Risk and “blind spots”

The grass ceiling’s role in creating ‘blind spots’

Returning once again to the core problem of our research – that of “over-greening” in sustainability – it is arguable that this issue plays a role in focusing mainstream conceptualizations of existential risk[1] too much on environmental problems. Sure, the SDGs might mention non-environmental risks like economic inequality, but they say very little on others, such as the risks of unchecked modernization (technological advancement and human progress gone bad, to put it simply – discussed elsewhere under the term modernity).

Still today, we focus on sustainability and existential risks by placing environmental challenges above others. Climate Change is just one existential risk of many, yet it utterly dominates discourse in sustainability, including discourse explicitly related to existential risk[2].

Previously I spoke about the idea of reframing this era not as the Anthropocene (the era of humans) but instead as the Apeilicene (the era of threats). In 2014, Australian academic Graham Turner revisited the seminal sustainability study The Limits to Growth and found that, 40 years on, the book’s predictions of global collapse due to resource constraints (and not climate change) were still on track to occur. Part of the reason this is happening, Turner argued, is because we have failed to triage effectively: we have given too much attention to climate change as a single issue, at the cost of ignoring other highly pressing threats:

Somewhat ironically, the apparent corroboration here of the LTG BAU[3] implies that the scientific and public attention given to climate change, whilst tremendously important in its own right, may have deleteriously distracted from the issue of resource constraints, particularly that of oil supply.[4]

Turner’s quote here is excellent at illuminating the absence of a triage model and the profoundly dangerous consequences that absence invites – in this case, heading towards global collapse because we are not adequately prioritizing other existential threats.

In an especially important sense, it does not matter whether Turner is actually correct here. It may be the case that climate change is Threat #1 and resource constraints are Threat #2. What matters most is that our frameworks aren’t geared towards guiding us when we encounter conflicts like this.

Turner’s finding is also a good example because resource constraints remain a primarily environmental issue. Of course, just as with climate change, there are elements of this issue that are political, social, ethical, and so on. My argument would be, however, that these considerations stem from what is an environmental issue, or even just one of basic physics: resource constraints. Compare climate change or resource constraints to the existential threat of Artificial Intelligence development, and you can see more clearly the difference between “environmental” threats and others. Importantly, this is not quite the same as the difference between anthropogenic and “natural” threats since some anthropogenic threats can manifest environmentally. Climate change is the obvious example of this.

What Turner shows is that even within an “overly-greened” conceptualization of sustainability like the focus he takes[5], the absence of triage is still a critically important issue, and still undervalued as an approach. To put it simply, even when we’re over-greening things, we are seemingly still not prioritizing effectively.

This would suggest that the “over-greening” of sustainability, while a key issue, isn’t as important to our survival as how we manage risk.

Certainly, one other factor at play is that we are yet to develop a comprehensive system for identifying and classifying existential risks; a necessary step before we can begin to prioritize them – and doing so will be immensely difficult. Returning once again to the SDGs, we don’t just need them to be ranked but also expanded, to include other areas (blind spots) the grass ceiling has hidden from us, such as the threats from unchecked modernization, which many argue are greater than the environmental challenges ahead of us.

Efforts are certainly underway to develop threat-based frameworks, and there is a growing body of work in this field, but it remains a long way from garnering the attention and profile that other frameworks enjoy (such as the SDGs), and even further away from shaping how we communicate sustainability. So, to help shed some greater light on this work, we’ll look closer at some examples.


Footnotes

[1] The definition of existential risk, for now, can be considered a global-scale threat of annihilation to our species, or a similarly catastrophic curtailing of our potential. It is explored in greater detail elsewhere in other articles. See: #existential risk.

[2] The recent release of the IPCC warning that we have only 12 years to address climate change has only amplified the growing dominance of climate change in the broader “risk discourse”.

[3] In plain speak, the confirmation of the Limits to Growth “Business as Usual” model – in other words, the confirmation that this scenario – in which global collapse occurs – is underway.

[4] Turner, G. (2014). ‘Is Global Collapse Imminent?’. Melbourne: Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute, The University of Melbourne.

[5] Something unavoidable, to be fair, given his project involves studying an environmental work.

Risk and triage

What is Triage?

Typically, this term appears in a medical context where it refers to the process of determining priority of treatment based on the severity of a condition. For example, a hospital emergency room may have multiple patients to treat, and its triage that helps determine how to prioritize their treatment. Urgent and severe problems are dealt with first, and so on down the list of patients.

