Abundance on Trial: The Cultural Significance of “Sustainability”
Every now and then a single word emerges from our common parlance to achieve the status of a master term. Such a word gives expression to discrete needs and purposes, but it also provides a perspicuous lens through which to view the ethical disposition and emotional temper of a culture at a particular moment in time. The argument of this essay is that “sustainability” has become just such a word for our moment, deserving closer attention than it has so far received.
This essay seeks to address a set of neglected questions about the cultural significance of sustainability’s rise to a master term in our society and to distill its deeper moral and ethical salience from the wide spectrum of its connotations and applications. We will see how varying concerns over what Americans (and humans more generally) are not presently sustaining reflect a deep-seated anxiety that goes to the very heart of our most basic assumptions about what it means and takes to thrive in the contemporary world. Specifically, we will see how such assumptions are themselves connected to growing uncertainty over whether the relationship between humans and nature is one primarily defined by scarcity or abundance. In light of these anxieties and uncertainties, we will also see how the rise of sustainability to a master term represents accumulating disappointment and disillusionment with those key terms once believed constitutive of modern progress—terms like “development,” “improvement,” and “growth.” The cultural significance of sustainability, in other words, is related to the mounting scrutiny and doubt now facing the master terms of modern progress.
In the summer of 2011, two separate but well-publicized reports by climate scientists issued global calls for sustainability. “The Stockholm Memorandum,” put forward by a group of Nobel Laureates who might well be expected to champion the cause of sustainability, contended: “we are the first generation facing the evidence of global change. It therefore falls upon us to change our relationship with the planet, in order to tip the scales towards a sustainable world for future generations.” Similarly, in a report commissioned by the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy of Sciences, “Fate of Mountain Glaciers in the Anthropocene,” a perhaps unexpected champion of sustainability called on all the peoples and nations of the world to “protect the habitat that sustains us.”
They are not alone. Today, there are thousands of organizations across the planet dedicated to the cause of sustainability in one realm or another. The range of advocacy and application is remarkable, including everything from sustainable economic development to sustainable architectural design and city planning, fashion and apparel, energy, farming, education, healthcare, and so on. As the Nobel Laureate and Vatican reports suggest, the range of constituencies promoting sustainability is equally remarkable. Before we can properly engage the cultural significance of sustainability, it is necessary to develop a fuller picture of how the language of sustainability has become so pervasive.