Earlier in the quarter, students wondered where sustainability falls within the framework of the standard right-left American political dynamic. Is sustainability inherently a conservative or liberal notion? Might it sometimes contain aspects of both sides of this spectrum? Or perhaps sustainability is not reducible to this familiar dichotomy?
A sampling of Internet sources shows that there is quite a range of opinions regarding these questions. This post will provide some food for thought and, in so doing, draw on a sampling of sources that can serve as a starting point in addressing these questions.
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The SHP post “On the history of sustainability in the Pac NW” provides a useful way to think about the regional history of the thing we call “sustainability.” I wrote this post in the hopes that the student who contacted me with that question would engage us in a discussion on this topic for all of our benefitbut, unfortunately, this has not yet happened.
However, a student in this quarter’s Capstone class recently forwarded me an email with information about Steven Reed Johnson’s work, and this information does help shed some light on the topic. There are also some other sources that provide insight as well.
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I have often heard that cities are the bane of modern society because of the resources they consume and the pollution they produce. Henry David Thoroeau seems to hold this perspective when he writes:
The West of which I speak is but another name for the Wild; and what I have been preparing to say is, that in Wildness is the preservation of the world. Every tree sends its fibres forth in search of the Wild. The cities import it at any price. Men plow and sail for it. From the forest and wilderness come the tonics and barks which brace mankind.
I have also heard just the opposite: That cities are inherently more sustainable because they concentrate populations in a given area and allow for rural and undeveloped lands to continue to be used for food production, natural resource extraction, and recreation.
Economist Edward Glaeser asserts this latter point, and has written a book to support his position: Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier.
This morning, Glaeser appeared on KUOW’s Weekday program with Steve Scherr: “Is City Living Better than the American Dream?“:
The American dream has typically been owning a home in a leafy suburb with a white picket fence, a well–mowed lawn and an apple pie cooling on the window sill. The reality is over two–thirds of Americans currently live in cities. Is the American dream changing? Is living in an apartment in a dense urban neighborhood actually better than owning your own home in the suburbs? Economist Edward Glaeser argues that cities magnify human strengths. We’ll ask him what he means.
In what ways is increased urbanization more or less sustainable — in terms of economics, environment, and equity?
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[Post written by – Noah Sharpsteen, John Stephenson, Nigel Peltier, Daniel Gray]
Works Under Discussion:
The overarching discussion consists in the critique of the history and general concept of sustainability. Ricketts critiques sustainability by connecting it with radical movements in the 1960s and 1970s, comparing its general motivating influences to ‘catastrophe’ literature, recognizing the overly broad nature of the issues subsumed under the label ‘sustainability’ – stating that its inter-connected approach is “trivially true if true at all,” and ultimately locates its rationale in the sphere of a ‘religious’ dogmatism. Bonevac critiques of a number of the definitions of sustainability used in contemporary practice. The critiques range from stating that the definitions are too stringent and thus impossible to too weak and thus easily satisfied – even by the system in place today. The critique is sharp and insightful and provides a baseline both for further research into the definition (or purpose of a definition) of sustainability and also a model of critical approaches to sustainability in general. Rather than discuss the critical merits of Ricketts’ work, a work we feel to be awfully shallow, we believe that a discussion of Bonevac’s criticisms of the definition(s) of sustainability will prove more fruitful for developing an understanding and substantial critiques of sustainability in use today.
Bonevac established that the current definitions of sustainability are not theoretically possible to satisfy in an absolute sense. This notion of being absolutely possible to be satisfied is an important part of many of his criticisms. His idea of the definitions given are “all-or-none.” What is important to note, in our opinion, is that the definitions he gives – the ones actually given in the recent literature on sustainability – do demand the unsatisfiable criteria that Bonevac describes. We feel that his criticisms are important to understand, but they focus sharply on an issue that Bonevac misunderstands – namely, the apparently stringent criteria given by the definitions are focused on a different point. The motivation behind giving such definitions is not to set up absolute criteria, but to set up a framework for development, research, and improvement of the network of practices that have been labeled ‘sustainable.’ We believe that his criticisms stand as they are, but that has not ultimately stalled ‘sustainable’ practices and the efforts to further understand this concept and specify its ideological boundaries. This raises both an important question and important point. The question is, “What is the point of such a definition?” The point is that there is no common agreement that a definition of sustainability should have an idea of an ‘end-state’ or an eventual ultimate goal.
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