A Critical Look at Sustainability

by Suiyi Tang ’19, Zilkha Summer Intern 2016 

       SUIYI SUSTAINABLEIt’s easy to fall into abstraction when thinking about sustainability. The term certainly lends itself to an air of distance, having been cloaked in the (faux) furs of the holier-than-thou who claim to be fighting the good fight. And since the mirage of “sustainability,” seated intimately next to its Organic, Locally Sourced, and Super Food peers, is the new mascot of neoliberal self-righteousness, it has become easy to dismiss as a function of a very certain type of “justice,” afforded to those with the financial, social, and ideological wherewithal to brand themselves warriors of a “sustainable lifestyle” (one which is, I might add, foreseeable only with a controlled capitalistic state in which they are the top 20 percent). As well worn and meaninglessly dropped into the daily vocabulary of the respectable as misplaced olive oil on soggy kale salad, sustainability is a term that many of us have tolerated, but rarely understood and certainly never enjoyed.

Sustainability is a slippery concept, its genealogy highlighted by a chiaroscuro frame: what are we sustaining, exactly? Toward what future are we striving under the hysterics of a “better tomorrow” if to sustain is an act that, in its current application, seeks to preserve the status quo? The dictionary offers pressing answers to such questions of etymological existentialism. Sustainability, google.com tells me, is the “ability to continue a defined behavior indefinitely.” Read this way, it is a framework of thinking that values independence and continuity. Centered around an act, the core tenets of any sustainable gesture is a striving toward preservation. Much contemporary discourse around sustainability is concerned with the basic tenet of life. It asks: how can the overlapping structural elements of society, economy, and ecological environment come together to create a reality in which we are at peace with nature? This is known commonly as the model of the three-legged stool, and it offers a basic framework with which to squint at the hazy outline of a “sustainable” future. But it is a tepid analogy at best, one which assures the forced separation of social institutions and the environment from which they cannot exist without. A “sustainable” economic state, under the limited understanding of the three-legged stool, fails to ask itself the hard questions, pushed on by a self-defeating logic that favors the illusion of superficial change. The question becomes not “How can we revolutionize our systems so that we strive toward a world of social and economic equity, and net-zero resource consumption?” but “How can we, under the stimulants of Science, Technology, and Imperialism, best bend the environment to meet our needs for an unforeseeable end?” A “sustainable” society settles for the “good enough.” The metric becomes skewered as three-legged logic encourages us to think within the limits of the status quo. How much inequality is too much inequality? Not our inequality, we think. We become accustomed to acceptance, mired in the short-sighted trenches of a (un)salvageable yesterday.

But we need to be asking bigger questions, for sustainability, at its core, cannot exist without progress. To be sustainable is—contrary to the understanding of the Lululemon-clad, Whole Foods vegan—to re-envision and to re-create. It is to be dedicated to the reexamination and rebuilding of institutions we have long accepted to be the only option available. Praxis is important here: environmental sustainability is as prescriptive as it is descriptive. It is driven by values, but held accountable by reality. To be sustainable is not to look to the past toward an idealistic vision of pre-capitalist ignorance, nor is it to bend over backwards toward preserving a nostalgic illusion of “originarity” or “authenticity.” Instead, it is to look ahead with both eyes on the path to post-capitalistic recovery, with an understanding that our position is within an ecological genealogy whose origin lies before our existence, but whose dynamic changes we must work hard to match. It is to acknowledge that the human inventions of society and economy exist within the environment, not separate or apart from it. Sustainability, in this sense, asks us to reevaluate the position of human worth in relation to the greater ecological schema. Insomuch as how, well—your guess is as good as mine. But that, I think, is the point of the good fight.


IMAGE SOURCE: http://www.maryvillecollege.edu/academics/programs-of-study/sustainability/