This would probably strike most people as “common sense” – it is clearly stupid to treat someone’s tooth ache while another patient with multiple gunshot wounds dies in the waiting room from lack of attention. Importantly, however, not every situation is so clear cut. Sometimes a patient with an urgent medical problem may not obviously present that way, while someone with a lesser issue can make a lot of noise demanding urgent attention (a tooth ache is a good example – exceptionally painful at times, but rarely life-threatening. The identification and classification of risk is, therefore, just as critical an aspect of triage as the ensuing prioritization that it informs. In other words, we need a way to identify the “quiet” but high-risk patients, just like we need a way to identify the high-risk threats that may not obviously present themselves, like someone screaming about a toothache or something with a gaping chest wound.

[Editor’s comment: The other part of triage which you haven’t mentioned is that patients who are urgent but too far gone are not treated – what are the sustainability parallels? Do we need to jettison certain causes in favour of those that are still saveable?]

The point here is that triage needs two things to work well: it’s not just about ranking threats, it’s also about identifying them in the first place – as many as possible that might be of relevance or importance.  A good classification and identification scheme can help us in the more uncertain situations, when multiple high-priority issues present simultaneously. One can easily argue this is the case in sustainability, where climate change, resource constraints, economic equality, human rights, peace and justice, and other issues all present as equally urgent (and frustratingly, are often interrelated – making it harder to separate and then prioritize just one).

The UN Sustainable Development goals exemplifies, quite well I think, how we have frameworks already attempting something like the first half the work of triage – identifying threats. It’s not quite framed that way, but many can be read out of each goal. Eliminating poverty, for example, reduces the risk of harm at a personal level, and reduces the risk of broader societal disorder – and the reason we want to do this is, partly, to reduce such risks. The UN even demonstrates thinking “beyond the grass ceiling” and include issues like economic inequality, justice and peace, and human rights. What the SDGs lack, however, is an explicit risk-based focus, and any kind of serious ranking or triage. In a world of finite time and other resources, should we focus on SDG #1 or #10? Which one minimizes potential risks the most? Clearly, the framework isn’t that useful overall for a triage approach.

Now, perhaps, we need to begin the work of sorting out what’s most important from lists like these. We need something as accessible and well-supported as the SDGs, but we need it ranked, so that we can prioritize. This won’t be easy, since developing a criteria to rank these things would be immensely difficult and complex, and because as said earlier, these issues often interrelate. Despite the challenge of this task, we must take it on. Without a roadmap of prioritized risks, we are blindly hoping the things we focus most on (like climate change) are indeed the biggest threats. It’s fair to question if this focus comes with a cost.

Why can’t we do both?

We can do two things at once, of course. Issues can be “equally important” too. Just as they are interrelated. But we cannot pretend we have infinite resources to tackle sustainability challenges either. Money is limited. People’s attention spans are limited. The time people can devote to the cause actively and consciously is limited. Time, especially, is limited.

It is within the context of these constraints that a simple truth emerges: we need some level of focus here. We can’t just say “it’s all important” and proceed haphazardly, according to our own interests and agendas. Do that, and there’s a real risk we run out of time to fix certain problems in an optimal way. This truth is as uncomfortable as it is obvious – it implies there will be sacrifices; issues deprioritized along the way. A good example of this playing out, as I write these words, is the conflict between quarantine protocols protecting public health, and people’s right to protest. The clash between the Black Lives Matter movement and the restrictions of COVID-19 illustrate well, the kinds of difficult conversations ahead. In the Apeilicene, we are likely to see these situations with increasing frequency, as time-sensitive threats arise and demand extraordinarily difficult choices of us.

Similarly, we can’t expect that the current focal points themselves aren’t the product of political agendas and self-interest. If triage enables progression via focused prioritization, then it demands sacrifice as I’ve said. If sacrifices are required, it’s overwhelmingly more likely to be demanded of the powerless by the powerful. This perspective sheds some light on the landscape of global sustainable development. Often it is rich, industrialized nations pressuring less-wealthy countries to leapfrog coal and jump into more expensive solar – for example. In other words, the powerful expecting the powerless to do the heavy lifting.

What about root causes?

This is an issues-oriented approach, clearly. We might question why we aren’t identifying whole systems as problems. Capitalism, consumerism, and so on. The guy in the emergency room with heart attack symptoms isn’t just there because of his individual circumstances. There are larger, structural forces like globalization, modernism, reductions in manual labour, and consumerism that likely shaped his individual circumstances and the choices he could exercise.

