Sustainable This, Sustainable That; Green This, Green That. What exactly is the point? The “sustainability” meme seems to have gone culturally viral. Promoters use it to give any action or proposal at all a sheen of environmental respectability. But what does it actually mean?
I am afraid that “sustainability” has come to mean nothing at all, other than functioning to evoke a politically correct gloss over whatever the speaker (or advertisement) is promoting. It has gone the way of “green” as an emotionally evocative signal that everything will be just fine, as long as you do not look behind the curtain, behind which you may find the shocking truth. (One notable exception is “The Green New Deal.”)
Talk is cheap
Most “sustainability” talk is constrained by assumptions it deeply embeds in the very same extractive industrial consumer culture and practices that can no longer be sustained. “Sustainable” usually implies that a practice can continue indefinitely because it relies on renewable resources, energy and/or “responsible” methods of extraction, harvest, or production.
However, industrial-consumer economies cannot sustain current levels of extraction, production, and consumption without forcing extreme levels of climate chaos, ecological destruction, and resource depletion. The industrial-consumer economy will no longer be able to sustain the overgrown populations that depend on it. The limits of growth have arrived; economic growth itself is no longer sustainable.
Words and Deeds
The global industrial-consumer economy can sustain some practices for a long time, yet contribute significantly to climate chaos, ecological destruction, and eventually societal collapse. More broadly, the “technosphere” itself (the techno-industrial complex that sustains and is driven by the endless growth economy) is not sustainable simply because it is destroying the core living Earth systems upon which we all rely for survival.
Physics is not negotiable. Faith in technological innovation and economic growth as the drivers of human progress is no longer a viable belief system. Physical Earth System parameters constitute impassible boundaries to reckless techno-industrial economics. Those who live in the ephemeral world of such utopian dreams hold to their untenable beliefs, but cannot persuade the Earth System to passively accept the plunder and pollution we have put upon it. We have set in motion self-amplifying processes that we have little if any remaining ability to control.
Continuing on our present path of impossible endless economic growth will force the collapse of society itself following both the destabilization of the complex dynamic living Earth systems on which it all depends. Also, the internal major sub-system breakdowns we have already experienced, such as in the 2008 global financial meltdown, all indicate growing system instability leading to an accelerated collapse.
A New Great Transformation, vastly more complex than the industrial revolution that started the now-dying industrial era, is upon us. Yet, we have done little to mitigate or adapt to the catastrophic disruptions of economy, ecology, and climate that it has caused.
The dominant concept of “sustainability” fails to consider the limits of extraction-production-consumption and waste on our finite. The globalized corporate economy has overshot the Earth System’s capacity to carry the ecological load of a
population of industrial consumers. What is actually sustainable is so different from the pseudo-sustainable industrial-consumer practices still promoted, that it is hard for most to imagine. Survival of the human species will depend on our ability to shape new local/regional ecological communities that embed their economies within and harmonize with the ecosystems they inhabit.
Asking how to assure “sustainable development,” or worse, “sustainable growth,” is a way of denying the fact that the current trajectory of political economy is itself unsustainable.