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By Eric Zencey, from a Primer, "Theses on Sustainability", Published in the May/June 2010 issue of Orion magazine [1]:

"NATURE WILL DECIDE what is sustainable; it always has and always will. The reflexive invocation of the term as cover for all manner of human acts and wants shows that sustainability has gained wide acceptance as a longed-for, if imperfectly understood, state of being.

AN ACT, PROCESS, OR STATE of affairs can be said to be economically sustainable, ecologically sustainable, or socially sustainable. To these three some would add a fourth: culturally sustainable.

NATURE IS MALLEABLE and has enormous resilience, a resilience that gives healthy ecosystems a dynamic equilibrium. But the resiliency of nature has limits and to transgress them is to act unsustainably. Thus, the most diffuse usage, “sensibly far-sighted,” is the usage that contains and properly reflects the strict ecological definition of the term: a thing is ecologically sustainable if it doesn’t destroy the environmental preconditions for its own existence.

ECONOMIC SUSTAINABILITY describes the point at which a less-developed economy no longer needs infusions of capital or aid in order to generate wealth. This definition is misleading: for many of those who use it (including traditional economists and many economic aid agencies), “economic sustainability” means “sustainable within the general industrial program of using fossil fuels to generate wealth and produce economic growth,” a program that is, of course, not sustainable.

SOCIAL SUSTAINABILITY describes a state in which a society does not contain any dynamics or forces that would pull it apart. Such a society has sufficient cohesion to overcome the animosities that arise from (for instance) differences of race, gender, wealth, ethnicity, political or religious belief; or from differential access to such boons as education, opportunity, or the nonpartisan administration of justice. Social sustainability can be achieved by strengthening social cohesion (war is a favorite device), through indoctrination in an ideology that bridges the disparities that strain that cohesion, or through diminishing the disparities themselves. (Or all three.)"



Jesus Martin:

"In recent years, Gudynas (2004) notes that “sustainable development” has become a plural concept with different concepts, nuances, assessments, interpretations and perspectives. Similarly are used indistinctly the terms sustainable or sustained, since the key is in the conceptions that hide behind the words. He finds, roughly, three perspectives, without counting the attitude which does not incorporate the concept of sustainability while maintaining a rejection of ecological limits and an ideology of progress and economic growth.

The first perspective, “weak sustainability” does not use an open criticism of the ideology of progress but it imagines that it is possible to lead to a sustainable development through reforms in production processes. Gudynas (2004, p.64) summarizes: “It is a trend that discourses through a strong economization of environmental issues and therefore it relies heavily on the judgements and decisions of the technicians.”

The second perspective, “strong sustainability”, continues to maintain an economization of Nature but considers that it is ineludible to conserve a stock of Natural Capital since it believes that it is critical for human beings and it must be protected. Gudynas (2004) indicates that in this view there is a coexistence of both technical and political decisions.

Finally, super-strong sustainability carries an intrinsic criticism toward the ideology of progress where the assessment of Environment is manifested from various perspectives and not only the economics ones. It opts for the term “Natural Heritage”. Gudynas (2004) emphasizes the intrinsic value of Nature, beyond the value that peoples report. From this perspective, where the plurality of reviews is recognized, policy decisions are established according to the different positions."



"What really is, sustainability?

HUMAN CIVILIZATION has been built on the exploitation of the stored solar energy found in four distinct carbon pools: soil, wood, coal, petroleum. The latter two pools represent antique, stored solar energy, and their stock is finite. Since agriculture and forestry exploit current solar income, civilizations built on the first two pools—soil and wood—had the opportunity to be sustainable. Many were not.

THE 1987 UN BRUNDTLAND REPORT offered one widely accepted definition of what sustainability means: “meet[ing] the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” This definition contains within it two key concepts. One is the presumption of a distinction between needs and wants, a distinction that comes into sharp relief when we compare the consumption patterns of people in rich and in poor nations: rich nations satisfy many of their members’ wants—indeed, billions of dollars are spent to stimulate those wants—even as poor nations struggle to satisfy human needs. Two: we face what Brundtland called “limitations imposed by the state of technology and social organization on the environment’s ability to meet present and future needs.”