But triage is not about root causes or systemic, structural change. It is what you practice in the emergency room. When someone’s heart is about to stop, it’s that immediate crisis you focus on, not systemic change.

Explaining the lack of triage in mainstream sustainability

In contrast with a triage approach to sustainability, triage in health care is not a peripheral concern – it is a core practice supported by years of research and used in basically every medical institution around the world. Why then, in sustainability, is this same approach not taken?

One possible explanation is that focusing on risks; on problems and challenges, often places a negative frame on a given issue, making it harder to identify potential opportunities. Similarly, focusing on risks can present challenges for communicating sustainability. Research shows that fearful messages cause disengagement, apathy, and a sense of hopelessness and incompetence. Continued exposure causes most people to “tune out the messages and move on to other, more pleasant concerns”[1].  Despite its obvious importance, a threat-based approach to sustainability clearly presents some challenges and considerations, and in looking at some examples of threat-based models, we’ll start to see the devil, as always, is lurking in the details.


Footnotes

[1] Robertson, M. (2017). Communicating Sustainability. New York: Routledge.

Sustainability as a unifying concept

Part One: Is sustainability the next big tent?

Our approach to sustainability emphasizes inclusiveness, but this was only introduced previously in the context of including ideas. What about the concept of including people?

This would seem important at this current moment in history. For one, it has been argued we live in an era where identity politics has fractured us, and driven us apart into different groups based on our ideologies and demographics:

‘New waves of social justice activism have led to a dramatic change in the meaning of solidarity. Classical solidarity was about unifying humanity by bringing everyone into the same tent through the expansion of universal freedoms and rights. Contemporary solidarity is instead: we are all different, and the only way to be an ally is to shut up and vacate the tent.’[1]

Perhaps sustainability can bring us closer together, unite us once again under a bigger tent? Or perhaps not? Many sustainability issues transcend specific identities – climate change threatens us all, for example, and yet other issues almost require us to accept specific identities; economic equality is a challenge that demands we recognize different classes of people[2], indigenous rights is similarly specific and identity-based.

Looking at certain areas such as activism on the ground, one can see an intersection of many groups. A survey of the Canberra High School Strike 4 Climate Action[3] for example saw people of all ages coming together, but especially young people. They were joined by Indigenous advocacy groups, refugee advocacy groups, socialists, and countless other identity groupings, all converging on the one issue – each drawing specific meanings from the rally, and each affected in different ways by climate change, but all united in agreement that something must be done.

Image from the School Strike 4 Climate Action (photo: Nick Blood)
The ANU student contingent, led by Juju (the dog), wearing an ANU Environment Collective t-shirt!
Left: ANU student contingent on campus. Right: Garema Place.

Moments like these, and elsewhere, such as the #metoo movement, suggest that sustainability causes can still draw disparate groups of people together.

From the climate strike rally.


Part Two: Fighting for queer issues in a dying world

A Personal reflection on intersectionality

As a student of sustainability, and as a queer person, I’m often presented with a problem: How do we reconcile the pressing urgency of sustainability concerns with the need and desire for progress in other areas like queer rights? To put it more simply, and in the context of the Australian same sex marriage debate, how could I campaign for marriage equality when the evidence suggests my world is dying? Surely, I think, we need to prioritize here? What good are things like marriage equality if future generations will inherit a dying world?

One argument is that we can deal with these challenges sequentially: that we can focus on easier single-issue policy gains like marriage equality, build momentum and social capital, grow our activist base, and then pivot towards the larger challenges ahead of us like climate change.

Although this is a good argument, this approach requires the one resource climate scientists and other sustainability scholars say we do not have an abundance of: time. What is the opportunity cost of a year spent as an activist on marriage equality, in sustainability terms? What kinds of emissions reductions might have been possible, if similar attention were focused instead on the enormous challenge of climate change? Many experts say that time is against us on climate change. The IPCC warned we have only 12 years[4] and yet others say we’ve already squandered the time and opportunities we had; that the best we can do now is prepare for global collapse[5].

During Australia’s own struggle with the issue of same sex marriage, the mainstream media became almost singularly preoccupied with the issue. At the same time as the discourse around marriage equality (and queer rights more generally) dominated conversations, I watched another year of inaction and tokenism on climate change, and I watched that criminal indifference slide by without anywhere near as much as attention or calls for civil resistance. In my own darker moments, this was a cause for defeatism and even antagonism towards my queer friends.

