What is Sustainability? Even the Experts Struggle with its Complexity

Many folks toss about the term, “sustainable” quite cavalierly these days. Like “green products” and “green consumption,” it often implies that a practice or product can continue as part of the industrial-consumer economy for a very long time. Yet the global corporate economy as presently constituted is hardly sustainable itself.

Well, quite often the product or practice touted as “sustainable” is not, since it is intimately entangled with the global corporate economy of endless growth, which all the evidence demonstrates is clearly not sustainable for more than a couple of decades or so. Is that as far ahead as we dare look?

Even some forms of “renewable” energy are not all that sustainable when we consider their relationship to the global extractive economy. Take so-called “renewable natural gas,” for example. The only natural form of natural gas comes out of the ground and is not renewable.

An Important Exercise in Seeking Sustainability

Last week, I attended an important conference on “Sustainability: Transdisciplinary Theory, Practice, and Action,” (STTPA) in Toronto, Canada, at the Mississauga campus of the University of Toronto (UTM). It is a beautiful campus set in a wooded environment outside the central city. Some of the newer buildings conform to the LEEDS standards for energy efficiency. A real concern for sustainability seems to pervade the campus culture.

UTM CampusThe Mississauga campus even has a master’s degree program in Sustainability Management, led by Professor Shashi Kant, who also organized this first sustainability conference, slated to repeat every two years. The conference demonstrated both the importance of developing sustainable lifeways and economic systems in the very near future and the difficulty in clarifying what really is sustainable and what is not.

In my post last week, while I was at the conference, I pointed to the problem of “renewable natural gas” not being sustainable, as well as not really being “natural.” How can waste from over-consumption be sustainable when the global system of extraction-production-consumption-waste on a finite planet overpopulated by overconsuming humans be sustainable? After all, the global economy driven by capital accumulation generated by over-production and over-consumption has already overshot the Earth System’s capacity to sustain it.

The End of Endless Growth

An exceptionally articulate presentation by Brett Caraway, “Interrogating Amazon’s Sustainability Innovation,” explained the ultimate unsustainability of Jeff Bezos’ model of corporate growth expressed in the unprecedented growth of Amazon. The Amazon growth story is the epitome of endless corporate economic expansion that will surely end sooner than almost anyone imagines. The presentations at the conference will be published online as Proceedings of the STTPA.

These were not the only important issues for human survival into the Anthropocene explored during this international conference of diverse professionals, academics, businesspersons and government officials.

Of course, anyone concerned with the destruction of ecosystems, the destabilization of the climate, and the increasing risks to human survival we face must consider what we can do to carve out a sustainable future. That was the goal of the conference. Much work remains to be done. As we move into the unpredictable forms of instability shaping up in the very near future, we must recognize that our own behavior and beliefs are fraught with contradictions and predicaments. Success will depend on the human ability to break out of conventional thinking and get very creative in our attempts to shape our own future.

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