A world without sustainability?

Posted on May 31, 2010


“It’s pretty, but is it art?”  asks the Devil in Rudyard Kipling’s The Conundrum of the Workshops. The Dunedin foreshore has recently had the addition of a set of giant carved molar teeth, funded by a public art grant from the Council.  Much of the Dunedin public is up in arms – “they’re hideous” claim my children.  “Is it Art?” asked the Otago Daily Times. The artist meanwhile is most bemused, the controversy seems have to transformed the carvings into Art – by definition.

Over on Sustainability History Project , James Hillagas reports an interesting question:

one of my students asked if there existed any identifiable schools of thought that have put forth a world view completely outside of the idea of sustainability

The notion of sustainability the Brundtland Commission report articulated seems to frame the issue completely, to the extent that even those who would critique the notion do so within the contextual universe created by the Commission

Likening this to Kuhn’s notion of paradigm shift,  Hillagas questions if there are conceptions of sustainability completely outside Brudtland definition.  That is, not agreeing with nor disagreeing with, but completely separate to the paradigm.   The difficulty in looking for such concepts is the word itself – if they’re using “sustainability” then, as I argue below you’d have to be living under a rock not to be aware of what we now encapsulate as the Brundtland definition.  So, can there be a non-sustainability? (neither sustainable, unsustainable, anti-sustainable or ignoring sustainable, but rather devoid of sustainable).

My first reaction to Hillagas’s student was that the question is like we’ve been living in an an apple orchard and asking ‘is there any other fruit?’  – how would we know of the possibility of other fruit?   But now I think that’s too simplistic  a response.   Sticking with the orchard, perhaps the question is more like “there’s this thing we’re living with where things fall down, let’s call it gravity, are there any explanations that neither agree with nor disagree with gravity, but are something else altogether?”.   While there may be people who can discuss life on earth independent of gravity, I’m not one of them, and similarly,  I don’t think it possible to sensibly consider non-sustainability.   This non-sustainability would have to be different to sustainability (with a long heritage but now encapsulated by Brundtland-like understandings), different to unsustainable (practices that reduce sustainability), and different to anti-sustainability (disagreeing with the concept).   It would also be different to ignoring sustainability, usual practice of many and clearly a state that many others consider to be the root cause of unsustainability.

I do not believe it is sensible to attempt to consider a state where the dimension we have come to know as sustainability does not exist.  We can ignore it – indeed the vast majority of published material does – but that dimension is there, just like gravity.

When we started working on defining “sustainable practitioner” for each discipline, we spent a long time discussing the relationships between sustainability and other professional underpinnings.    We agonised over whether social justice (a founding principle of the teachings of my social services colleagues) were a sub-set or super-set of sustainability.    With a goal that “every graduate may think and act as a sustainable practitioner”, this was not a mere semantic or mathematical exploration – this would greatly affect learning experience and hence the careers of many graduates.   Eventually we came to a decision that the Venn diagram was not an appropriate model, both sustainability and social justice were the superset of each other.  Other areas – Art’s critical perspective  for example – have a similar relationship, other sides of the same coin, or perhaps other sides of a mobius strip.  We concluded that sustainability is better conceived as  a lens through which to see one’s professional work.

What is that lens?   Although she doesn’t describe it as such, Stagl (2007) comes close with her description of social-ecological systems as co-evolving systems.  She contends that this co-evolution can be seen in co-evolution of the environment and governance; in co-evolution of technology and governance; and in co-evolution of human behaviour and culture.   As a society, she argues, we have to learn to live in a complex world of interdependent systems with high uncertainties and multiple legitimate interests.  This has two consequences.   First it means “these complex and evolving systems require a new way of thinking about risk, uncertainty, ambiguity and ignorance” (Stagl 2007).  Second, it means we should reduce our reliance on “artificial divisions between, on the one hand, the environment and, on the other hand, economy and society” (Koutsouris 2009).

This lens, then,  is deeper than a Sustainability = Brundtland conception Hillagas prsents  “sustainability framed…within the contextual universe created by the Commission”.   For starters, it is much older, with precusors stretching back decades and centuries, if not longer.    In 1864, George Marsh wrote Man and nature; or, Physical geography as modified by human action.  While retaining a theological basis, Marsh presented Man as agents of transformation, both destruction and revitalization.

Man has too long forgotten that the earth was given to him for usufruct alone, not for consumption, still less for profligate waste

The legal term usufruct is appropriate – it refers to the right to use and benefit from a resource, but not to damage or alienate it.   Before Marsh people knew that humans modify the natural world: cutting forests, draining swamps, and depleting wildlife, for example. But these actions were seen as progress.  Marsh set out to show the negative side of such human impacts (Lee 2005).

The earth is fast becoming an unfit home for its noblest inhabitant, and another era of equal human crime and human improvidence, and of like duration with that through which traces of that crime and that improvidence extend, would reduce it to such a condition of impoverished productiveness, of shattered surface, of climatic excess, as to threaten the depravation, barbarism, and perhaps even extinction of the species.

In arguing that “man in fact made the world”, Marsh was inverting contemporary thought.   Carl Ritter, for example, argued that while there was a deterministic relationship between the geography and the people, the measure of progress of civilization was the extent to which that relationship was overcome.  Ecological degradation was therefore not a concern for Ritter.   Changes in nature were seen as beneficial and in accordance with the hand of the Divine: “becoming more and more perfect and beautiful” (Clark and Foster 2002).    Marsh argued that environmental degradation was indeed a problem (giving examples such as water flow in the Aidironack being affected by deforestation) and were caused by “ignorant disregard of the laws of nature”.