Climate change is only one existential threat our species faces, and while easily the most notable issue, even it took a backseat to the question of whether a gay couple should be allowed to marry. In this country, on this country’s media and social media, there was not – for a time – anywhere near the level of outrage, activism, and agitation for change on sustainability more broadly as there was for queer issues specifically. It dominated, in other words.

Certainly, one driving factor in how to understand this is the sheer complexity of sustainability. As a movement incorporating environmental, social, and economic considerations (to name a few), it cannot be easily distilled into single-issue campaigns that result in single-policy solutions.

The myriad Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)[6] which focus on a range of outcomes from poverty elimination, to clean water, to gender equality serve as a good example of the breadth and scope of sustainability in practice.

We need to advance especially the human rights and cultures of Indigenous peoples, women, queer* people and others, protect the Great Barrier Reef, stop the Adani coal mine, reduce global emissions, fight for gender equality, fight against economic inequality, unwind corporate capture of government, improve the way media engages, empowers, and informs its citizens, increase afforestation, reduce deforestation, reverse biodiversity loss, reverse ocean acidification, manage modernization safely, ensure peace and avoid conflict…and on it goes.

Looking to the rest of the world and its achievements, Australia was framed as a laggard falling behind the global community on issues like marriage equality, and yet, we are lagging on so many of the SDGs too – and on so many other sustainability problems the SDGs themselves don’t identify. Where has the urgency been on those fronts? I often wondered this in silence, as my friends dived headfirst into the next great marriage equality campaign. I didn’t attend the rallies or the sit-ins. I disengaged in a terrible way. Mired in depression and disillusionment, I must shamefully admit that I didn’t even vote “Yes”. A perverse outcome for a queer man, but one borne of what, at the time, was a deep sense of being lost.

When it comes to sustainability, the “To Do” list is literally endless, and will always remain so. To understand sustainability is to understand what a “wicked problem” is – one that can never be solved, and whose solutions invite only more problems. That is the miserable lot of a sustainability advocate and practitioner.

If the journey is endless and its challenges equally so, then it can be easy to lose faith in even trying. But just as importantly from that perspective, the idea of taking on easier goals can make sense. Not only are they more readily achievable, but achieving these milestones can rejuvenate people, and demonstrate that civil action makes progress possible. If marriage equality was a battle, then its victory in the larger war for sustainability was perhaps an important one. How much of the work done there helped drive interest and engagement for later civil actions on climate change and other sustainability issues?

Perhaps the problem isn’t that we are failing in the act of triage; that we are failing to prioritize what’s most important. Instead, perhaps the problem is that many of the movements we see in the modern era are localized, isolated, and to use a piece of corporate jargon, operating in “silos”. History suggests that perhaps we don’t need to choose between two options like saving the planet and uplifting our queer brothers and sisters. In response to these kinds of concerns, a queer friend of mine who is also active in sustainability circles suggested that “intersectionality” offered a kind of perspective on activism that I hadn’t yet fully appreciated. Building on that, more recently another friend made me aware of a stunning, beautiful moment that happened long ago; a moment that demonstrated just what intersectionality can encapsulate, showing how queer activism and sustainability activism aren’t in competition, but instead a fertile ground for collaboration and collective power.

‘Pits and Perverts’: When miners and queers banded together to help each other.

In 1984, there was a movement in Britain known as “Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners” (LGSM). In recognition of the fact that there are big battles to fight across a range of areas, the queer folk of Britain rallied to campaign for miner’s labour rights. This alliance proved fateful[7]. Because of the support they received, miner’s labour groups began to attend to gay pride events, to provide their support, and their collective institutional endorsement of gay rights.

Two different groups with two very different concerns came together in recognition of their shared humanity and their desire for a better world. It is a powerful example of what activism can, and should, be. Reflecting on the lessons of history, perhaps one problem with modern activism is how it at times specializes; how single-issue NGOs and special interest groups focus on single-issue campaigns, to the detriment of broader progress. It is sadly a rarity to see queer groups on campus at the university I study galvanize support for causes beyond their own. It is equally sad the way that environmental or sustainability groups operate largely in isolation from other marginalized groups, be they queer, Indigenous, those with disabilities, or people of colour. Too often, these groups are fighting their battles alone.

