This post supplements On Sustainability, Summer 2010 (pt. 2 of 2) and provides reflections from two of my students this quarter on one particular article in this special issue of the journal Academic Questions. Ashley Thorne’s comment to the post Critiquing Sustainability alerted us to the publication of this special journal issue. I plan to post on other articles in this issue of the journal, but the present post will focus on Daniel Bonevac’s “Is Sustainability Sustainable?”
Daniel Bonevac, Ph.D., is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin. His research interests are involve “the intersection of metaphysics, philosophical logic, and ethics.” In his abstract, he asks “what is sustainability? What is its ethical foundation?” and observes “There is little consensus about how these questions ought to be answered, due, in part, to there being, by one count at least, “more than three hundred definitions” of the term. Bonevac’s goal is to explore “the ethical significance of sustainability,” and to analyze why it is that “almost nothing has been done to justify sustainability as an ethical constraint.” His argument is that:
- the chief conceptions of sustainability in the environmental literature are not themselves sustainable. They often have innocuous interpretations that are plausible but do little to advance the environmentalists’ or any other particular agenda. Their more radical interpretations, however, lack ethical foundations; they face obvious counterexamples when applied to individual lives and communities. There is no reason to take any of them as criteria that any environmental, economic, developmental, or resource management policy must meet, or even as goals toward which any such policy ought to strive.
What follows below are, first, comments and questions from two students this quarter, and, following this, my own comments.
Student Comments & Questions
In comparing the Bonevac and Gibson articles, one student writes that “Bonevac attempts to negate the concept of sustainability by claiming that its definition is too flimsy”; Bonevac asserts this because he has fixed on the term “forever” and he uses this formulation to imply that “equity in its purest sense is unachievable.” This student finds that “Gibson seems to inadvertently respond to Bonevac’s article [by] describing detailed indicators that gauge whether or not a practice is sustainable.”
Another student also commented on Bonevac’s choice of definitions of sustainability: Bonevac “examines the ethics of sustainability and uses common, basic definitions of sustainability, including the Brundtland definition.” This student understands Bonevac’s observation that “the earth will not be around forever” to mean, by extension, that “sustainability’ cannot mean ‘forever'” (Bonevac, 85). However, this student questions the notion that “sustainability” equates to “forever”:
- The article’s argument that nothing (humans, the sun, the earth) will last forever is perhaps too outside the scope of this class, yet taking this thought into consideration may prove to further redefine what “sustainability” is[–]and [the goal of sustainability] is not to preserve the future forever.
Finally, this student also found it noteworthy that Bonevac focused on the economic aspects of sustainability, particularly regarding opportunity costs:
- with every choice we loose opportunities but those choices create utility and new opportunities (Bonevac, 96-97). As a result, the unknowns of the present day and the future make sustainable decision-making challenging.
My reply to both of these students echoed what we had discussed as a class. I found these comments to be a good example of how important it is to understand an author’s assumptions, and then to evaluate the work with this understanding and also in the context of other interpretations. In comparing Bonevac’s article with the three other articles we’ve read on the history and philosophy of sustainability, my students were surprised that Bonevac had fixed on a definition that included the word “forever,” because the other readings we’ve discussed and the broad definition we’re using in this course make no such claim, implicitly or explicitly. I suggested that we may have here an instance of a scholar painting with too broad a brush and, in so doing, producing an unconvincing analysis (I address this issue in further detail below).
My Own Thoughts
Generally, I find Bonevac’s arguments unconvincing and over-simplified. He makes a number of arguments that are based on information he implies rather than specifies. My initial reaction to authors who write in this way is to think that they’re obfuscating things either to make their arguments seem more plausible, or to forward some kind of potentially nefarious ideological agenda. Or both. It could, of course, be some other reason entirely, so I’ll identify specifically what I mean and let you be the judge:
- 1) He does not settle on one definition of sustainability, or one class of definitions of sustainability but, rather, picks-and-chooses definitions to fit his argument; when he shifts the definition he’s analyzing, he doesn’t always tell his readers why, or how the definitions he’s used compare and contrast. (On this latter point, see, in particular, his choice of a definition in his first two sections, “What Sustainability Is” and “Sustainability and Needs.”)
