and all-encompassing; the point here is not to get too far into details, as any careful contextualization of sustainability (e.g., Frank 2016) may lead to some degree of critique. Remember, the power of the default position lies in its huge numbers.
Now, how would one support everyone doing their part? A keen ear would hear a particular take on the small/big Action theme and related axes, in particular Change, Social Scale, and Society. Specifically, incremental Change, individual Social Scale, and consensus Society are implied in this call for everyone to do their part—certainly in terms of how it is generally interpreted as sustainable living.
Supporting the small Action pole alone would be difficult without mounting some argument that all these little actions add up, i.e., that our small contributions achieve big action collectively. The Change axis deep dive briefly reviews Malcolm Gladwell’s notion of tipping points (Gladwell 2000), and this notion of tipping points, or some other defense of incrementalism, may be necessary if this position is to convincingly suggest that each of us doing our little part would indeed result in a sustainable world.
There is ultimately the question: what is a sustainable world? The second position will critique yours as naive in this respect, given the reality of change in many urban, political, industrial, even ecological processes. You should be prepared to invoke some of the classic environmental works that underscore a more equilibrium vision of the world, such as the well-known Limits to Growth (1974) and its more recent incarnations as e.g. “planetary boundaries” (Steffen et al. 2015).
You should also be prepared to defend your position against position three, which will accuse sustainability of being politically naive; perhaps your position will suggest that, in spite of the difficult politics we see around us, sustainability offers a consensus solution for moving forward. It would, in contrast, be difficult to imagine consensus building around position three, given its “neoliberal agenda” language!
Position Two: Resilience, Not Sustainability, is What We Need in a Changing World
The second position is based on a critique of sustainability as an ill-suited concept for our times, where change is the norm. Perhaps what we need is not to stop change, but to do our best to ensure that change is positive, or at least minimally negative; if so, sustainability-related notions of equilibrium and balance inherited from classic environmentalism sound woefully out of date.
The most common replacement for sustainability in the context of a changing world is resilience. One organization that has championed resilience, and overseen a good deal of research relevant to environmental issues, is the Resilience Alliance; see their key concepts and related publications. Some important figures in the resilience movement such as C.S. Holling have tied their theories of change into sustainability (Holling 2001), but upon close read it should be evident that their approach to sustainability is far more dynamic than the default position.
You should explicate what supporters mean by resilience: as with sustainability, a loose usage of the concept tends to prevail. The Resilience Alliance defines resilience as “…the capacity of a social-ecological system to absorb or withstand perturbations and other stressors such that the system remains within the same regime,” and has released a workbook to apply this definition to a variety of social-ecological systems. One challenge to this definition could be that it also focuses on stasis vs. change (“…system remains in the same regime”), so look at some of the other key concepts of resilience such as the adaptive cycle to get a clearer idea of their view of reality as suffused with change.
A related concept of our changing world—one frequently invoked to argue for a more resilience-based approach (e.g., Grove and Chandler 2017)—is the Anthropocene, the notion that the earth is now in many ways a human product. The reality of the Anthropocene underscores many arguments supporting resilience over sustainability (e.g., Benson and Craig 2014); more broadly, literature on the Anthropocene, whether happy or sad with the human domination of the Earth (Dalby 2016), commonly uses terms such as adaptation or vulnerability that resonate more with a change-oriented concept such as resilience than a stasis-oriented concept such as sustainability. The Anthropocene generally invokes the human Place theme similar to default sustainability, but also the new Knowledge theme (e.g., via the hybrid Nature pole and philic Technology pole), and often the big Action theme given the scale of Anthropocene discussions, so this second position may seek to distinguish itself from the default position in terms of knowledge and action.
A more convincing argument in favor of resilience would not only champion the reality of change in our world, but the ways in which sustainability underscores problematic practices and policies for today’s and tomorrow’s world. This could involve a critique of the default position and its common emphasis on sustainable living, which along the lines of the big pole of the Action theme accomplishes little and may lull people into complacency. Remember, however, that related critiques of sustainability practice and policy, especially those that point out its political naïveté, fall more into the framework of the third position here. It’s probably best, then, when adopting this second position to produce evidence that sustainability-related practices and policies (and there are many) fail to prepare us for a world of change.
Position Three: Sustainability Must Be Rejected as a Neoliberal Agenda
The third position does not advance one particular concept to replace sustainability as much as critique the whole project for its underlying neoliberal politics. This is a common theme in certain literature on environment and development (e.g., Redclift 2005; Swyngedouw 2010), where “sustainable development” and “sustainability” often disguise political projects by rich countries and corporations taking place in the global South.
If, by neoliberalism, we mean some sort of market-based emphasis in political and economic relations connecting various parts of the world, this literature would argue that sustainability effectively greenwashes this emphasis to make it appear more generous or win-win than it may actually be; sustainability, then, suffers from the flaws of green capitalism (Cock 2011). A quick search of the two terms sustainability and neoliberalism reveals a number of variants of this critique, suggesting in particular the highly relevant EcoTypes Action theme, as most critiques of neoliberalism focus on its structural qualities (big) whereas sustainability tends to downplay or ignore these structural qualities by emphasizing more incrementalist and local-scale change (small). So, this third position may differ from the first most fundamentally in terms of the Action theme.
The argument that sustainability embodies a neoliberal agenda need not only be made in the expansive sense of global environment and development. Another context is sustainability on higher education campuses, a highly popular movement (see e.g. the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education; cf. Breen 2010). The friendly politics of sustainability in higher education are similar to its politics on the development front, but another possible neoliberal tendency is devolution, whereby larger regulatory responsibility is transferred from institutions such as the state to individual citizens and firms (and college campuses), who then compete against each other to deliver more efficient outcomes.
It is, perhaps, ironic that sustainability, which started as a global-scale concept, is now most commonly applied at much smaller scales (Proctor 2010), suggesting again its tendencies toward the small Action pole. These political and scale-related points are found in related critiques of higher education sustainability (e.g., Wals and Jickling 2002, Greenberg 2013, Weaver 2015).
Advocates of this position should realize that neoliberalism itself is not without critique, even from the political left (e.g., Rodgers 2018). Just like the notion of sustainability, however, neoliberalism is ubiquitous enough (16 million Google entries) that proponents of this third position may not want to wade too deeply into these important critiques—at least for purposes of winning an argument, although maybe not for honest dialogic engagement. “Neoliberal” is often used as a substitute for contemporary capitalism; it would behoove advocates of this position to understand, and deploy, the term in a more nuanced manner than this.
As noted in the comprehensive bibliography here, all EcoTypes references are stored in a group Zotero library. Those below are the ones cited on this page.