THAT A DISTINCTION can usefully be drawn between wants and needs seems obvious. Mainstream economics, however, refuses to countenance such a distinction. (Marxist economics does, which, from the viewpoint of an ecologically enlightened economics, is one of the few ways in which it is distinguishable from its neoclassical alternative.) The work of Wilfred Pareto was crucial to this refusal. His contribution to economic theory marks a turning point in the evolution (some would say devolution) of nineteenth-century political economy into the highly mathematized discipline of economics as we know it today. Pareto’s novel idea: because satisfactions and pleasures are subjective—because no one among us can say with certainty, “I like ice cream more than you do”—there is no rational way to compare the degree of pleasure that different people will gain by satisfying desires. All we can do is assert that if an economic arrangement satisfies more human wants, it is objectively better than an arrangement that satisfies fewer human wants. This seems commonsensical until we unpack that caveat “all we can do.” An economic arrangement achieves Pareto Optimality if, within it, no one can be made better off (in his own estimation) without making someone else worse off (in her own estimation). Economic science, in its desire to be grounded on rational, objective principles, thus concludes that were we to take a dollar from a billionaire and give it to a starving man to buy food, we can’t know for certain that we have improved the sum total of human satisfaction in the world. For all we know, the billionaire might derive as much pleasure from the expenditure of his billionth dollar as would a starving man spending a dollar on food. All we can do—all!—is promote the growth of income; and if we care about that starving man, we must work to produce two dollars’ worth of goods where before there was only one, so that both the billionaire and the starving man can satisfy their wants.

THUS WAS neoclassical economic theory, putatively value-free and scientific, made structurally dependent on a commitment to infinite economic growth, a value-laden, unscientific, demonstrably unsustainable commitment if ever there was one.

THE BRUNDTLAND assertion that we face “limitations imposed by the state of technology and social organization on the environment’s ability to meet present and future needs” can be read as both acknowledging ecological limits to human activity and as sidestepping the major issue that those ecological limits have brought to the fore. Can humans, through technological development, solve any problem brought on by resource scarcity and the limited capacity of ecosystems to absorb our acts and works? When all is said and done, can we enlarge the economy’s ecological footprint forever in order to create wealth? Gradually, we are coming to recognize that the answer is no.

AN ECONOMY CAN BE MODELED as an open thermodynamic system, one that exchanges matter and energy across its border (that mostly conceptual, sometimes physical line that separates culture from its home in nature). An economy sucks up valuable low-entropy matter and energy from its environment, uses these to produce products and services, and emits degraded matter and energy back into the environment in the form of a high-entropy wake. (Waste heat. Waste matter. Dissipated and degraded matter: yesterday’s newspaper, last year’s running shoes, last decade’s dilapidated automobile.) An economy has ecological impact on both the uptake and emission side. The laws of thermodynamics dictate that this be so. “You can’t make something from nothing; nor can you make nothing from something,” the law of conservation of matter and energy tells us. With enough energy we could recycle all the matter that enters our economy—even the molecules that wear off the coins in your pocket. But energy is scarce: “You can’t recycle energy,” says the law of entropy. Or, in a colloquial analogy: Accounts must balance and bills must be paid. To operate our economic machine we pay an energy bill; we must ever take in energy anew.

ESTABLISHING an ecologically sustainable economy requires that humans accept a limit on the amount of scarce low entropy that we take up from the planet (which will also, necessarily, limit the amount of degraded matter and energy that we emit). An effective approach would be to use market mechanisms, such as would occur if we had an economy-wide tax on low-entropy uptake (the extraction of coal and oil, the cutting of lumber). The tax rate could be set to ensure that use doesn’t exceed a limit—the CO2 absorption capacity of the planet, the regenerative ability of forests. Producers and consumers would have freedom under the cap brought about by the tax. With such a tax, the tax on workers’ income could be abandoned. (As the slogan says, we should “tax bads, not goods.” Work is good. Uptake of scarce resources is bad.)