Much hay is made over the word “intersectional”, and much is said about its virtues, but little of that is reflected in the way I have seen us as a campus community practice civil resistance, and the way we as groups push and agitate for a better world. Recently, with the school strike rally, I have begun to see that change – and for what it’s worth, I’ve been one of many key players in organising the university student contingent, one of the larger university rallies in recent years.

My motivation, partly, is to ensure we don’t let the lessons of history fall into obscurity. Perhaps the way NGOs, think tanks, and research institutes are structured today is problematic, and perhaps many other things can account for why we don’t see today what we saw for one brilliant moment in 1984. But it’s also clearly possible for us to do more, and if sustainability is “the next big tent” then perhaps the near future is more promising than I first realized.

The truth of our capabilities is etched in time. History has given us a blueprint for a better kind of success.

While we celebrate marriage equality – as we damn well should – we should also take a moment of reckoning, all of us, to appreciate the ways in which that victory rings hollow while so many other problems remain. Perhaps we can take a moment to imagine even bigger gains achievable through even greater alliances. When it comes to sustainability, it is easy to become defeatist or turn a blind eye to its unfathomable, protean challenges. I certainly succumbed to this defeatism, but through love, patience, and the prevalence of wiser, cooler heads, I’ve started to see a better way.

RallyColinCrews
Image Credit: Colin Clews


FEMINIST CAUSES KEY TO REVERSING CLIMATE CHANGE, DATA SHOWS

First published: March 6, 2018 for Woroni.[8] Reworked in 2019 for The Grass Ceiling

What if I told you that one of the best ways to tackle climate change is to be a good feminist?

Well, that’s what the data shows us.

In March 2018 I attended an ANU Climate Change Institute[9] event where project leader Paul Hawken, the editor of Drawdown: The most comprehensive plan ever proposed to reverse global warming, presented his book and its findings[10].

The book examines 100 different ways to reverse climate change and ranks them according to their effectiveness. Many of the results from the research are surprising, like the one I opened this article with – educating young women (ranked #6) and providing them with access to family planning (#7) represent two paths to lower global emissions that are individually more effective than solar farms (#8), afforestation (#15) or mass transit (#37).

Who saw that one coming? I’ve been studying the intersection of feminist causes and sustainable development for years – across a range of subjects at ANU – and even I was floored by this.

Those of you doing Gender Studies: ask yourselves just how much of that field dedicates itself to promoting its cause as a core part of sustainable development? I’m guessing, as in my own studies, that sustainability doesn’t quite have the prominence it deserves. For those of you who identify with or work to advocate for feminist causes, ask yourself the same question:

How often do we talk about female empowerment in terms of emissions reductions? I’m guessing it’s not a common discourse, yet the data shows it clearly should be.

That’s the beauty of a book like this and the research it’s based on – it’s pure number-crunching. As Hawken stressed at multiple points in his presentation: “We do the math: We map, we measure, we model. We are not advocates. We don’t engage in advocacy”.

When you have that approach; when you dive into the numbers without an agenda, the results are often surprising. The #1 ranked solution to reverse global warming is refrigeration management – making our fridges and air conditioners more sustainable. This is because hydrofluorocarbons warm the atmosphere some 1,000-9,000 times more than CO2 – and we use a whole lot of air conditioning and refrigeration.

“Refrigeration is number one?!” Hawken recalled, feigning the disappointment he must have felt when his team discovered it was the leading candidate for climate change reversal: “That’s so unsexy. Nobody cares.”

And that’s what sustainability can be at times – the difficult task of trying to make people care about utterly mundane, everyday things; the clothes we wear, the products we purchase, and the refrigerant chemicals we use to keep us cool in the harsh Australian summers. This is part of the problem when it comes to sustainability challenges like climate change, and certainly part of the explanation for our profoundly dangerous lack of progress so far. It’s not sexy enough, so nobody cares.

And yet with this new list of 100 solutions, we have something very topical and potentially very engaging. Solutions #6 and #7 in the list – educating young girls and empowering them to choose their own family planning outcomes, both clearly fall under the broader feminist agenda. Feminism is a topic students and countless others are already engaging with right now, in a big way. It’s sexy in a way that HFCs are not.

The #metoo movement represents another part of the broader feminist movement – this time against sexual assault and harassment. At face value, it may have little to do with educating girls, giving them access to contraception, or focusing on emissions reductions, but it remains a powerful example of modern feminism’s reach and profile.

