Sustainability is a contemporary story that inspires many deeply committed people to worthwhile action. But it is a story being steadily leeched of useful meaning. Even fossil fuel corporations and their political camp followers can proclaim their own version of the sustainability narrative, apparently without a skerrick of irony.
Within the sustainability community there is a perennial debate about the relative merits of ‘weak’ sustainability, which aims to balance the needs of society, the economy, and the environment using tools such as triple bottom line accounting; or ‘strong’ sustainability which maintains the primacy of environmental imperatives over the demands of both society and economy.
The most widely accepted definition of sustainability is from the Brundtland Report (1987): “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. This is fundamentally an anthropocentric or human-centred approach. By making human needs the basis for judgement and action it reproduces the very problem that has brought us to the brink of catastrophe.
Focusing on sustainability within the cultural and political envelope of the status quo, means we maintain the convenient illusion that ‘we’ (who?) are in control and can manage the transition to a viable planetary future by economic, technical and lifestyle tinkering.
It’s not that honest efforts to advance sustainability are pointless. Many significant incremental gains can and must be achieved. It’s just that we’re attempting ad hoc workarounds when the problem is with the operating system — the dominant cultural values that define what is possible and desirable and, over time, shape the forms and functions of key social institutions.
How apt is Einstein’s oft cited warning about the futility of attempting to solve complex problems using the modes of thinking that created them. This is precisely what we are doing in response to the systemic issues of our times.
Instead of sustainability we need a fresh mode of thinking about our place in the world. The term eco-mutuality may offer an opening into such a new worldview. Its meaning is immediately apparent — the goal of, in Thomas Berry’s words, “a mutually enhancing relationship between humans and the Earth and all its living creatures”.
So let’s try a thought experiment…
If eco-mutuality was to be the ethical core of a renewed human culture, what would be some of its defining characteristics? What, in practice would distinguish it from sustainability?
Any other questions?
Please share your thoughts.