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The fallacy of “sustainability”

Posted on 20-06-2023

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Since the day I received my first certificate in sustainability from LEED as a Green Associate in 2012, I defined myself as an advocate for the environment. And I mouthed the word "sustainability" every chance I got, and I even have a tiny line under my email signature that says, "Do not print. Think sustainability." Since then, I have continued to accumulate certificates and attend training courses on all aspects of "sustainability". And if someone dares to ask me what sustainability is? I will confidently scratch my beard and flood them with a stream of quotes from the Brundtland Report, research and academic debates, saying, "sustainability is the only key to a better future, the threshold to preserving our planet, the process of balancing our needs, the act of reducing our consumption" and keep adding "fashionable" terminologies. And for all this, I am a fraud, and I have lied. And let me tell you why sustainability is misleading.


What is sustainability?

Let us take a step back and look at the question and the concept. Linguistically, sustainability means the ability to maintain something (e.g. a state, an object or a process). "Sustainability" began as an abstract philosophical ideology that admired the surrounding nature and described the "stability" of shelter, food and fuel and the balance between humans and nature, most clearly in the works of Aristotle (Nicomachean Ethics), Plato and Socrates. However, it quickly evolved into a crucial element in the history of human development. It transformed into a method of recognising and addressing the severe impact of humans on natural resources. This change has not stood still but has significantly influenced today's understanding of sustainability as a contemporary method for effectively balancing the social, economic and environmental aspects of societies with the needs of human development. But what exactly is sustainability?


Like any self-defined researcher with access to numerous online libraries, I fired up my laptop and googled the "big" names in the philosophy of sustainability (John Evelyn's Sylva, Baruch Spinoza, Carl Linnaeus, Georges-Louis Leclerc and John Muir). Then I added a dozen journal articles on sustainability science. After a few hours, I was frustrated and even more confused. However, to save you the trouble, I can confirm that sustainability is not a new science, paradigm or set of qualitative indicators. Rather, it is a set of wicked problems that holistically challenge the planet and its systems and impact human existence and well-being in the present and future. I also suggest that three dominant ideologies have shaped the current perception of sustainability. The first is "sustainability through conservation capacity", which promotes a "balanced" state that aims to "sustain" the existence of entities through the ability to endure challenges over time. The second is "sustainability through quantifiability", which defines sustainability as an abstract concept that only comes into play on a quantifiable and global scale. And the third is "sustainability through integration(-ability)", which defines sustainability by describing a state of mutual interest, integration and balance between the three aspects of economic development, environmental capacity and societal needs.


In the end, I also tell you that sustainability is not defined and can not be defined. The difficulty in defining the term is due to the fact that there is no definitive formulation, no stopping rules and no precise boundaries for the timeframe or the problem. So the question is not "what is", but "why" and "how".


Why is it misleading?

I am not arguing "scientifically" in the literal sense here. Still, first, I quote Charles L. Choguill (2007), who says: "The term sustainability has become one of the most overused and all too often misused terms in the development literature". The concept of sustainability is often seen as a positive goal. However, I suggest that sustainability can be misleading and insufficient when addressing the complex challenges we face today. An example is the global goal of reducing the temperature by 1.5 degrees, for which there is still no feasible and precise plan. Sustainability often focuses on maintaining current systems and practices without questioning the underlying assumptions. As a result, the root causes of environmental degradation, social inequality and economic instability may not be adequately addressed. The term "sustainability" implies maintaining the status quo indefinitely, which can give a false sense of security. In reality, our planet faces urgent and interconnected crises such as climate change, biodiversity loss and resource depletion. These problems require more immediate and ambitious action than simply maintaining existing conditions. We have been talking about a "climate emergency" for the last few decades, but how long can an "emergency" last?


Moreover, striving for sustainability may mean making trade-offs between environmental, social and economic goals. For example, focusing only on ecological sustainability may neglect social justice or economic growth. Moreover, well-intentioned sustainability efforts can sometimes lead to unintended negative consequences in other areas, such as land-use conflicts or community displacement. Methodologically, however, sustainability is often considered in isolation, without taking into account the interconnectedness and complexity of ecological, social and economic systems. This fragmented approach can hinder holistic solutions and fail to address the underlying systemic problems that perpetuate unsustainability.


What should we do?

I do not have a definitive answer to this question, but I am not saying we should abandon our ideology of preserving the planet and reversing the damage done. Instead, I am suggesting a shift towards more transformative and regenerative approaches and ideologies. We should also go beyond the boundaries of sustainability and even consider changing the terminology we use.

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