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The Hopes and Anxieties of Sustainability: A Q&A with Dr. Maria Antonaccio

What Are We Worried About When We Worry About “Sustainability”?

April 14, 2016 • By Maria Antonaccio What Are We Worried About When We Worry About “Sustainability”?

Sustainability has become a buzzword in contemporary culture. And like many buzzwords, the more it is used, the less it seems to mean. Although the term is often associated with "sustainable development” (defined as "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”), there are multiple and often competing ideas of sustainability in circulation.

Environmentally conscious consumers look for products certified as “sustainable” in order to reduce their ecological footprint. Colleges and universities promote sustainability as a core value in preparing students as global citizens. And corporations hail sustainability as an essential management principle for achieving the so-called triple bottom line of "people, profit, and planet." But whether these diverse uses of "sustainability" are talking about the same thing is open to question.

The problem starts with the word itself. Dictionary definitions of sustainability are notoriously vague. They range from the redundant (“capable of being sustained”) to the relatively obvious (“able to last or continue for a long time”) to the somewhat more helpful (“able to be used without being used up or destroyed”). But none of these definitions gets at the real questions that need to be addressed: what is to be sustained, for whom, for how long, and for what purpose?

A more promising approach is the three-part schema of Environment, Economy, and Equity (the so-called three “Es” of sustainability), which provides a framework for evaluating whether an action is truly sustainable. But there is continuing debate about whether these three elements can be seamlessly integrated to achieve what has been called “full-spectrum sustainability” or whether trade-offs among them are inevitable.  For example, conventional economic thinking holds that a society can aim to be rich or it can aim to be equal, but it cannot be both. A similar trade-off is thought to exist between economic growth and environmental protection. Many sustainability theorists challenge these assumptions.

Given the problems just noted, it is easy to be cynical about sustainability. To many people, it appears as little more than a clever marketing ploy to give products or organizations an edge in a competitive marketplace. As Miriam Greenberg notes, “‘sustainability’ has become a strategic branding device more than an ideal.” And yet it is hard to escape the feeling that there must be more to a concept that has achieved such widespread cultural currency.

My research on sustainability begins from precisely this starting point. I read sustainability discourse as an important diagnostic of the contemporary cultural situation. Accordingly, I interpret the emergence of sustainability not only as a practical response to well-documented social and environmental problems, but also as a cultural phenomenon with underlying moral-existential significance.

In particular, I approach sustainability as a prism through which to interpret the moral and cultural anxieties of living in an era of climate change. The basic question I seek to address is the following: What does the current preoccupation with sustainability reveal about the current cultural moment? Or to put the question more pointedly: What are we worried about when we worry about sustainability?

Two anxieties in particular underlie the current preoccupation with sustainability. First, sustainability discourse is a reflection of widespread anxiety about whether the biophysical conditions of life can be maintained into the indefinite future given the scope and intensity of humanity’s impact on the planet. And second, sustainability discourse reflects an awareness that human beings have in effect become “geological agents,” capable of altering processes that affect the earth as a whole.

What is interesting and important about sustainability as a concept is that it brings these anxieties to the surface. In doing so, it makes possible a wider discussion of contested values, ideas of the good, and visions of the future during a time of unprecedented global challenges.  One of the most important moral-existential questions sustainability can help us address is the following: should human cultures and societies embrace the idea of natural limits as intrinsically good and seek to maximize the possibilities for life within those limits? Or should the goal be to overcome natural limits in pursuit of new possibilities through social and technological innovation? 

My research interprets different ideals of sustainability as “counter-worlds” to current conditions in order to highlight often-unacknowledged assumptions about the kind of future they seek to enact. Understanding ideas of sustainability as counter-worlds locates them in the broader history of reflection on ideas of utopia and dystopia. As Greenberg notes, “Sustainability is a futuristic, even utopian, project par excellence. As with all utopian projects, sustainability offers a vision of the future to galvanize us to imagine our world otherwise and engage in the work necessary to change it.” 

Much more than a buzzword, sustainability is an aspiration, i.e., an ideal of what it means to live well or to flourish, embedded within a larger framework of assumptions about "what is” and “what ought to be.” I believe that humanistic disciplines such as religion, ethics, and philosophy contain valuable and underutilized resources for unpacking many of the assumptions implicit in current discussions of sustainability. My hope is that my research on the diverse cultural meanings of sustainability will foster productive interdisciplinary debate and greater public discussion of what values we seek collectively to sustain, for whom, for how long, and for what purpose.

Read a Q&A with Maria Antonaccio about her research here.

Photo courtesy of eltpics via Flickr.