FOR DECADES environmentalism has been primarily a moral vision, with principles susceptible to being reduced to fundamentalist absolutes. Pollution is wrong; it is profanation. We have no right, environmentalism has said, to cause species extinction, to destroy habitat, to expand the dominion of culture across the face of nature. True enough, and so granted. But even Dick Cheney agreed that environmentalism is essentially, merely, a moral vision. (“Conservation,” he said, on his way to giving oil companies everything they wanted, “may be a personal virtue, but it is not a sufficient basis for a sound, comprehensive energy policy.”) The time has long since passed for the achievement of sustainability to be left to simple moral admonition, to finger-wagging in its various forms. It’s time to use the power of the market—the power of self-interest, regulated and channeled by wise policy—to do good. Environmentalism must become an economic vision.

ACCEPTING A LIMIT on the economy’s uptake of matter and energy from the planet does not mean that we have to accept that history is over, that civilization will stagnate, or that we cannot make continual improvements to the human condition. A no-growth economy is not a no-development economy; there would still be invention, innovation, even fads and fashions. An economy operating within ecological limits will be in dynamic equilibrium (like nature, its model): just as ecosystems evolve, so would the economy. Quality of life (as it is measured by the Index of Sustainable Economic Welfare, an ecologically minded replacement for GDP) would still improve. If a sustainable economy dedicated to development rather than growth were achieved through market mechanisms, consumers would still reign supreme over economic decision making, free to pursue satisfactions—and fads and fashions—as they choose.

OUR CHALLENGE is to create something unprecedented in human history: an ecologically sustainable civilization that offers a high standard of living widely shared among its citizens, a civilization that does not maintain itself through more-or-less hidden subsidies from antique solar income, or from the unsustainable exploitation of ecosystems and peoples held in slavery or penury, domestically or in remote regions of the globe. The world has never known such a civilization. Most hunting-and-gathering tribes achieved a sustainable balance with their environments, living off current solar income in many of its forms rather than on the draw-down of irreplaceable stocks, but we can’t say that any of them achieved a high standard of material well-being. Medieval western Europe lived in balance with its soil community, achieving a form of sustainable agriculture that lasted until the invention of coal- and steam-propelled agriculture a few centuries ago, but few of us would trade the comforts and freedoms we enjoy today for life as a serf on a baronial estate, or even for the pre-electricity, pre-petroleum life of a mid-nineteenth-century farmer."

NO, THERE IS NO PRECEDENT for what we are struggling to create. We have to make it up ourselves."


The Politicization of Sustainability

Joshua J. Yates:

Sustainability has its critics. From the beginning, the UN’s linking of sustainability with development struck many environmentalists as a fundamental contradiction in terms. The concept of sustainability originally emerged out of ecological thinking that was interested in promoting a steady-state (or zero-growth) economy, not more growth, however sustainable it might be. To marry these two opposing concepts would not respect nature’s limits; it would only repackage growth in more environmentally friendly terms. Far from a creative synthesis, sustainable development came to represent, in certain environmental circles, a fatal compromise that enabled economic interests to co-opt ecological concerns, which in turn, resulted in what one scholar has called “sustainable degradation.”

