Rebalancing the Rhetoric of Sustainability

I wrote this last year (2011) for The Noise. I must have forgot to post the digital copy.

“’Sustain’ is a pretty ancient word in the English vocabulary. As far back as the 13th or 14th century, we see verbal forms of that word. They are analogous to way we today use the abstract noun ‘sustainability,’” explained environmental historian, William Cronon, to a packed auditorium during his key note lecture, “The Riddle of Sustainability: A Surprisingly Short History of the Future,” during the annual conference for the American Society for Environmental History, which happened to be in Phoenix this year. To sustain is, “to cause to continue in a certain state, to keep up without intermission, to keep up a community without failing, or giving away.”

During his talk, which provided not only an etymology of the word “sustainability,” but also a cultural narrative surrounding its relatively recent emergence as part of the English language and its solidification as an ideal upon which the human future is imagined.

If you look up the word “sustainability” in the dictionary, you won’t find it. The adjective, “sustainable,” however, is defined in The American Heritage Dictionary as “capable of being continued with minimal long term effect on the environment,” and in Merriam Webster’s College Dictionary, “of, relating to, or being a method of harvesting or using a resource so that the resource is not depleted or permanently damaged.”

However, when the word “sustainable” entered the English language, it had nothing to do with the environment; let alone social justice. Until the middle of the 1960’s, “it had to do with the legal usage of arguments that are sustainable…it’s not until 1965 that we see the adjective ‘sustainable’ coupled with the word that describes social systems—sustainable growth, or sustainable economic growth—that’s how the word entered the English language.

The first appearance of the word “sustainability” was by the neo-conservative economist Thomas Sowell in his University of Chicago doctoral dissertation. “Notice that 1972, in the context of a discussion about the history of economics, is where that word first appeared,” said Cronon. “Nobody in the 1970’s used that word at all.”

While we can recognize that early conservationists were focused on questions related to the way we think of sustainability today, usage of the word did not gain ground until recently. “The efficient use of natural resources by eliminating waste is something that, of course, Gifford Pinchot introduced in that famous quotation, borrowed and modified from Jeremy Bentham, ‘the greatest good for the greatest number, for the longest time.’”

For a clear illustration of how quickly the word “sustainability” entered the English lexicon, Cronon had the audience consider the 2004 anniversary edition to the 1972 international best seller, The Limits of Growth. In the 1972 edition, the word “sustainable” occurs only a few times, while “sustainability” and “unsustainability” do not appear at all. Though if you read the 2004 edition, “you will find there the world sustainability occurring dozens of times and the words ‘sustainable’ and ‘unsustainable’ occurring hundreds of times…which is a measure of how much the linguistic universe we’re talking about changed in the interval between 1972 and the beginning of the 21st century.”

The most widely reproduced definition of sustainability comes from the United Nations Brundtland Commission: “To meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability for future generations to meet their own needs.”

In the 1980’s, as environmental justice movements exposed the disproportionate exposure poor communities suffered as a result of environmental degradation and pollution as well as illuminating the often racist rhetoric surrounding issues of overpopulation, “one of the features, interestingly, of sustainability, will be it’s assertion, from the beginning that concerns about the environment can never be tackled by themselves…all definitions of sustainability, the argument will be you cannot solve environmental problems without also worrying about sustainable economic growth…and worrying about social equity. Social justice. It all must be done simultaneously,” said Cronon, providing historical insight into the creation of the now ubiquitous, “three legged stool” of sustainability, which is articulated in various ways: economy, society, ecology; economy, equity, environment; the triple-bottom line of people, planet, profit.

The incarnation of this triple concern arose “to move away from an environmentalism that seems to be focused too much on nature and not enough on people.”

Cronon’s “Riddle of Sustainability,” lies in, among other things, negotiating the tension between the idea of a balanced stool and the current reality, which is one that in many ways places our current economic system as a priority over the environment or social justice. “Is sustainability sustainable?” he asked. “Can it be sustained? What are its virtues? What are its unresolved tensions? What are the paradoxes built into it?”

I spoke to Winona LaDuke before she addressed a sold out Northern Arizona University audience in early February. “To me you have to rethink the paradigm,” she said. “What is good quality of life? Generally the discussions around sustainability has to do with maintaining this level or some semblance of this economy and trying to figure out how to keep this economy going at some level, which does not entirely compromise or cause eco-systems to collapse. And that’s an unrealistic approach.”

Cronon’s highlights this as one of sustainability’s “greatest attractions,” “It’s seeming implication that we can effectively have our cake and eat it too. We can reinvent our entire culture, our entire political economy, our mired relationships to nature and natural resources without the devastating reductions in standard of living that past environmentalists prophesies almost universally asserted were necessary.

LaDuke emphasizes our current reality as one whereby social justice and the needs of the natural world take a backseat to the needs of the economy. And that this shift will, indeed, require a change in lifestyle expectations. “We need to create a sustainability that is restored in its relationship to the natural world and to all our relatives, whether they have wings, or fins, or hands.”

Instead of orienting social justice and environmental concerns around the economy of adjustable dumbbells, a growing number of people believe that the economy should be transformed to work around the needs of people and the natural world. “Because you cannot have a sustainable economy if you rob other countries of their wealth or their people or their intellectual capital, whatever that is. You cannot have a sustainable economy if you contaminate the water or mine everything that is there.”

Mining, especially mining on indigenous lands, where communities rely directly on the land to live, is a particularly illuminating example. On March 26th, at the Orpheum Theater in Flagstaff, elders from the Havasupai Tribe, together with other local environmental and social justice organizations, and native musicians from all over the Colorado Plateau came together to voice their opposition to uranium mining near the Grand Canyon.