What might the future of feminism look like when the incredible sustainability gains it offers become more commonly known – and are eventually integrated into campaigns of comparable size and scope to the #metoo movement? From a sustainability student’s perspective, that future looks very bright for all of us –  for feminism especially. Perhaps the recent climate strikes and rallies – many of which focus on empowering women to have a voice – are a sign of things to come?

I have spent over a year working for the ANU Men’s Network – trying to create a community where issues like feminism could be discussed. And I can tell you that for some men, including those we share a campus with, feminism is a hard sell. Listing the myriad reasons for this goes beyond the scope of this article, but one prominent challenge lies in helping men recognise the value of feminism to them – that it’s a liberating, and not oppressing, force. Hawken’s findings suggest a way out of this seemingly intractable debate.

ClimateRally4
From the Climate Strike Rally. Image credit: Nick Blood

Making feminism unassailable

With this data now present to bolster decades-long arguments about the benefits of empowering women, it seems to me that feminism has a golden opportunity to further increase the strength of its position, and to demonstrate its relevance and benefit to all. It can do this by embracing the truly enormous role feminist causes can play in the realm of sustainability. If we can unite under that banner and create a movement like #metoo, we could make a genuinely massive impact in reversing global warming. Indeed, Hawken noted that the combined effects of achieving solutions #6 and #7 would outweigh that of #1. Who could argue against such a thing?

Of course, in many ways these campaigns and arguments already existed. Topics like sustainable development and international development have long argued for the sustainability gains of feminism. What’s needed is more action and amplification of that message. If we can continue to reframe feminism as a movement that will save our planet and our species, it becomes much harder for reticent men and other critics to dismiss its relevance, or to argue that only some of us benefit. When that framing is grounded on number-crunching and cold, numerical calculations, it becomes even harder to disregard.

As Charlotte Perkins Gilman wrote way back in 1912: ‘You cannot lift the world at all. While half of it is kept so small.’ This is a long-running argument, and now we have access to some incredible new data to show just how relevant and important it is. So why not capitalise on that opportunity?


Footnotes

[1] Fabian, M. (2017, March 21). How identity politics gets inclusiveness backwards. Woroni.

[2] Not necessarily according to traditional concepts of class (lower, middle, upper), but certainly recognizing the various groupings of people, including the poor.

[3] Groch, S. (2019, March 15). ‘More effective than UN’: Student climate strike draws thousands. The Canberra Times.

[4] Watts, J. (2018, October 8). We have 12 years to limit climate change catastrophe, warns UN. The Guardian.

[5] Turner, G. (2014). ‘Is Global Collapse Imminent?’. Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute, The University of Melbourne.

[6] United Nations. (2019). About the Sustainable Development Goals. Retrieved from United Nations: https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/sustainable-development-goals/

[7] Kellaway, K. (2014, August 21). When miners and gay activists united: the real story of the film Pride. The Guardian.

[8] Blood, N. (2018, March 6). Feminist campaigns key to reversing climate change, data shows. Woroni.

[9] Check them out here: http://climate.anu.edu.au/

[10] Hawken, P. (2018). The most comprehensive plan ever to reverse global warming. Retrieved from Drawdown: https://www.drawdown.org/

Four definitions of sustainability

There are many definitions and frameworks of sustainability out there, many of which are provided by bodies like think tanks, governments, businesses, intergovernmental organisations such as the United Nations. Some focus on specific areas, like the Three Pillars framework (examined earlier here and in more detail here). This framework represents sustainability as a movement with the three specific concerns:

ThreePillars

Elsewhere, the concept of Sustainable development (one way in which we practice sustainability – the conversion of these ideas into actual, real-world projects) aims to tackle each of these three pillars in an integrated, interdisciplinary way that focuses on societal and economic development, attempting to ensure that progress made in one area does not cause regress in another. The UN Sustainable Development Goals[1] are an excellent example of this conceptual framework of sustainability being applied to real-world projects.

Another conception of sustainability takes a different, time-focused approach. The concept of intergenerational equity repositions sustainability as the challenge of ‘meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’ (courtesy of the Brundtland Commission). In this framework, we must consider sustainability across different scales of time; the present and the future.

