It’s not just that the concept of sustainability has been co-opted as a corporate greenwashing tool. Nor that its meaning has become so diluted and oxymoronic that its usefulness is problematic. My problem is that sustainability is in its essence an anthropocentric concept.
The focus of sustainability is on how humans can satisfy the present demands of a swarming and rapacious population “without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (Brundtland 1987). But what of the ecosystems we have laid waste to, the species our predations have driven to or over the edge of extinction? Surely the concept of sustainability at best ignores and at worst reinforces the very essence of the problems we have created by acting as though the rest of life on Earth exists primarily to serve our needs and satisfactions.
This is the hubris that drives the existential crisis we have created for ourselves in the Anthropocene—and for the many other species we are driving before us. Life on Earth will survive our marauding self-interest, but it will be many thousands of years before the biosphere finds a new stability conducive to life’s flowering on the planet.
Take climate change for example. Scientist tell us that even if we were to cease all greenhouse gas emissions tomorrow the Earth system will take hundreds of millennia to reabsorb the excess carbon we have pumped into the atmosphere and the oceans since the start of the industrial revolution (Archer 2009). In the Anthropocene we must accept responsibility for the consequences of our collective actions in deep time, when our custom is to think only within a timeframe of multiple human lifetimes.
To me it seems self-evident that we need a much more robust and inclusive term to encompass a fundamentally different relationship between our species and the rest of the community of life on Earth if we are to survive the Anthropocene. Sustainability simply doesn’t cut it.
This is not just semantics. Our categories of thought and discourse prescribe our actions and condition our ethics.
So what of eco-mutuality? To me the term denotes an ethos of partnership or, in Thomas Berry’s words, “a mutually enhancing relationship between humans and the Earth and all its living creatures” (1988). It implies a retreat from hubris to humility, from predation to co-existence.
I’d be interested to know what connotations the term eco-mutuality has for others. What specifically are the values that seem to you to be explicit or implicit in the term? What resonances does it have for you?
Can we try a thought experiment to flesh out some of the meanings and implications of eco-mutuality and how they might translate into practical ethics?
Our Common Future, Report of the UN World Commission on Environment and Development (known as the Brundtland report), Oxford, 1987.
David Archer, The Long Thaw: How Humans Are Changing the Next 100,000 Years of Earth’s Climate, Princeton, 2009.
Thomas Berry, The Dream of the Earth, Sierra Club Books, 1988.
Image credit: Ecohustler.co.uk