Today, criticism of sustainability has migrated across the political spectrum and has accrued a very different set of voices along the way. Many of the most vocal critics of sustainable development in the United States are actually anti-environmentalists on the political right. Their nemeses are not proponents of economic growth, but UN bureaucrats who they fear are using the concept of sustainability to restrict national liberties and infringe upon private property rights—in short, as a Trojan horse for socialism. In the words of a letter posted on RedState, a popular conservative blog: “sustainability is the next step in the green government religion, to mandate what statists want, at the local level.”15 On another popular conservative blog,, Rachel Alexander avers that “‘sustainability’ is an amorphous concept that can be interpreted to an extreme degree that would regulate and restrict many parts of our lives.”16

While UN bureaucrats are the object of ire and invective, the epicenter of this right-wing populist discontent is not found in the street protests of high-level UN meetings, as we might expect, but in city halls and county court houses in several municipalities across the nation. The issue? The adoption of land use guidelines from the U.S. chapter of an international consulting group known as “Local Governments for Sustainability” (or “ICLEI”). Over the past decade, more than 600 U.S. cities, towns, and counties have consulted with ICLEI and utilized its various sustainability performance and planning services.17 The trouble with ICLEI, according to opponents, is that it is effectively smuggling into America the goals of Agenda 21, which are seen as “European socialist goals that will erode our freedoms,” ranging from owning our own homes and cars to population control.18 Bypassing Congress, ICLEI is going directly to local communities, who do not fully understand the real agenda, and selling them on their program with technocratic buzz words like “smart growth” and “responsible comprehensive planning.”

Controversy over high profile global issues has suddenly intruded upon public meetings ordinarily embroiled in local disputes. Around the country, Tea Party advocates have stormed meetings, demanding an end to their community’s membership in ICLEI. According to the New York Times, “a City Council meeting in Missoula, Mont., in December got out of hand and required police intervention over $1,200 in dues to Iclei.”20 In a number of cases, the political pressure has been too much to bear. Communities in Pennsylvania and California have recently withdrawn their participation from ICLEI, and Alabama just became the first state to officially ban Agenda 21.21 Meanwhile Tea Party and other opponents of ICLEI square off against advocates in many other communities across the country. Like so many other key terms, sustainability has become another pawn in the American culture wars.

Curiously, in spite of all the suspicion that sustainability is a shibboleth for socialism in matters of local land use, the word seems to have become important for many of these same critics in the wake of the Great Recession. To be sure, their cause has nothing to do with “sustainable development” and the legacies of Brundtland and Agenda 21. Instead, their watchword is fiscal sustainability, which implies reducing federal spending, and thus debt, which in turn suggests a return to limited government and free markets. It is striking how, for these critics, the same term can engender so much criticism and animosity in one formulation and so much praise and support in another; without realizing it, they simultaneously end up being both boosters and bashers of sustainability, and its invocation “draws applause lines either way.”22 This reveals how sustainability has become not only part of our common idiom, and thus available for wide-ranging and divergent use, but also a term we seemingly cannot do without.

Taken together, the foregoing rhetorical and institutional “mapping” of sustainability leads us to an important recognition: as a matter of empirical description, sustainability has indeed become a master term. This recognition should help us resist the temptation to dismiss it as a meaningless platitude and encourage us to ask why so many different people and interests, across so many realms of society, resort to using the same term. What is it about this term that seems so compelling at this moment in time? Approaching the topic of sustainability in this way allows us to see a deeper cultural logic at work, one that touches on some of the most fundamental assumptions about the world and our relationship to it."


Wendell Berry and Wes Jackson

From an interview conducted by Joshua J. Yates:

"What does genuine sustainability look like? How would we know we have achieved it?

Berry: Sustainability is found in nature’s own dynamic permanence. You can have a permanent pasture—but it’s permanent in a relative sense. You can keep it permanent during your tenure. That is, if you don’t plow it or over-graze it. And this “permanence” doesn’t keep it from changing. It’s necessarily changing all the time.

This is not entirely incompatible with management if you’re doing your best to do the right thing. I’ve restored a modest amount of hillside pasture, and I know it’s possible under a grazing regimen to improve the cover. But things are also going on that you can’t account for. I remember when a portion of the hillside behind my house had a lot of moss on it. Then the moss went away and grass came. Then after a while, broom-sage showed up, and you ordinarily would lime it for that, but the hillside is too steep to lime, so there was nothing to do but wait it out. I waited, and it went away. Something’s happening, you see. I have no idea what, but this is a dynamic resource. It’s changing, but it’s not changing in reference only to me or my use of it. All you can do is make certain decisions that affect it within limits. You can decide not to over-stock it; you can decide to move your stock on or off it at a certain time, that sort of thing, but the sustainability of it is inherent in it, not in the manager. The manager is always going to fall far short of understanding what’s going on in a pasture.