Havasupai elder, Rex Tilousi, who has traveled internationally for decades trying to raise awareness about the effects of uranium mining on his community, addressed the crowd. “We feel very honored to be here to share what we as indigenous people have been going through the past 500 years,” Tilousi said. “They (mining companies) tell us it is clean, it is cheap, but what they don’t tell us [is] where is it coming from?” Tilousi said. “The waste, the tailings they all left behind — what is happening to that? This is happening on indigenous lands.”

Taylor McKinnon from Flagstaff’s Center for Biological Diversity connected the environmental impact of uranium mining on the health of local communities. “The government cannot guarantee that mining will not damage our aquifers or damage our springs. If that happens, if our aquifers become contaminated or depleted from uranium mining, it is impossible to clean up. We’ve seen far too many examples in the 4-corners area of aquifers that have become ruined by uranium mining and people that have suffered as a result of that. We cannot let that happen.”

Development on the San Francisco Peaks is another local example that highlights perceived economic gains over healthy communities and the integrity of the natural world. Traditional Diné medicine practitioner, Jones Benally made this connection at the benefit to stop uranium mining. “That’s our sacred place, that’s a holy mountain. We learn ceremonies from the bottom to the top. There are also a lot of different kinds of medicines on that mountain and a lot of different animals. You know what will happen, if we let them? They are going to destroy it. And we don’t want to let that happen. We belong to the earth; we don’t own it.”

Still, the appeal of using reclaimed wastewater to make snow artificially on the San Francisco Peaks is a “mitigation strategy,” articulated by University of Arizona economist Rosalind Bark. Dr. Bark analyzed the “Economies of winter recreation” in Arizona. When I spoke to Dr. Bark about her conclusions, she asserted that as we move forward, because city’s like Flagstaff will not have reliable winters, particularly in light of climate change, making snow artificially is not a solution to this, but a strategy whereby Flagstaff can essentially buy some time as it rethinks it’s winter economy.

By juxtaposing this information with the following realities, unbalances are revealed in the pursuit of sustainability.
1) there are consistent and well-documented connections between maintaining the integrity of the San Francisco Peaks and the cultural and spiritual survival of over 13 native tribes, and
2) there is a lack of meaningful data that support the idea that making snow out of a mixture of water that is 100% reclaimed water (the only resort in the world to attempt this) would not have adverse long term effects on humans or the natural integrity of the mountain itself.
By approving this, Flagstaff ignores the impact on local communities and the natural world, in an effort to mitigate the effects of climate change on the local economy.

Similiarly mining for uranium, although widely regarded as a way to mitigate the effects of climate change by producing “clean” energy, the process of extraction has proven over and over again to not take into account the impacts of such operations on local communities, nor the integrity of the local environment. And because our usage of nuclear power is not actually replacing “dirtier” energy sources like coal, but is simply an addition to them, we can easily infer again that it is the needs of an inherently unsustainable economy that trump the needs of people and the natural world. Asked LaDuke, “If that (uranium mining) is the answer, what was the question?”

Indeed, transforming the economy to one that orients itself around the needs of people and the natural world is a very big challenge, given how unsustainable it is. “We are told that renewable energy cannot meet the needs of the demand of the US energy economy,” says LaDuke. “Well who would want to? The reality is that between point of origin and point of consumption, according to the Lawrence Livermore Lab, 57 percent of the energy we produced is wasted? So why would anybody want to sustain that?”

“What we produce the most of in this country is trash! 50 trillion tons a year. And if we aren’t putting it all in landfills, we ship it off to Somalia…is that a balance we’re trying to maintain? Probably not”

Perhaps we can “have our cake and eat it too,” as long as the cake is empowered communities and a healthy environment rather than disposable electronics and kiwi that travels 14 thousand miles so we can eat it in January. “Don’t get in that false debate about how you’re going to meet our current demand, because the reality is that you shouldn’t be shipping food from California, across the country and you shouldn’t be shipping power at the rate we are,“ says LaDuke.

LaDuke continues. “I’m a world developmental economist, I’m not an engineer, but I know what’s right. You need to have energy and food systems that are scaled appropriately for your community so you control it. That’s what sustainable communities is all about.”

“There is a problem of scale,” says Cronon. The claims of sustainability are strongest at the global level, the planetary level. Though all of us know that is not in fact where most human beings experience their strongest affective obligation, their strongest sense of commitment…the most effective expressions of sustainability have been at the local scale.”

The widely attended “Stop Uranium Mining” benefit was a good example of this, as was the Save the Peaks protest during the City of Flagstaff’s Earth Day events. On Saturday, April 16th, over 150 Flagstaff citizens marched from City Hall through the downtown area protesting the city’s ongoing compliance with development on the San Francisco Peaks. The protestors blocked traffic, and effectively shut down the city’s Earth Day events earlier than scheduled out of what must have been a perceived fear of what the united citizenry might do.

“People working in small communities, face-to-face relationships, can actually genuinely work together for the good of that community,” concludes Cronon. “The farther outward you go on the scale, the harder it is to see the shared good, and the harder it is to recognize ‘the other’ on the other side of the planet as someone who shares your humanity.

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2 Comments on “Rebalancing the Rhetoric of Sustainability”

  1. Joe Says:

    Thanks for posting, what do you think Cronon means by “Unresolved Tensions?”

    As for environmental prophets… do they go to heaven?

  2. kyle Says:

    Hey Joe – I can speculate a few “unresolved tensions.” The big one is that environmentalists have, with limited success, tried to reshape sustainability from an economic term to one that also encompasses environmental concerns and, more recently, concerns of social equity. This perhaps helps to explain, at least semantically, why this stool is so unbalenced, as it were – presently the economic concerns far out-weigh anything else.