Sustainability is meaningless - it’s time for a new Enlightenment

Every 500 years, it’s time for a new idea. Digitally altered image.

The word “sustainability” has been evacuated of any substantial meaning it may once have had. It’s been appropriated by a ragbag of “green-washing” market interests, opportunists and political hacks.

As a result of this is, we frequently find ourselves “sustaining the unsustainable”.

Having our cake, eating it and wreaking havoc

In Australia, this concept of sustainability arrived against the backdrop of three very different events.

These were the 1987 World Commission on Environment, the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, which put Ecological Sustainable Development (ESD) on the international agenda, and in the same year the Hawke government’s program of ESD working groups.

The “ecological” prefix fell away quickly by the mid 1990s, but what remained was the notion of sustainability firmly welded to development.

Effectively, sustainability became the main ingredient of a “having your cake and eating it” ideology. The environment, and its ecological systems, were deemed to be sustained while equally economic development could continue apace.

But if sustainable development had delivered on its promise, humanity would now not be facing the crisis we call climate change.

Greenwashing solves nothing

What was, and is, actually needed is the opposite of what has been promoted in order to try to maintain the economic status quo.

Examples abound: an early one being the US Army’s “green bullet” program which was intended to “reduce lead in the environment”.

More recently, recycling symbols are used on a huge number of plastic products as part of their claim to be “green” when they are actually impossible to recycle.

The ability to recycle plastic depends on (a) the nature of the plastic and (b) the availability of the infrastructure to do it.

In Australia, there are a lot of plastics that can be recycled but a very limited infrastructure with which to do so, and this for only a few types of plastic materials.

From designer, low-energy decorative lighting and sculptural “green” garden furniture, to recycled plastic pot holders, spun PET plastic dog winter waistcoats and mountains of recycled plastic carpet tiles, we’re “greening” a wide number of products that we’d actually abolish if we were truly committed to sustainment.

Instead of changing the way we live, we’re using “greening” to support unchecked productivity.

Thus niche market products, like hybrid and electric cars, become part of an overall car market expansion policy.

In architecture, we increasingly discover worldwide corporations commissioning “green buildings”, often for their headquarters.

But what would mark the actual advance of sustainability would be a dramatic reduction of the socio-environmental impacts of the products and services these organisations sell.

“Corporate sustainability” based on “triple bottom-line accounting” (giving equal weight to social, economic and environmental imperatives) is just another face of the flawed project of sustainable development.

A deaf ear

Bluntly, the depth of the problem of unsustainable development is not being faced.

Confronting this, rather than being an act of negativity, is a prerequisite for an affirmative life based on overcoming the problems we face.

The reality of contemporary unsustainability (including climate change) is that we are still making the situation worse.

Meanwhile, the corrective action being taken remains pathetic and gestural when viewed alongside the scale of a problem driven by the economics of globalisation and a still rapidly growing world population.

One simple fact screams at us, but we fail to hear it.

We are finite beings living on a finite planet with finite resources that we squander at the speed of light, in geological terms.

Clearly, there are huge arguments around all these issues that mostly beg book-length elaboration.

But we still have to ask: where do we go from here?

Time for a new kind of Enlightenment

We should start by acknowledging that it took the Enlightenment around 500 years to bring the modern world, with all its accompanying problems, into being.

We now live in an age where if we want to have a future, we have to confront and resolve these problems.

To do this, we need a project the size of the Enlightenment to deal with the world it helped create.

This is the true challenge of the project of ‘the sustainment’.

It’s a massive intellectual, adaptive, and transformitory exercise of redirective change.

Forget the environmentalists’ calls to ‘save the planet’; what’s really at stake is us, and the forms of life we depend upon.

We would do well to remember that 283 million years ago, 90% of life on planet Earth was extinguished.

We are the product of the remaining 10%, and while we have equipped ourselves to do a massive amount of environmental damage, life will go on long after we have done our worst.