“Sustainability” is, ironically, a growth industry. Ever since the term “sustainable development” burst onto the scene in 1987 with the release of Our Common Future (also known as the Brundtland report), there has been a dizzying increase in rhetoric about humanity’s relationship with our planet’s resources. Glossy reports - often featuring blonde children in front of solar panels or wind turbines - abound, and are slapped down on desks as proof of responsibility and stewardship.
Every few years a new term is thrown into the mix - usually preceded by adjectives like “participatory” or “community-led”. The fashionability of “resilience” as a mot du jour seems to have peaked, while more recently the “circular economy” has become the trendy term to put on grant applications, conference notices and journal special editions. Over time journals are established, careers are built, and library shelves groan.
Meanwhile, the planetary “overshoot”, to borrow the title of a terrifying 1980 book, goes on - exemplified by rising concentrations of atmospheric carbon dioxide, warmer oceans, Arctic melting, and other signs of the times.
With all this ink being spilled (or, more sustainably, electrons being pressed into service), is there anything new to say about sustainability? My colleagues and I think so.
Three of us (lead author Ulrike Ehgartner, second author Patrick Gould and myself) recently published an article called “On the obsolescence of human beings in sustainable development”.
In it we explore the big questions of sustainability, drawing on some of the work of an unjustly obscure Austrian political philosopher called Gunther Anders.
Who was Günther Anders?
He was born Günther Siegmund Stern in 1902. While he was working as a journalist in Berlin, an editor wanted to reduce the number of Jewish-sounding bylines. Stern plumped for “Anders” (meaning “other” or “different”) and used that nom de plume for the rest of his life.
But despite his stellar list of friends and family, Anders himself was not well known. Harold Marcuse points out that the name “Stern” was pretty apt, writing:
His unsparingly critical pessimism may explain why his pathbreaking works have seldom sparked sustained public discussion.
While Hiroshima and the nuclear threat were the most obvious influences on Anders’ writing, he was also crucially influenced by the events at Auschwitz, the Vietnam War, and his periods in exile in France and the United States. But why should we care, and how can his ideas be applied to modern-day ideas about sustainability?
Space precludes a blow-by-blow account of what my colleagues and I wrote, but two ideas are worth exploring: the “Promethean gap” and “apocalyptic blindness”.
Anders suggested that the societal changes wrought by the industrial age – chief among them the division of labour – opened a gap between individuals’ capability to produce machines, and their capability to imagine and deal with the consequences.
So, riffing on the Greek myth of Prometheus (the chap who stole fire from Mount Olympus and gave it to humans), Anders proposed the existence of a “Promethean gap” which manifests in academic and scientific thinking and leads to the extensive trivialisation of societal issues.
The second idea is that of “apocalyptic blindness” – which is, according to Anders, the mindset of humans in the Age of the Third Industrial Revolution. This, as we write in our paper:
…determines a notion of time and future that renders human beings incapable of facing the possibility of a bad end to their history. The belief in progress, persistently ingrained since the Industrial Revolution, causes the incapability of humans to understand that their existence is threatened, and that this could lead to the end of their history.
Put simply, we don’t want to look an apocalypse in the eye, even if it’s heading straight towards us.
The climate connection
“So what?” you might ask. Why listen to yet another obscure philosopher railing about technology, in the vein of Lewis Mumford and Jacques Ellul? But I think a passing knowledge of Anders and his work reminds us of several important things.
This is nothing new. Recently, the very notion of ‘progress’ has come under renewed assault, with books questioning our assumptions about it. This is not new of course - in a 1967 short story collection about life at the United Nations, Shirley Hazzard had written:
About this development process there appeared to be no half-measures: once a country had admitted its backwardness, it could hope for no quarter in the matter of improvement. It could not accept a box of pills without accepting, in principle, an atomic reactor. Progress was a draught that must be drained to the last bitter drop.
The time - if ever there was one - for tinkering around the edges is over. We need to take stronger action than simply pursuing our feelgood preoccupation with sustainability.
This begs the question of who is supposed to shift us from the current course (or rather, multiple collision courses. That’s a difficult one to answer.
The hope that techno-fixes (including 100% renewable energy) will sort out our problems is a dangerous delusion (please note, I’m not against 100% renewables - I’m just saying that green energy is “necessary but not sufficient” for repairing the planet).
Similarly, the “circular economy” has a rather circular feeling to it – in the sense that we’ve seen all this before. It seems (to me anyway) to be the last gasp of the “ecological modernist” belief that with a bit more efficiency, everything can simply keep on progressing.
Our problems go far deeper. We are going to need a rapid and fundamental shift in our values, habits, behaviours, and outlooks. Put in Anders’ terms, we need to stop being blind to the possibility of apocalypse. But then again, people have been saying that for a century or more.