Just last week I participated in the AESS conference in DC, and now in Ireland I have some time to reflect on it. I’m always interested in Big Words: the general concepts we find most meaningful. Without a doubt, the biggest Big Word in environmental studies today is sustainability: one would find it on posters, presentations, and sessions throughout the meeting.
The thing about Big Words is that they are the vehicles we ride to get places, and some do this better than others. Where can sustainability get us? You could get an answer by looking carefully at sustainability practices, say on college campuses, and see what they do and don’t include…this is one empirical way to bound a Big Word. And if you did this, you’d find certain things emphasized–say, campus gardens–and certain other things missing. So this vehicle (like all Big Words) can only get us certain places.
What’s missing? What places will this Big Word never get us? Sustainability, you may know, was originally sustainable development: at least most definitions continue to invoke Brundtland. But just read the first sentence of that Wikipedia article on the Brundtland report:
Its targets were multilateralism and interdependence of nations in the search for a sustainable development path.
A few sentences later, the article reads
Our Common Future placed environmental issues firmly on the political agenda; it aimed to discuss the environment and development as one single issue.
It could have just as correctly summarized Our Common Future as placing political issues firmly on the environmental agenda, where items like “multilateralism and interdependence of nations” tend to be way off the radar…places we’d never even think of getting with this particular Big Word.
And this is what to me seems to be missing in sustainability: sustainability needs development, i.e., engagement with the need for certain kinds of development, coupled with the politics of uneven economic and social development in this world. Sustainability advocates will often, and rightly, claim that they care about equity (as one of sustainability’s common “three Es,” along with environment and economy). But there is less often a sophisticated understanding of inequity in a world of growth: it’s usually just a rejection of growth as bad, if there is a discussion on growth at all.
The image above is of the UN Sustainable Development Goals. They offer some perspective on how far sustainability has veered from sustainable development. Just look at many of those goals, which I bet you support, and you’ll see why development, and a politics of development, are central. Some say sustainable development is an oxymoron, but maybe it’s just a good paradox. And paradox almost always points to a Better Big Word.