- 2) His focus is predominately on environmental aspects of sustainability, which he seeks to critique based predominately on economic arguments, but he doesn’t specify this at the outset — readers are left to discern this for themselves.
- 3) He ignores equity aspects of sustainability altogether, unless we are to consider his sporadic appeal to ethical arguments as indirectly addressing equity. I’m not sure, because his definition of “ethical” is not specified (see, for example, pp. 85, 88).
- 4) He also seems to focus predominately on nonrenewable resources, but he does not make this clear at the beginning of his article, nor does he specify why he would choose to concentrate on nonrenewables, nor does he provide any context regarding what various definitions of sustainability may or may not have to say about the use of nonrenewables in comparison to other kinds of environmental resources (see p. 88 for first mention of “nonrenewable resource”).
- 5) All of the above, which an author would generally address in an introduction and revisit in a conclusion, may be lacking in this article because Bonevac didn’t write an introduction or conclusion. Upon first reading I thought that the “What Sustainability Is” section would be an introduction, but it isn’t; when I got to the final section, “Other Sustainability Concepts,” I thought I’d be reading a conclusion, but I wasn’t. The final paragraph of the conclusion, in fact, offhandedly introduces an entirely new idea that would be a great topic for an entire article if not one or more books, but he fails to provide both citations and a fully-formed argument. Instead, he tosses out the notion that the fundamental elements of the modern welfare state — developed to address very real and pressing social justice issues — are “essentially pyramid schemes, which are paradigms of unsustainable economic systems” (p. 101). The End. In what ways do categorical, unexamined, and simplistic statements such as these provide any useful insights whatsoever on the topic at hand?
- 6) He generally over-simplifies the issue to a degree that strips sustainability of all its real-world attributes and applicability. He is searching for black-&-white answers to his over-simplified questions. One example: “If the answer to any of these questions is no, I shall judge that conception of sustainability to be itself unsustainable” (p. 88). This shows he’s not interested in “maybe” or “sorta” answers, and that he’s not interested in gradations of sustainability that would include “a step toward,” or “incorporating some-but-not-all aspects,” or “only ‘yes’ in some situations,” or other variations on that theme. This suggests to me that he’s less interested in lower-case-t “truth” than he is in Asserting From On High A Truth For All Time.
Bonevac begins his analysis (“What Sustainability Is” section) with the observation that “In order to investigate the ethical basis for sustainability, we need to understand what sustainability is” (p. 85). He then identifies a few sources that provide a definition suitable to his article. Explicitly identifying the focus of his analysis is, of course, essential to any academic argument; however, I’m not convinced that the sources he chose are the most appropriate.
First, in attempt to define the term “sustainable development” (aka, “sustainability”), why didn’t Bonevac first go to “the horse’s mouth,” so to speak — the Brundtland Commission Report itself? He does refer to the Brundtland Commission’s definition in his second section, but why not begin with it?
Second, why focus on a definition of sustainability that centers on the word “forever?” Bonevac alights on John E. Ehrenfeld’s definition of sustainability, in which Ehrenfield defines the term to mean “‘the possibility that humans and other life will flourish on the Earth forever‘” (p. 85, Ehrenfeld’s emphasis). Having chosen this from among the “more than three hundred definitions” of the term, Bonevac then systematically shows that Ehrenfield’s definition falls into the what he terms the “finitude fallacy.” This is fallacious because, among other things, “The life expectancy of the solar system, and even of the universe, is not infinite;” therefore, to put forth an argument “from large finite timescales to infinite timescales” requires one to claim “knowledge that no one can possibly have about the future.” Therefore, according to Bonevac’s argument, since infinitude is not possible in a finite universe, sustainability is also not possible. Even more than that: “When applied to material things, the term “sustainable growth” is an oxymoron” (pp. 85-87).