Each of these, and many other, definitions aims to capture certain elements of the concept of sustainability, but none of them alone capture it all. The three pillars focuses perhaps too tightly on its chosen areas, whereas intergenerational equity narrows our considerations to the lens of time scales. That is why, for this project, we are using a stipulative definition[2] of sustainability that is far broader. For the purposes of our work, sustainability is defined in the most basic way possible:

Sustainability is the ability for humans and their environments to persist over time.

Persist? That’s it? What about flourishing, the supervisor of our research project here asked. It’s a good question, and one that shows how any definition – even one as broad as our own – will always be imperfect.


Footnotes

[1] https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/sustainable-development-goals/

[2] “A declaration of a meaning that is intended to be attached by the speaker to a word, expression, or symbol and that usually does not already have an established use in the sense intended” (Mirriam Webster).

Episode 1: How did we get here?

Subscribe to us on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, and Stitcher.

TRANSCRIPT

Full transcript available here. 

SHOW NOTES

There are many ways of looking at this idea of “sustainability” and we’re here to take you on a guided tour of some of them. Below you can find some extra show notes, resources, and other goodies.

This episode was recorded on 21 and 24 January 2019.

WHAT IS SUSTAINABILITY?

  • Different ways of looking at it
    • Often defined narrowly: As environmentalism. Conflicting studies or viewpoints. Less often a conversation happening with everything taken together: Integrative, interdisciplinary, or multidisciplinary.
    • Trying to bring together different ideas, voices, perspectives, practices.
    • Especially marginalised ideas or voices
  • Our coming together was in an interdisciplinary class: physical geography + human geography = “the geography of sustainability“.
  • Our university school specialises in integrative studies: The Fenner School of Environment and Society.

DEFINING SUSTAINABILITY

  • Using history in understanding why we have so many different approaches. Started with environmentalism.
  • Out of the green movement comes these conferences on “sustainability”
  • 1972: Stockholm Declaration: Majority are environmental, but some important non-environmental concerns (freedom, dignity, etc).Starting to see, even from the outset, that it is something about more than environmentalism. Sustainability is about more than the environment.
  • Brundtland Commission: At this point talking about environment even less, and when considering humanity does so intergenerationally, from the perspective of current and future “needs”.
  • Sustainable Development: “Sustainable Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.”
    • Sustainability as a concept tied to time.
    • Tied to more than just our environment: tied to concepts of justice, equity, and society.
    • As a uniting term.
  • MDGs (2000 – 2015): Goal #7 only mention of sustainability – sustainable environment.
  • SDGs (2015 – 2030): Great shift here to focus on this idea. Mentioned in their very name / suggesting a much broader aspiration to sustainability: for example “Sustainable consumption and production”.
  • If we achieve these goals we are closer to achieving “sustainability”?
  • Advanced cross-sectoral work, a more multidisciplinary perspective to each of these challenges. Greater coalitions of voices lending greater plurality of voices, once marginalized or sidelined.
  • Seeing a trend over time here of an increasing body of work being built up around sustainability – covering a range of concerns beyond (but always related back to) the environment.

DEFINITIONS AND CONCEPTUALISATIONS

  • Literal definitions: Sustaining over time (a certain period of time)
    • Time-based conceptualisations:
    • Physical / Structural sustainability
      • Cyclicality (and continuity), stable systems, feedback loops (Ouroboros), circular economy
ouroboros2
The Ouroboros!

HOW IS IT PRACTISED? WHAT DOES IT LOOK LIKE?

  • Three Pillars theoretical framework that is practised explicitly: Triple Bottom Line
    • To what extent does it mirror sustainability? To what extent is this a good framework for practicing sustainability? It depends: corporate social responsbility varies according to the case you’re looking at
      • True Believer CEO vs. Greenwashing Interface (product to service) vs McDonalds Filet-O-Fish in New Zealand. Profit motive frequently conflicts with sustainable outcomes
      • A great deal of discourse around whether capitalism (or the profit motive) is compatible with sustainability or sustainable development.
      • Similar debate over growth. Related to capitalism, but not always.
      • Individual action as consumers? Structural change? Broader questions here about how to best achieve sustainability: Who practises sustainability? Is it just environmentalists? What about intersections between other progressive causes?

THE GRASS CEILING

  • Do a simple Google search of the word “sustainability” and see what you find. A sea of green: plants, leaves, the famous motif of the hand holding the plant. What we’re trying to challenge here is the dominance of an environmental perspective when it comes to sustainability.
    • Because we want to embrace complexity. Because we want to learn about other perspectives, especially those outside the mainstream.