Jackson: The only test is always time-dependent. Thinking about sustainability with the quarterly report in mind, or even one or five or ten years, is different from contemplating the fact that during all interglacial periods of the Pleistocene, Kansas was prairie. There is Homo sapiens time, agricultural time, industrial time. For agricultural time I think we must look to natural ecosystems as the best standard, look at how they have worked over millennia. They have evolved in ways to buffer for extremes over eons. They have stood the test of time and are useful for human thought.

Berry: The natural ecosystem is one measure. But the other necessary measure for humans is the longevity of memory on the land. If we could maintain four generations of continuous attention in a family or neighborhood lineage, then we’d know more about sustainability.

My brother lives on a farm that’s been in my family since before the Civil War, and we do have some memories of what has happened there, so we have a kind of a measure, but that’s a cultural artifact. It comes from what Wallace Stegner called the “sticker” tradition in our history. The stickers have been the ones who stayed, who came wanting to stay, not those who came to plunder and then move on.

So you’ve got to have this conversation forever going back and forth, measuring the human performance against the land in its natural state. This is not science; I don’t know what you’d call it. It can be science at certain points. You can study and examine the unploughed prairie, and that’s science. And then you can compare that to the exhausted slope and the exhausted field, and that’s science. But that conversation going back and forth between human action and nature is scientific only up to a point. Beyond that it’s cultural. Questions have to be asked that aren’t scientific."



Conceptual History

Joshua J. Yates:

"The history of sustainability has only just begun to be written. As a discrete idea, the term was largely ignored by historians, even by environmental historians, until the first decade of the twenty-first century. There has been, of course, a popular story about the origins of sustainability, more or less agreed on by both its advocates and critics. In this telling, sustainability finds its roots in 1970s’ environmentalism, which was animated largely by a neo-Malthusian view that humans were quickly outstripping the carrying capacity of the planet. There were simply too many humans consuming too much of the Earth’s resources, and the costs of the unparalleled economic boom of the post-war period were finally beginning to come due. Humanity was confronting what one well-known study of the period called “the limits to growth.”

The term only rose to international prominence, however, as part of a grand synthesis (or compromise) between environmentalists and development experts within the United Nations system.6 That synthesis found its now classic articulation as “sustainable development” in “Our Common Future,” the 1987 Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development (colloquially known as the Brundtland Report). This landmark report linked sustainability with development in order to harmonize tensions between advanced industrial nations increasingly concerned with environmental problems, on the one hand, and the need for economic development that bedeviled newly decolonizing countries, on the other. In this way, the rhetoric of sustainability was birthed as a policy rubric intended to bridge opposing constituencies in an international context of postcolonialism, Cold War geopolitics, and the beginnings of economic globalization.

The Brundtland Report provided not only what has become sustainability’s reigning definition—“development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”—but also its most expansive, tripartite conceptual framework by which to evaluate any action as truly sustainable, the so-called “three Es” of sustainability: Environment, Economy, and Equality. According to many advocates, these three interrelating spheres represent sustainability in the most complete sense of the word.

Still, it was not until after 1992 that the idea of sustainability began to seep into widespread public consciousness. Building off of the accomplishments of the Brundtland Report and earlier conferences, the UN Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro, known popularly as the Earth Summit, brought together thousands of world leaders representing government, business, the media, and civil society. Among its central accomplishments, the Earth Summit developed a global program for action on sustainable development called Agenda 21—a plan to achieve environmentally sustainable development by the twenty-first century. One of the primary goals of Agenda 21, as with the Brundtland Report before it, was to raise the level of understanding of, and participation in, the cause of sustainable development across multiple sectors and levels of human society."