The Unsustainability of Sustainability
by Bill Devall
Sustainability is currently one of the most fashionable
terms used by post-Marxist Progressives. The word sustainable has been
slapped onto everything from sustainable forestry to sustainable
agriculture, sustainable economic growth, sustainable development,
sustainable communities and sustainable energy production.
The widespread use of the term indicates that many
people conclude that the dominant, industrial models of production are
unsustainable. However, sustainability has taken on numerous ideological
hues and coloring and has been tacked onto the political agendas of
diverse social movements including the feminist movement, Progressive
movement, and social justice movement.
There are very few thoughtful discussions in these
movements about the theory of sustainability.
Indeed some proponents of sustainability argue that we
donít need a theory of sustainability. We already know what it is and
even if we donít know, it is a motivating slogan for social change.
For example, Alan AtKisson, an articulate proponent of
sustainability, says "the definition of sustainability is neither
vague nor abstract; it is very specific and is tied to measurable criteria
describing how resources are used and distributed. Some of what currently
gets called ësustainable developmentí is no such thing, but that does
not mean the concept should be dismissed, any more than the concept of
democracy should be dismissed when it is misappropriated by a
dictatorship. Sustainability, like democracy, is an ideal toward which we
strive, a journey more than a destination" (1999:200).
However, many critics argue that the political agendas
and manipulations of Progressives, feminists, and social justice movements
have so polluted and conflicted the idea of sustainability that it will be
difficult, if not impossible, to rescue it for meaningful discussion.
At the very least, three difficult questions must be
asked before any discussion of sustainability is undertaken in any group.
What is being sustained? How long is it being sustained? In whoís
interest is what being sustained?
We also must ask at what scale of action are we
sustaining what? Are we talking about a global system or more regional or
bioregional systems? Are we talking about natural systems or human
AtKisson, and other proponents of sustainability, argue
that the sustainability movement is different from the environmental
movement or the conservation movement. In the sustainability movement,
progress comes from unleashing human creativity, redesigning everything,
and using technology to serve the needs of the people.
Many Progressives and post-modern feminists assert that
nature is a social creation. Nature is whatever humans want to make it.
Therefore, human creativity can remake nature to more effectively serve
Conservation biologists, however, as well as most
proponents of the conservation movement, assert that nature is real. When
conservation biologists use the term sustainability, they refer to
"ecological sustainability" meaning sustaining the
self-organizing processes of natural systems. That means that humans live
within the moods and rhythm of natural systems as part of the system, not
masters of it.
In a sense, arguments over the meaning of
sustainability reflect the battles that have been repeated over and over
again between Progressives and Realists during the past two centuries.
Ever since William Goodwin asserted the doctrine of Progress, Progressives
have believe that the future will be better than the past because humans
invent new technology and advance human rights. For many Progressives,
nature must be molded to serve human needs.
Realists point to the fact that no human civilization
has sustained itself for more than a few centuries. Civilizations
overshoot the carrying capacity of their resource base, and due to changes
in weather patterns, overcutting of forests, etc., go into decline. Sing
Chew, professor of Sociology at Humboldt State University, documents this
process from 3000 B.C. to 2000 A.D. in his book World Ecological
Degradation: Accumulation, Urbanization, and Deforestation (Chew, 2001).
In his article, "The Shaky Ground of
Sustainability," historian Donald Worster concludes that "like
most popular slogans, sustainable development begins to wear thin after a
while. Although it seems to have gained a wide acceptance, it has done so
by sacrificing real substance. Worse yet, the slogan my turn out to be
irredeemable for environmentalist use because it may inescapably compel us
to adopt a narrow economic language, standard of judgment, and world view
in approaching and utilizing the earth" (in Sessions, 1995:418).
Even more damning is Wolfgang Sachs conclusion that
sustainability is the shadow of development. "Even bearing in mind a
very loose definition of development, the anthropocentric bias of the
statement springs to mind; it is not the preservation of natureís
dignity which is on the international agenda, but to extend human-centered
utilitarianism to posterity" (in Sessions, 1995:434).
Neil Harrison, in his book Constructing Sustainable
Development, concludes that sustainable development proposals are at least
incomplete or impractical and at worst dangerously misleading (Harrison,
The use of contested meanings of sustainability among
Progressives shows that they have remained dangerously anthropocentric,
impractical, and that they have failed to address the moral ambiguities of
both technology and their own ideological agendas.
Arne Naess, the famous philosopher who used the phrase
deep, long-range ecology movement, concludes that the concept of
sustainability can only be salvaged if "...(our discourse) rejects
the monopoly of narrowly human and short-term argumentation patterns in
favor of life-centered long-term arguments. It also rejects the
human-in-environment metaphor in favor of a more realistic
human-in-ecosystems and politics-in-ecosystems one. It generalizes more
eco-political issues: from ëresourcesí to ëresources for...í: from
ëlife qualityí to ëlife quality for...í: from ëconsumptioní to
ëconsumption for...í" where ëfor...í is, we insert ënot
only humans, but other living beingsí " (in Sessions, 1995:452).
Currently, cultural and social change is occurring very
rapidly, and if Professor Sing Chew is correct, these changes may mean we
are headed towards a new dark ages during which human population decreases
rapidly and accumulation of capital radically decreases. In the past,
during so-called dark ages of human civilizations, nature was able to
renew its vitality after centuries of abuse by human civilizations.
However, past civilizations were regional in location. Humans have never
before experienced a globalized civilization which is causing massive
human-caused extinctions of other species and human-caused massive changes
in global climate patterns.
What can we expect in political discourse? Progressives
continue to attack the Realists as they have for two hundred years.
However, perhaps Progressives will give up their anthropocentric bias and
their belief in human Progress and embrace a systems approach.
At the very least, Progressives could stop slapping the
word sustainable onto every harebrained scheme and political agenda that
is currently fashionable or politically correct.
Most likely Progressives will continue to assert that
if the people can control corporations or control the WTO or the World
Bank, then we can have "sustainable development." And they will
continue to miss the whole point about the unsustainability of
Bill Devall compiled and edited Clearcut: The
Tragedy of Industrial Forestry and co-authored Deep Ecology.
AtKisson, Alan. Believing
Cassandra: An Optimist Looks at a Pessimistís World. White River
Junction, Vermont: Chelsea Green, 1999.
Chew, Sing. World Ecological Degradation:
Accumulation, Urbanization, and Deforestation, 3000 B.C. -2000 A.D.
Walnut Creek, Ca: AltaMira Press, 2001.
Harrison, Neil. Constructing Sustainable
Development. Albany, New York: State University of New York Press,
Sessions, George. ed. Deep Ecology for the 21st
Century: Readings on the Philosophy and Practice of the New
Environmentalism. Boston: Shambhala, 1995.