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.