The Sustainability Trap: Shifting Targets, No Goal

Sustainability is a complicated matter. It is also a very popular idea among those who want to contribute to a stable future for humanity. The first question that always comes to my mind is, “Sustain what?” People toss the term around as if everyone knows what it means. Well, for most it means to make something “good” or “better,” or just keep it going in mostly unspecified ways. But in the context of today’s Earth System crisis, much more is involved.

The Idea of Being Sustainable

It sounds so nice: sustainable this or sustainable that. We like things to last a long while—unless they go out of fashion, of course. Then we want something new, or at least the latest version. However, if we look closely at the idea, sustainable, all it means is that the ‘what’ can continue for a long time. Single-use plastic grocery bags and other containers would not be included, despite the fact that they are not bio-degradable, which is why they last so long in the environment. Yet we keep using them.

The oil companies will surely keep producing plastic products until we have a lot more plastic micro-particles in our bloodstreams than we do now, and many more plastics strangling sea creachers than now–without political intervention.

What about that brand new Hummer your wealthy cousin bought to impress everyone with his economic power? For the idea of sustainability to be useful in the present context of growing pollution and chaos, we must also look at how we sustain something at what cost to our habitat and ourselves. Pollution run wild simply must require political intervention

How long can it last, and what does that mean? I think the current meaning of sustainable would be violated even if your cousin maintained his Humvee beast for decades. Something else is missing from this interpretation of the term. What most people miss is the Earth-System impact of sustaining a particular practice or the production of a product or service. Also, it is a matter of degree and intensity of the impact it will have on the world around it.

In today’s context, we could sustain our use of more efficient fuels for decades. But the effect on carbon emissions would be limited, making climate and ecological stability still unsustainable., Human mobility would still drive the living Earth systems upon which we depend into collapse. The result would not significantly slow the accelerated mass extinction of species, including us.

The Only Important Factor

We must broaden the meaning of sustainability to the Earth System itself. That is, because we have intervened in ecological and climate processes so severely and for so long, we must stop now and find another path. If we want to build a future for our children and their children, then past and current human intervention in the processes of Nature must stop, right now. We must replace the extractive global corporate system of production, distribution, marketing, consumption, and waste—the globalized corporate state—which has already thrown the world out of balance. (Unlike the corporatism of Mussolini’s fascism in the 1930s in which the state controlled corporations, today, the corporate state consists of a nation that is largely controlled by its corporate and financial elites, who dominate public decisions and legislation through political donations and lobbying legislation.)

More and more people now know that we cannot sustain our current path without destroying the very foundations of human life on planet Earth. Groups like Extinction Rebellion, the Fridays for Future climate strike started by Greta Thunberg, and the Sunrise Movement, all understand this well. That is why they resist the continuation of the status quo. That is why they may seem so desperate to get the attention of the IPCC, and the leaders of corporations and nations. The situation that confronts us is extreme. It calls for as extreme response. Unfortunately, that is not within the “mandate” of corporations, governments, or the populations they purport to serve. The propaganda of the corporate state has operated far too effectively against the changes that can save us all from extreme chaos and collapse.

The predicament we face is global. No one entity or institution can do it all. The most important factor in all this is the need to recognize that nothing short of massive global mobilization of entire populations and institutions is enough to.

Mass Action for Climate and Ecological Restoration

The only thing that is most valuable about the concept of sustainability is the idea that if an action or economic, political, or social process does not contribute to the wellbeing of the Earth System now, it is unsustainable. If you examine the everyday lives of the people and institutions of the industrial-consumer societies of the global north today, you must conclude that their actions are not only unsustainable, they are explicitly destructive.

That presents a huge dilemma. The vast majority of ‘leaders’ of nations, states, municipalities, corporations, and even small businesses, is unprepared and unwilling to make the extreme changes that their past and present indifference has made necessary. Yet they will soon be forced to recognize as the dead end that it is. The biggest question is whether at that point it will be too late to restore enough stability in the Earth System to allow the survival of the human race.

That is why mass mobilization of people around the world is the extreme but necessary action that is necessary today. Restoration of the Earth’s climate and ecosystems to a level of relative stability requires extreme collective action now—something none of us are accustomed to. Yet, there is no way that we can sustain human life on our present course. Everyone who is or becomes aware of this extremely grave emergency must find others who are similarly aware and form networks for climate and ecosystem restoration actions.

Organize to abandon the industrial-consumer economy and replace it with local/regional ecologically viable production of necessary products and services. Organize ecosystem-based social networks to restore actively whatever aspects of your habitat you can, regardless of ownership or laws about the land. There is no time for formalities such as lawsuits and the like. As Bill Moyers has said, the only way to overcome organized money is by organized people. Resist, replace, and restore.


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