Humans’ Going Green Moments
“Sustainability and what it means to me.”
I don’t particularly like the word sustainability — I’m uncomfortable with it and I find it to be clumsy, general, and unspecific. It’s become a total buzzword, and has even lost a degree of authenticity due to its use by some especially non-sustainable companies. Some people I’ve talked to agree with me, and I would like to uncover why these mixed sentiments surround the word.
The problem I have with it is that the idea of sustainability, and our need for it, is predicated on the destructive tendencies associated with the unstoppable force of Western civilization. Merriam-Webster defines sustainability as “…a method of harvesting or using a resource so that the resource is not depleted or permanently damaged.” I like this definition, and I think if every industry followed these instructions, we would be in much better shape.
Unfortunately, this very simple definition of sustainability is somehow lost in translation, at least when I converse with people. When I talk to like-minded individuals about environmental issues, they almost always say, “We need to be more sustainable,” not realizing our society is premised upon the exact destructive tendencies the Merriam-Webster definition seeks to undermine. John Bellamy Foster has written extensively on the link between capitalism and ecological destruction. Foster argues that capitalism, as a core Western ideal, depends upon scarcity in order to create private wealth. In what is known as the Lauderdale Paradox, wealth is dependent on private actors’ abilities to monopolize natural resources. This is a principle technique of capitalism, and when we refer to sustainability today, the question is — how do we mediate this capitalist tendency without preventing private enterprise.
In this context, it becomes obvious why the word sustainability creates confusion. At some level, people realize that the ideological status quo, the principle of capitalism, is unsustainable and must be changed. Which explains why there is such a large movement for sustainability, yet such broad, general criteria for being sustainable — it results from the clash between our biological connection to the land, and the swift, individualistic ideology that we value in capitalism. It stems from the infinite growth promised by neoliberal economic rationality and our struggles to replace it with a new sustainable environmental rationality.
We nervously realize that our properties of growth are causing our species’ obsolescence, and while aware of this truth, we are still leery of it. Deep down, we recognize we are the culprits and will take every measure except for the ones that threaten to change some of the fundamental things we take for granted. We should look at some of the solutions proposed by social scientists, which vary between radical and conservative approaches. Foster believes capitalism must be changed and the environmental crisis can be traced back to capitalist roots. Others, like Charles Derber and Paul Hawken, believe that the environmental crisis can be made manageable, at least in the short term, through business and entrepreneurship. Some have called this type of mediation ‘conscious capitalism,’ and I believe it to be one of the only realistic options at this point in time. Juliet Schor writes about plenitude and the shift to local, small-scale activity that can reduce corporate and market dependence while also creating a sense of gratification from collaborating with neighbors. All of these represent ideals from movements that are happening today, and indicate some level of commitment to this existential threat.
Sustainability is not a concrete word. Its definition depends on each person you ask. Part of this is because of the scientific uncertainty and ambiguity involved in determining the level of effectiveness sustainable measures and solutions would have, but I believe part of sustainability’s elusive character is also due to the uncomfortable relationship we have with ourselves. Short of a mass Emersonian exodus, we will always be dependent on unsustainable consumption in some way, and every measure of sustainability we take will try to chip away at these unsustainable habits and tastes. To become sustainable, we must, in effect, be self-critical in examining how our lifestyles contribute to the environmental crisis.
Perhaps, then, my personal discomfort and distaste for the word sustainability is because it represents everything about my lifestyle that is destructive, yet I am unable to change. Sustainability is at once a realm of possibility as it is a critique of the status quo. Sustainability, as we define it, implies breaking down traditional ways of life in order to build up sustainable ones. The reason it has grown to be such a buzzword is because everyone, at some level, has this realization, yet articulating the exact change required of ourselves is daunting and outside our comfort zone. It’s much easier to say we need to be sustainable than it is to say we need to cut consumption, or we need to change our lifestyles. Sustainability, therefore, will always be a fallback word, a word that represents some of our introspective fear.
We need to be more critical of ourselves. Pierre Bourdieu believed that a key part of social analysis is to be reflexive in examining how we, even as supposed environmental stewards, are part of the problem. He writes, “the harshest and most brutally objectifying analyses are written with an acute awareness of the fact that they apply to he who is writing them.” I would like for all of us, including green advocates, to engage in a discussion that explores the meaning of sustainability and leaves no door unopened. It is not enough to say we need to be more sustainable, rather, we must ask ourselves why we have the need for this word in the first place, and how we can envision a future in which there is no need for such a word.
Bourdieu, Pierre, and Loïc J. D. Wacquant. An Invitation to Reflexive Sociology. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1992. Print.
Derber, Charles. Greed to Green: Solving Climate Change and Remaking the Economy. Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2010. Print.
Foster, John Bellamy., Brett Clark, and Richard York. The Ecological Rift: Capitalism’s War on the Earth. New York: Monthly Review, 2010. Print.
Hawken, Paul. The Ecology of Commerce: a Declaration of Sustainability. New York: Harper Business, 1993. Print.
Schor, Juliet. Plenitude: the New Economics of True Wealth. New York, NY: Penguin, 2010. Print.
Sustainability. In Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary (11th ed.). Retrieved from http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/sustainability
It’s refreshing to see young humans taking charge in leading the world towards more sustainable practices. Sadly, the majority of American humans are skeptical of climate change caused by man.
As citizens on Earth, we have a duty to protect our home from toxic chemicals and unsustainable practices.