I don’t agree with Bonevac’s conclusion in this section, because he has chosen, from a list of hundreds, a definition of sustainability that he is most prepared to falsify; then, from his limited sample size and summary dismissal, he extends his limited case to cover all possible definitions and approaches to sustainability. In reality, the point he has just proven extends no further than the class of definitions of sustainability that assert infinitude. My impression upon reading this first section of his article is that Bonevac has set up for his readers a straw man.
I have not found that all definitions of sustainability strive to establish practices that will forever and always apply. Admittedly, I have not seen every definition of sustainability in existence, so I can’t speak definitively about how prevalent the notion of infinitude is in all definitions of the term. Based on my experience and what seems to me Bonevac’s too-easy dismissal, I’m left wondering:
- ** How large is this class, within the entire 300+ definitions of sustainability?
- ** How influential is this class, either in terms of academic scholarship, governmental and/or corporate practices, or among the many hundreds of thousands (millions?) of practitioners who daily develop, implement, and evaluate practices they define as “sustainable?”
- ** If the class of definitions of sustainability that include “forever” are influential in both intellectual and practical terms, what lessons can we draw from this?
Interestingly enough, in the final paragraph of the section that I critique above, he concludes with something that seems eminently feasible:
- For the concept of sustainability to have any real use, “the long run” must be restricted to a time period about which we can reasonably claim to have justified beliefs: a century or two, at most. Anything more than that, and dialogue about sustainability leaves the realm of reasoned policy discussion, not to mention science, and becomes nothing more than rhetoric (p. 87).
My understanding of sustainability reflects the working definition we’ve developed in class, which makes clear that sustainable practices are always an historically-contingent work-in-progress. As such, the time scale of a century or two in the future seems no more than what a society can feasibly plan for. They can hope for longer-term success, of course, but social, environmental, and technological systems are so complex that it seems logical to conclude that hopes and predictions will tend to fall short, more often than not.
In his next section, “Sustainability and Needs,” Bonevac shifts his attention from the class of definitions of sustainability that look to “forever” and addresses the Brundtland Commission’s definition of sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” He doesn’t explain why he shifts his focus from Ehrenfeld’s to the Commission’s definition, or how these definitions relate, or how widely the Brundtland Commission definition has or has not influenced other definitions, or the extent to which the Brundtland Commission definition explicitly or implicitly seeks infinitude.
In much of the rest of his article, Bonevac introduces and dismisses quite a number of sustainability definitions. These definitions fall into the broad schools of thought that include “strong sustainability,” “weak sustainability,” “sensible sustainability,” and others, based on the preservation of capital (economic, ecological, or social), capacities & opportunities, well-being, and other concepts. Since Bonevac provides, at most, a one-sentence summary of the works of many of the scholars writing from within the various schools of thought, I was left with essentially no clear idea of the breadth, depth, and nuance of these works. The impression I was left with, however, was that Bonevac provided a summary of these various works chosen and filtered in a way to support his contention that “‘sustainable growth’ is an oxymoron”(p. 86).
I certainly don’t intend anything ad hominem by my evaluation of Bonevac’s article. However, I find that he doesn’t frame his argument clearly and doesn’t provide sufficient context for the works or conclusions of those he’s critiquing. In the end, I read this article as less an intellectual exercise that seeks to shed light on a complex topic that absolutely should be critiqued, questioned, and otherwise analyzed, and more of a polemic that simplifies the issues involved for ideological purposes.
 Full citation: Daniel Bonevac, “Is Sustainability Sustainable? ” Academic Questions 23: 1 (March, 2010), 84-101.
 Gibson, Robert B. “Sustainability Assessment: Basic Components of a Practical Approach.” Impact Assessment and Appraisal 24: 3 (Sept. 2006), 170-182.