At about the same time John Ruskin  observed that the same economic system that creates glittering wealth also spawns what he called illth—poverty, pollution, despair, illness. It makes life comfortable for some, but it does so at considerable discomfort to others.

Stephens et al. (2008) argue that human society is currently facing “unprecedented challenges associated with our interactions with the earth’s natural systems”

Current trends and patterns of resource-use, coupled with a rapidly changing, increasingly unequal, complex and interconnected societal structure and rapid technological change, are impacting human-environment interactions in critical and unsustainable ways.

This era of intense, irreversible human influence on the earth’s systems has been named the Anthropocene and has been defined as an epoch that began in the early 1800s with the onset of industrialization (Crutzen 2002, 2005, Steffen et al. 2007).

Human activities have become so pervasive and profound that they rival the great forces of Nature and are pushing the Earth into planetary terra incognita. The Earth is rapidly moving into a less biologically diverse, less forested, much warmer, and probably wetter and stormier state (Crutzen 2002).

Other authors have made similar observations.  Catton (1982) describes the effects of Homo colossus:

Perhaps…if we ceased to call ourselves Homo sapiens and began to call ourselves Homo colossus.  If we were accustomed to thinking of the human being not just as a naked ape or a fallen angel but as a man-tool system, we would have recognised that progress could become a disease.  The more colossal man’s tool kit became, the larger man became, and the more destructive of his own future.

All  these things though, are not sustainability.   They are what Vehkamäki (2005) calls the thesis and antithesis.  The thesis describes the prevailing conditions, the antithesis those things that challenge the present – the future threats and opportunities.  The synthesis is the response to the present and the challenges to it – a more sustainable world.  Sustainability is not the problem – it is the solution.

The concept of sustainability has deep roots, and can largely be traced to Enlightenment thinking.   The Age of Discovery, the Wars of Religion, and the mercantile expansions of the 15th and 16th Centuries saw a massive growth in ship building across Europe.   This resulted in increasingly rapid exploitation of domestic natural resources, especially forest resources.   Deforestation led to widespread shortages of wood which soon became an acute political problem.  Hanns Carl von Carlowitz’s 1713 “Silvicultura Oeconomica” is considered to be the first text to take a sustainable approach: ”continuirliche, beständige und nachhaltende Nutzung” (continuous, permanent and sustainable utilisation) as the rule for forestry .  Vehkamäki (2005) argues that von Carlowitz’s aims of saving Europe (society) from the economic and social disaster, which would ensue if wood ran out, preserving and strengthening the Christian culture and the wonders and beauty of nature shows a threefold underpinning of sustainability from the beginning: economic, social and ecological sustainability.

Such developments in sustainable forestry continued.  In 1804 Hartig described “Forest mensuration and forest management planning… so that the administration looks after interests of future generations so that a fair distribution of interests between the present and future generations will come true” (Vehkamäki 2005, my emphasis).

Heinrich von Cotta’s Anweisung zum Waldbau (1817)  is considered to be  a cornerstone of sustainability. In it he exposes the essential fallacy of forestry (McEvoy 2004), that human intervention improves forests, he describes a science of scarcity “we only have a forestry science because we have a dearth of wood”.  That we need a relationship with forests but that “each generation of man has seen a smaller generation of wood”.    That we seem to accept that we are operating a weakened system:

Here and there we admire still the giant oaks and  firs, which grew up without any care, while we are perfectly persuaded that we shall never in the same places be able, with any art or care, to reproduce similar trees.

Cotta also argued that the answers are complicated by time and space and human perceptual mismatches.   The long period needed for forest development means that “something that is considered good and prescribed as such which is good only for a time, and later becomes detrimental”.    Variation in systems means that “what many declare good or bad, proves, good or bad only in certain places”.   He paraphrases Wieland’s earlier (1768) “they cannot see the forest for the trees” to introduce issues of perceptions of scale.   He highlights the differences in experience and understanding of “empiricists and scientists” and suggests humility, both as a society and on a professional level.

Forestry is based on the knowledge of nature, the deeper we penetrate its secrets, the deeper the depths become.

The lighter it grows around us, the more unknown things become apparent, and it is a sure sign of shallowness, if anyone believes he knows it all.

These ideas still underpin forestry, as Kennedy and Koch (2004) argue, forestry science is now in a relationship stage that entails a managing of natural resources for valued people and ecosystem relationships.

In addition to highlighting mankind’s role as the cause of environmental degradation, Marsh (1864) also offered advice on the “restoration of disturbed harmonies”.  He promoted the need for a different sort of relationship “on lands laid waste by human improvidence or malice, the pioneer settler “is to become a co-worker with nature in the reconstruction of the damaged fabric which the negligence or the wantonness of the formers lodgers has rendered untenantable” (1864 pg 35).

From these early conceptions, and with boosts from Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962) and underlined by the Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth (Meadows et al. 1972), there has been an increasing awareness of what we now refer to – largely thanks to Brundtland’s definition – as sustainability.   Sustainability’s definition puts words to a view of the world that thinks across scales of time, space,  species and cultures.  All the elements – alone and in concert- predate the Brundtland Commissions articulation of sustainability as it is now defined.   So when Hillagas asks if there is a view of the future outside sustainability, I say not, to think of the future is to think of sustainability.